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Rail revival campaign picks up steam

Passenger rail group targets politicians with election year platform
Northlander locomotive
Northlander locomotive on its final run between Cochrane and Toronto in October 2012.

Éric Boutilier knows it’s an uphill climb to restore passenger rail service in the northeast.

Five years after Queen’s Park axed the Northlander train running between Cochrane and Toronto, the founder of a grassroots group seeking its return is taking his message to provincial politicians who will be vying for votes next year.

In early 2018, All Aboard Northern Ontario will be releasing a proposal that Boutilier insists will be a credible, viable and sellable plan to all the mainstream parties. A series of regional town hall meetings will follow.

“The idea is to present this to the public and the politicians that are running for office in 2018.”

The unexpected cancellation of the Northlander by Queen’s Park in 2012 “left a sour taste in many people’s mouths,” said Boutilier, a North Bay resident who began spearheading the campaign two years ago.

While Premier Kathleen Wynne is keen on delivering high-speed passenger rail to southwestern Ontario, Boutilier said it’s been difficult to pin down MPPs on a similar commitment for the northeast.

“We’re not sure why they’re choosing not to address this issue.”

Boutilier launched the All Aboard website last October to tie in with similarly named citizen rail advocacy groups in the province. His base of support has steadily grown from a “handful” of members to include municipal leaders and tourism organizations.

Boutilier realized his past appeals to government ministries were producing only boilerplate policy responses. And meetings with smiling, note-taking bureaucrats were going nowhere.

“It amounted to very little in terms of getting this issue front and centre.”

It convinced him that a well-researched approach designed to bend the ears of the decision makers was in order.

When the Northlander was cancelled at part of the government’s divestment strategy of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC), it was attributed to “stagnant ridership” combined with an “unsustainable financial path.”

The resulting regional outcry and a damning provincial auditor general’s report prompted Queen’s Park to kill the process and recommit the ONTC to find efficiencies and grow the business.

Documents, since obtained by Boutilier's group through Freedom of Information, indicated that ridership over the last three years of the Northlander’s operation had actually increased from 31,000 to 39,000.

In drawing from a regional base of 200,000, those numbers were deemed acceptable by the government’s consultants.

Boutilier believes better coordination with intercity bus lines could feed even more travellers to the train.

“This has been a source of frustration by many people who want to use the train, but the schedules didn’t align for them to connect.”

With the aid of railway consultant Greg Gormick, the report will identify the costs for new rolling stock, track and infrastructure upgrades, and ongoing operations.

The former Northlander coaches have been refurbished by the ONTC and are used on the Polar Bear Express between Cochrane and Moosonee.

“You’re essentially starting from scratch,” said Boutilier.

Restoring full service on the southern portion of the route – from North Bay to Toronto – requires negotiating a new operating agreement with CN Rail.

Based on his conversations with Ontario Northland executives, Boutilier said there’s an interest at the North Bay-headquartered Crown agency in seeing the service return.

“Ultimately the final decision doesn’t rest with them.”

An ONTC spokesperson said if Queen’s Park reinstates service south of Cochrane, the rail carrier is up to the task.

“If the opportunity to operate another rail passenger service presents itself, we have the infrastructure, skilled employees, and experience to deliver that service,” replied Renée Baker by email.

If service were restored, Baker said new equipment would be needed to meet that mandate. “Currently, no such plan is in place.”

Boutilier said the lack of public transportation options doesn’t bode well for wheelchair-bound seniors, post-secondary students and medical patients travelling to get treatment.

Promises of “enhanced” bus service never materialized, he said, and has, in fact, diminished in frequency in some communities from daily service to three times a week.

Air carriers have dropped routes between Kapuskasing and Timmins, and from North Bay to Toronto.

On Highway 11, Ministry of Transportation data indicates that over a three-year period the portion between Huntsville and Hearst was closed 191 times for reasons ranging from traffic fatalities to weather-related delays. On average, the highway was closed 6.5 hours.

A draft version of the province’s Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Strategy, which recommends evaluating the business case for passenger rail “where appropriate,” doesn’t fill Boutilier with a sense of optimism.

“At the end of the day, the region is becoming more and more isolated.”

If service was restored, he’s convinced travellers would climb back aboard based on the feedback he’s received through the website.

“We’ve had a number of people that have shared some heartfelt stories about how they’re not able to get around as easily as they did before, or are not able to get around."

As a North Bay-based journalist and videographer on the move, Boutilier said finds driving for long durations across the North means hours of unproductive time. And at 6-3, it’s difficult to wedge himself into a bus seat.

“I feel there are more effective ways of getting people to and from their destination in comfort and (more) practically than what’s being offered right now.”