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Advocates urge feds to support plan to revive Sault-to-Hearst passenger rail service

July 28 marked third year since dissolution of Sault-to-Hearst line

Stakeholders marked July 28 as the third anniversary of the dissolution of the passenger train service that formerly ran between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.

The route — which primarily served lodges and camps in remote areas along the line — was discontinued in 2014 after the federal government withdrew a $2-million annual subsidy that had, for years, helped offset Canadian National Railway’s (CN) costs to run the train.

A business plan to revive the service, operated by Missanabie Cree First Nation, has since been completed, but the plan needs approval from CN and the federal government, along with federal funding, for it to continue.

“We’re optimistic that it’s going to happen, but in what timeline, I would not want to set that expectation,” Missanabie Cree Chief Jason Gauthier said. “I’m hoping for as soon as possible.

“We have upcoming meetings with CN; we have upcoming meetings with INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada). It would be almost impossible to know when all the people will align at some point in order for this to happen.”

Under the guidance of Missanabie Cree, the train would be renamed Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban, which is Cree for “Bear Train.” Missanabie Cree took over the file in 2016.

Gauthier said the First Nation would have to pay to access the CN-owned line; the fees would likely be similar to the $2-million subsidy formerly covered by the federal government.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau has previously said the Sault-to-Hearst passenger line doesn’t meet Transport Canada’s criteria for funding under its Remote Passenger Rail Program. Garneau has said Transport Canada would not offer funding assistance, but could help with transport-related safety issues and regulatory issues.

The Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) is critical of Transport Canada’s claim there are existing public, safe and accessible alternate modes of transportation, other than passenger rail, for people to reach private cottages and tourist lodges along the Algoma rail corridor.

“We keep on hearing from Minister Marc Garneau that we have apparently become less remote along this corridor, when in fact when we were up in Hearst we heard so much evidence of just the opposite,” said CAPT spokesperson Linda Savory Gordon.

“It’s terrible the research they did was from satellite imaging instead of doing actual on-the-ground research. That’s not proper due diligence.”

A 2014 BDO study reported the Sault-to-Hearst passenger rail service, with its ties to tourism, generated up to $48 million annually, employed 220 people, and generated $5 million in annual tax revenue.