“Smoke & Mirrors” – Checking the choo-choo tracks

There was a lot of hype and publicity surrounding Ontario Northland’s most recent test train to measure transit times between North Bay and Toronto.


For the first time in nine years, a passenger train operated on this route with the purpose of collecting data to support the ONR’s latest business case for reintroducing passenger rail service to the region. Yet, despite all the fanfare and politicians boarding coaches normally used on the Polar Bear Express, Northerners are no closer to regaining their train that was unjustly taken away from them by the government. This demonstration, while to some degree useful, falls short of addressing some very important issues that still hinder a return of the Northlander.

(Video link) https://twitter.com/i/status/1464338154228527107

The Ministry of Transportation has not provided any meaningful information or timetables related to the purchase or refurbishment of passenger coaches.

There is no agreement with CN for use of their tracks south of North Bay, nor does there appear to be a strategy in place to address the freight train congestion problems plaguing the Bala subdivision.

VIA Rail’s existing service through this corridor between Toronto and Washago — which is part of the same route previously used by the Northlander — is highly unpredictable and subject to regular delays.

The Canadian’s on-time performance is very much like a yo-yo. You just never know whether it’s going to show up early, late or on time. A passenger train that’s too often delayed is neither reliable nor practical for most people.



A little less division, a little more collaboration

Timmins was recently named the northern terminus station for the ONR’s passenger rail proposal. Despite the lack of facilities, this city of 42 000 remains a logical endpoint destination given the abundance of services and the potential for generating frequent riders.


The government’s approach to deciding between Timmins and Cochrane could have been handled differently though. There was no need to create conflict between these two neighbouring communities. An extension of the existing Polar Bear Express train to Timmins would not only provide Cochrane with a rail connection to the south, but also ensure that passengers from Moosonee and First Nations communities don’t have to transfer multiples times. In this day and age, it seems rather ridiculous that a traveller should have to switch from a train to a bus, and then board another train … all within the span of an hour.


The decision to snub Cobalt, Iroquois Falls, Kirkland Lake and South River — places that had passenger rail service up until 2012 — is yet another example of the government creating unnecessary animosity between Northerners.


Moving forward?

The MTO’s commitment to this project — beyond the business case phase — remains fuzzy and unclear. Quote: After the Updated Business Case is developed, the project could move into procurement. Without a rolling stock order, this isn’t exactly a statement that builds confidence or trust within the general public.


Metrolinx and the ONR have selected option six from the Initial Business Case as the baseline to further develop the proposal. Among other things, they suggest a seasonally adjusted service ranging from four to seven days a week. This approach to intercity transportation is problematic though. The average person shouldn’t have to scrutinize timetables to figure out which day(s) the train operates on.


Planning appointments or visits around a limited schedule is counterintuitive and can at times be very frustrating. Those who ride VIA’s Sudbury-White River train understand just how impractical traveling has become with only one frequency a week — reduced from three due to the pandemic. The Premier, the Minister of Transportation and various MPPs insist that they are not taking shortcuts in order to restore train service to North.


As more progress is made on the Northlander proposal, it is imperative then that up-to-date imagery is used when making assessments. Planning on the basis of Google Streetview is not acceptable. Some of the photographic images contained in the ONR’s latest Preliminary Rail Feasibility Study are from Google as far back as September 2009.


Northerners were promised a train no later than by the end of the party in power’s first term in office. That’s changed to the mid-2020s … maybe. Is Queen’s Park truly committed to restoring passenger rail to this region or not?

Éric Boutilier is the founder of Northern Tracks Blog

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