The Fall of the Northlander?

Ontario Northland at Bracebridge

While this news has been all over the media in northern Ontario, it merited barely a peep among southern Ontarians, which does much to suggest that northerners have a point when they argue that their part of the province is out-of-sight and out-of-mind when it comes to Queen’s Park and the southern media.

Around March 24, days that was flooded with news about the NDP federal leadership convention and the closure of the Yonge subway in Toronto, the McGuinty government quietly announced that, after nine years of supporting Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, the subsidies had become too onerous to pay, and the business as a whole was largely unviable. The only solution, they said, was to break up the corporation, sell off what could be sold off, keep only what was absolutely necessary, and shut down the rest.

One of the effects of this decision is to announce the eventual closure of the Northlander passenger train between Toronto and North Bay. Of course, as a transportation geek and a general lover of trains (especially passenger trains), this made me sit up and take notice. I’d ridden on the Northlander, for the first time, just six months ago. As one who believes that trains are an important economic and transportation investment that should be preserved (especially for the coming times of Peak Oil), this seemed short-sighted. Moreover, the Northlander was a community service, important to many livelihoods of rural Ontarians outside of the Greater Toronto Area.

Mind you, the fact that I, then a 39-year-old, had only just come to ride the Northlander, probably speaks volumes. And, frankly, the numbers just do not make me optimistic for the Northlanders’ future. The per-passenger subsidy of the train is substantial (as much as $200-$400, depending on the sources you consider). And, of course, there’s the $16 Billion deficit that hangs around the necks of all Ontarians. Public sector workers are being asked to take wage freezes, Ontarians earning over $500,000 per year are being asked to take a surtax. How can we justify spending money on a money losing service like the Northlander when alternatives, like buses, already exist south of Cochrane?

No date has been given for the last run of the Northlander. The New Democrats are calling for McGuinty to back down from his divestment plan, although the demand wasn’t included in the Liberal-NDP accord that passed the budget earlier this week and prevented an election. So, as it seems likely that I’ll soon not be able to ride the Northlander again, I’ve decided to take another trip up the line — this time to Bracebridge, to see what this place I’ve never been to is like.

The employees of the Northlander aren’t taking the shut-down plan lying down. There are protest signs saying “Ontario Northland NOT for sale!” at the ticket booth in Union Station and on the cafe car as well. The passengers on the train are commiserating with employees, talking about how important the train is to them, and how much better it is than bus service (especially for elderly passengers with mobility issues). The cafe-car employee is putting a brave face on things, saying that northern MPPs are fighting on, and nothing final has been announced, but there is a sense of pessimism here: that the cut will happen, and it will hurt.

Does it have to be this way? The fact is, one of the reasons the Northlander isn’t pulling the numbers it should is because precious little investment has been made in bringing the service to the attention of Torontonians. The line makes an excellent day trip to Muskoka (8:45 a.m. departure, arrival as far north as Huntsville by 11:40, 15:30 return departure, arrival at Union at 19:15), but doesn’t run on a Saturday. Where are the promotions for runs to see the fall colours? Or spring festivals? Or getting away for the weekend in summer?

The website also makes a strong (albeit hastily written — note the excessive typos — if you guys are reading this, you should have a look and correct) case for subsidizing Ontario Northland’s operations, noting that given the amount of money the province is investing in Metrolinx’s projects within the GTA, Ontario Northland could be rolled into this arrangement, increasing the per-rider subsidy of Metrolinx from $5 per passenger to $5.23.

That’s the response from the north end of the line. At the south end, Mark Dowling in makes a strong case for how the McGuinty government could make Ontario Northland relevant to the residents of the Greater Toronto Area. Paraphrasing and commenting on his points:

  • The first stop north of Toronto is Washago, at the north end of Lake Simcoe and an extremely small community offering little in any way of commuter traffic for Toronto. The Northlander currently operates in reverse-commuting direction on the Richmond Hill GO station, but does not serve any of the stations (it used to serve Oriole in the past, but no longer). A stop at Langstaff would provide a quick trip from Downtown Toronto to Richmond Hill, and for northerners give them access to York Region Transit’s VIVA bus rapid transit network, and the 407 GO bus system, allowing them to more quickly access points in the GTA outside of downtown Toronto.
  • There’s almost no integration with VIA Rail. If nothing else, McGuinty should consider farming out the Northlander service to the federal crown corporation (transferring ONTC personnel to VIA); not a stretch given that the federal government itself provides Ontario Northland with some subsidy.
  • And speaking of integration with GO and VIA’s fare structure, the Ontario Northland ticket I bought looks far more like a Greyhound ticket than a VIA one or GO. I was unable to purchase a ticket online, and while it was possible to buy a ticket by phone, there was a $10 surcharge for this “privilege”. Fortunately, the ticket taker at Union station was polite and quick.

Mark has a number of other proposals that are worth looking at but at this point one should stop and ask: why isn’t the provincial government looking at them? While the numbers don’t look good for the Northlander, it does appear that this is primarily the result of provincial neglect. McGuinty’s government has not done enough to look at alternatives that could make the train service relevant to more people, and less subsidized.

The northwest passage is becoming a navigable seaway. Freight runs are already being established between Churchill, Manitoba and Murmansk. In the near future, a fair amount of economic activity is going to be shifting north. As problematic as these subsidies are in this age of deficits, it seems rather short-sighted for Ontario to be turning away from developing its northern infrastructure. It seems as though the province hasn’t considered all of the options that could make Ontario Northland a viable enterprise. It seems that the province is walking away from a substantial investment that could pay off well in the future.

And if this is the case, and the province does walk away, it will be another case of our governments being penny-wise and pound foolish. Which is a shame. And not just because it means another train becomes a fallen flag.

blog comments powered by Disqus