By IAN ROSS
Two Sault Ste. Marie residents are on board the movement aiming to reinstate passenger rail service between Winnipeg and Sudbury.
Understandably, they are more focused on the Sault-Sudbury corridor.
Mike O’Shea and Art Osborne are circulating a discussion paper on their passenger rail initiative to politicians and community and
economic development officials along the Highway 17 corridor.
O’Shea, who first arrived in Northern Ontario by train in 1970, wants to provoke a discussion leading to a more formal research study in the near future.
They intend to form a group to find out if passenger rail can be profitable, sustainable and, further along those lines, whether it may be eligible for government subsidies.
“By and large when I talk to people in the community who travel, they all think this is a great idea,” says O’Shea.
Passenger rail service along Lake Huron’s North Shore was dropped by CP Rail in the 1970s. The 288-km line is now run by short haul operator Huron Central Railway.
In their paper, they claim a premium service would enhance the quality of life in the North and help link some smaller communities.
They also view passenger rail as a safer, environmentally friendly, all-weather travel.
Discussion of the Sault-to-Sudbury Bud Car service has surfaced before, but O’Shea says there has never been any formal study to crunch some numbers in developing a business case.
“People have been discouraged and not done it.”
Given today’s economic climate, he cites a wide range of reasons to re-introduce the service, including benefits for tourism development, offering more travel options for an aging population and providing better access for Northerners to medical treatment in Sudbury.
The local Elks Club regularly runs a van service to shuttle cancer patients to Sudbury Regional Hospital for treatment.
“And if the Northern medical school is truly supposed to be linking the North and providing opportunities across northeastern Ontario ... here’s an opportunity to put the infrastructure in place for med students and interns travelling back and forth.”
O’Shea says there could be limitless passenger potential with enough casual travel for film festivals, hockey tournaments, school field trips, shopping and tourism excursions to places such as Science North and the Agawa Canyon Tour Train to make it work.
For business travellers, O’Shea says today’s wireless, portable technology allows people to stay electronically connected while en route.
O’Shea is interested to hear what benefits the service could bring to North Shore communities, possibly as a commuter or seasonal train.
“I’m convinced there are other people out there who have thought about this. There are other models that might come forward.”
O’Shea says there may be some infrastructure improvements needed for the rail bed to move freight and passengers more quickly and
He adds there are all kinds of short-haul passenger models available, most established in the United States.
The Canada Transportation Act, introduced in 1996, paved the way for the creation of more short and regional line railways, but many are without any form of passenger rail transportation.
CP does run a Bud Car service between Sudbury and White River, as well as the CN passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.
“So there is some precedent there. It’s (only) a matter of political will.”
A key concern is finding a return haul to have passengers heading west to the Sault.
“We’re trying to get a sense of whether there is any interest in Sudbury,” says O’Shea.
They are partnering with another passenger rail proposal taking shape in northwestern Ontario.
The Superior North Community Futures Development Corp. (SNCFDC) has also secured Thunder Bay consultant Sylvain Gervais, a former Via Rail employee studying the feasibility of reintroducing passenger service between Sudbury and Winnipeg via Thunder Bay.
The proposal has received letters of endorsement from Thunder Bay MP Ken Boshcoff, Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP Bill Mauro, Thunder Bay-Superior North MPP Michael Gravelle, Lakehead University president Fred Gilbert, a Canadian Autoworkers local, the Township of Schreiber and Transport 2000 Canada, a national transportation think tank.
Gervais says the Thunder Bay and Sault proponents will be combining their proposals for a more pan-Northern project.
The Sault group hopes to secure some seed funding to pay for their share of the feasibility study, likely in the range of $5,000 to $10,000.