A Northlander Fix or Fixation? Part 1

ONR-CNR Northlander southbound at Lawrence Avenue Bridge, Toronto, by Reg Button.

Ya gotta wonder how the politicians, their appointees and a circle of supporters prevent their noses from stretching each time another empty promise about the return of the Ontario Northland Railway’s Northlander is trotted out.


Led by their Nipissing sales rep, we hear the blather on about the wonderful work this soon-to-expire government has done… on the public tab. The promise this time is $75 million of our money — on top of the $5 million already spent on a study by a consulting firm with ties to this government — for yet more studies to give eager voters and rail-fans alike a Northlander facsimile in 2025… or thereabouts.


Say, wouldn’t that put it right before another provincial election?


Every election delivers a new host of hollow promises about the Northlander, it makes me think of Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth:  “… it is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”


If there was any sincerity and seriousness in these vote-chasing pronouncements, a new and better Toronto-Northeastern Ontario rail passenger service would be up and running now, as was promised before the 2018 election by Ford in his campaign.  One of them wanted the Northeast Lynx report that I was commissioned to produce for North Bay resident and advocacy leader Eric Boutilier’s All Aboard Northern Ontario citizens group and two municipal associations. But this rail-borne kitty concept was sidetracked when the various cheerleaders for a promised and unseen Ontario Northland plan worked behind the scenes to ensure the funding to complete it went poof.


When I released an excerpt from an ill-advised email about the Northlander shemozzle that I received from a now-retired Ontario Northland exec, Nipissing’s sales rep told Northern Ontario Business it was “unfortunate that consultants with self-serving agendas are trying to insert themselves into this important Northern issue. We have been working on our campaign promise to return passenger rail service to the North and we continue on this mission. We’re proud of the work Ontario Northland is doing to help reach this goal.” In his North Bay constituency office a few months earlier, the same politico sales rep asked Boutilier and yours truly if he could sponsor the initial public release of my Northeast Lynx plan on his home turf.  Before that, he urged me to accept the co-chairmanship of his party’s Transportation and Infrastructure Policy Advisory Committee.  I declined because this exalted position not only paid zero, it came with no assurance that our findings would be adopted or even considered.


Not to be unkind to Northeastern Ontarians, but I have from the start wondered why there was such a Northlander fixation when it wasn’t Northern Ontario’s most vital and needy rail service.  That role is played jointly by VIA’s Canadian on the CN line from Capreol to Winnipeg and the Sudbury-White River Budd car, which is the truncated remains of the former transcontinental service on the CP line from Sudbury to Winnipeg and Vancouver via the North Shore.


The full palette of passenger services VIA assumed from CP and CN in the late 1970s was once a major contributor to northern mobility, tourism and economic prosperity.  That ended when a Conservative federal government axed half of the VIA system effective January 15, 1990.  This bludgeoning ended the Northland and the real Canadian on the Lake Superior North Shore route.  A smudged substitute, the tri-weekly Canadian, was routed over the CN line.


Furthermore, it seems that the Northlander will never be much of a ridership generator.  There are three rules for success in passenger railroading:  frequency, frequency and frequency.  The system of intertwined passenger trains linking the Northeast with Toronto, operated jointly by the ONR and CN (later VIA), was effective and efficient because it consisted of various trains serving multiple destinations.  The most important train, which was killed by the feds when they much of the national system in 1990, was the overnight Kapuskasing-Toronto Northland, augmented by additional daytime trains geared to regional and seasonal demands.


Part of the mix were the daytime Northlanders, launched in 1977 on the Toronto-North Bay and Toronto-Timmins runs using four beautifully refurbished former Trans Europ Express trains that were built in 1957 for European express trains such as the Edelweiss and L’Étoile du Nord.  They were stunning additions to Ontario’s travel system, but they soon suffered from mechanical, managerial and political indifference.  Their replacements were ex-GO commuter cars built-in 1967.  They were and still are ill-equipped for intercity service on a track that was deteriorating while Tory and Grit governments flip-flopped on ONR privatization and choked off investment.


The problems with the Northlander and all northern rail services were and remain many, but the solutions are clear to anyone experienced in rail passenger planning and operation.



Greg Gormick