The Last Northlander

The Last Northlander

It may seem strange to start my story about riding the last Northlander trains by talking about my ride in from Kitchener, but the experience of taking the GO Train from Kitchener into Toronto is so different from the Northlander train that I can’t help mentioning it.

The Kitchener GO Train launched on December 19, 2011. Ridership on the day was around 200, and reporters were a sizeable portion of that number. Critics of the extension, which cost Ontario taxpayers around $11 million, said that the line wouldn’t take. It was too long a trip into Toronto. The car was faster. The bus was cheaper.

Today, however, there were crowds of regular commuters waiting for the 5:52 a.m. train. Ridership on the extension is estimated to have risen to up to 400 per day this last year alone. And the GO Train experience is streamlined in every way that the Ontario Northland experience is not. I paid my GO fare by swiping my card in front of a reader at Kitchener station and again at Union. We got aboard and were on our way within five minutes. The train departed on time and stayed on time. At least a thousand passengers boarded this train on stops en route, and all exited within five minutes once the doors opened at Union.

By comparison, Northlander tickets had to be bought at Union station on the day of the trip. It was not possible to order tickets on the Internet, or through VIA Rail’s ticketing system (You can purchase Kitchener GO Train tickets on VIA Rail’s website). Delays are far more common on the Northlander; passengers on the train I was riding on expressed jealousy at GO Transit passengers for being able to get refunds when their trip was 15 minutes late — when the Northlander is upwards of an hour late, the response is typically, “too bad, so sad,” they said.

And while most residents of Waterloo Region are proud to have a GO Train connection between our city and Toronto, I don’t think we feel a personal connection to that train. Certainly not the same connection that northern Ontario residents feel towards the Northlander. And it’s more than just the amount of time each train has served its respective community.

I got into Union Station at around 8 o’clock in the morning. Heading through the departures level, I was not surprised to see the line-up for the Northlander already twice as long as it had been the previous two times I’d taken it. There was a line-up at the ticket booth as well. I saw plenty of cameras, and railroad engineer hats. That told me the rail fans were out in force to chronicle this historic run (nothing says “railfan geek” quite like those railroad engineer hats), but I also saw plenty of students with backpacks on, a Mennonite family, and average joes who were simply heading home.

By the time we got north of Toronto, we were already seeing some excellent fall colour — and the colours got richer the further north we went. There is a lot of potential in the Northlander that has simply not been realized. Three hours from Toronto, you arrive in Huntsville, a rich and vibrant community in the heart of Muskoka. The vistas of the Canadian shield are fantastic, and you can walk around, shop, eat, and (in theory) catch the 3:30 p.m. train to be home by the evening.

But the line has never been marketed to Torontonians as a Muskoka getaway. The line has not really been marketed at all. There has been very little investment in the equipment. The coaches are in decent shape and have lovely legroom, but there’s no at-your-seat plugs (actually there was one in one of the coaches I rode on, but not throughout the train). Wi-Fi can only be found in the snack car. Really, it’s been forty years since any major investment has taken place in passenger service on the line (when they bought the distinctive Trans Europe Express trainset). Track conditions have been neglected in places, and the train plays second fiddle to all sorts of freights which muck about with the Northlander’s schedule.

Imagine what could be done for a relatively small amount of money. Imagine a set of repurposed GO Train bodies, or self-propelled units like refurbished Budds being added to the line. Add some flexibility to the schedule (have two trains daily instead of one, and operate on Saturdays), and ridership is sure to increase. More riders means that the service is less subsidized.

But even the subsidy has been overblown. Depending on who you talk to, the subsidy-per-rider is anywhere from $200 to $400. However, if the cost of operating Ontario Northland was rolled into the cost of operating Metrolinx, the subsidy per-rider of Metrolinx would rise from $5 to $5.23. More damningly, the amount of money the McGuinty Liberals squandered commissioning and then shutting down the proposed power plants in Oakville and Mississauga could have paid for Ontario Northland’s subsidy for the next 18 years.

On the morning run, I moved to the snack car as soon as it came open. I needed to power up my phone (the battery drains quickly when I tweet, for some reason, and I’d been Tweeting the ride extensively, along with others), and the snack car is a good place to eavesdrop and hear what the riders are thinking. I came upon Charlie Angus, an NDP member of parliament, and his provincial MPP counterpart John Vanthof, who were both riding the line as a show of solidarity. Vanthof also intended to ride one of the replacement buses back, and I expect he’ll have a few horror stories to report when he gets back to Question Period in Queen’s Park. As you would expect, in the snack car, the main topic of conversation was the impending cut.

To say that riders were angry would be an understatement. No, nobody was shouting, but there was a lot of cynicism expressed at Dalton McGuinty and Jim Flaherty. Even the New Democrats didn’t escape criticism. If the sample on board the train is at all representative, northerners are losing faith with southern politicians of all stripes. The loss of the Northlander is simply the latest in a long line of slights made by southern politicians against the north.

With the loss of the Northlander, riders do not believe that parallel bus service will continue in the long run. They say that McGuinty may have agreed to subsidize the bus service (apparently it hasn’t been subsidized before), but they see it more as a ploy to salve the pain of privatization. Through subsidy, a private company might stop at every little town… at first. But give them a year or two, once the sting of the Northlander’s departure goes away, and the private companies will start cutting stops, routes, departure times, until the only way out of a northern Ontario community is by foot or by car.

At each stop along the way, Washago, Gravenhurst and Bracebridge, I see railfans with their cameras logging the final northbound run. Charlie Angus gets out to speak to people on the platform at each stop. At Huntsville, a decent crowd awaits the arrival of the Northlander. As I get out to spend some time in this beautiful town, I notice parents greeting their adult children, putting luggage in the trunks of cars and driving away. This service is no tourist trap; it is a vital link for the generations that live and work in the North.

There are four communities of note on the Northlander where it’s possible to leave Toronto in the morning, stop over through lunch and catch the southbound train home. From south to north these are Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville and South River. I visited Bracebridge and Huntsville before, but decided against getting out at Gravenhurst because I wanted more train time. I could have spent more of that train time going to South River, but there is nothing there except a cafĂ©, a few houses and the station. Huntsville had the scenery, and it also had shops to visit and restaurants to eat at.

Huntsville is a beautiful town that offers a lot to the tourists, but has a big enough local community that you can sense keeps it alive through the winter. And just a three hour train ride from Toronto. It’s a crying shame more wasn’t made of this connection.

After walking around, eating lunch, and doing some writing, I headed back to Huntsville station. The train arrived twenty minutes late, though it seemed to be making good speed en route. A crowd of at least thirty people were waiting to bid the train farewell, and as the train arrived, a dark-suited gentleman stepped out and delivered a barnburner type speech that reminded me of the whistle-stop campaigns for the U.S. presidency. It was Peter Politis, the mayor of Cochrane, who was riding the last train south with a few others to give Premier McGuinty an earful. The speech was fiery and well received, but was similar to ones he gave every stop of the way to Huntsville, and many have been the reason the train was twenty minutes late.

Still, twenty minutes is better than some trips I’ve taken. The Northlander schedules an additional hour of running time for southbound trains south of Washago than it does for northbound trains. This is because competing freights or afternoon GO Trains give the Northlander a very narrow window to meet before delays start multiplying. This inconsistent service is yet another slight to the riders of the Northlander, although it seems that, on this journey, CN is paying its respects to the train by giving it a higher priority than normal. Heading south, we rocket along, and encounter very few delays.

Comparing Ontarians, how different are southerners from northerners? Possibly it’s through our cynicism that we’re different. It has been a tremendous fight throughout the Greater Toronto Area to put adequate public transportation on the political agenda, and many people still see GO Transit and the TTC as a waste of tax dollars. In Queen’s Park, as NDP leader Andrea Horvath blasted the Liberals for cutting the Northlander before Thanksgiving, robbing students of the opportunity to take the train home to see their families, Liberal hecklers shouted that the students should just “get cars”.

For the north, their cynicism is that the south will always look for ways to back out of commitments. Services they once depended on will be whittled to nothing. Even promises to restore Northlander service are greeted with scepticism.

And at first glance, northern Ontarians have the same transportation alternatives as southerners. Outside the Huntsville Tim Horton’s that I wrote much of this post at, there are no shortage of cars, hatchbacks or pick-up trucks in the parking lot or passing down the street. What, a cynical southerner might ask, do northerners have to complain about?

But no southerner has driven in the winter conditions northerners face. Many times on the train, I hear riders talking about aging relatives for whom the car is not an option, and the bus is an ordeal. They note, for instance, that the current fleet of buses might be wheelchair accessible, but the buses’ washrooms most certainly are not.

And I can’t help but notice that northern Ontario has been on the brink of economic recession far more times than the south. Toronto and Kitchener have had hard times, but they’ve never wanted for jobs. Even as Kitchener’s downtown thinned out in the 1990s and arsonists took up creative urban renewal, the sense was that the jobs weren’t far away. If worse came to worse, we could always move to Toronto. Few communities in urban southern Ontario have faced the prospect of disappearing from the map the way northern communities have.

Is it this sense of impermanence that drives northerners to demand that options be kept open? Do they understand better than we do that, while they may be able to drive pick-up trucks now, they may not be able to do so in the future? Do we in the south have a false sense of security? Do we think ourselves immortal? Is this the reason why too many of us consider transit as an afterthought and expect that the car to always move us into the future?

We arrived back at Union station 20 minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival time. Peter Politis and his crew headed up to the Great Hall to give a press conference. City TV was on hand to capture the moment. I talked to a few people, explained that I was from Kitchener and rode the last runs to show solidarity. Sadly, though, Politis and his people had arrived well after the Friday rush hour. The crowds in the Great Hall were gone, and those few who remained were hurrying home. I can’t help but wonder if this was McGuinty’s plan all along: it’s often said that if you want to bury bad news, release it late on a Friday afternoon, which was precisely when the Northlander arrived.

Unfortunately, McGuinty’s far from the only one to take this tack. The train I hop on to take me the rest of the way home is VIA Rail’s late night run to London, via Kitchener, departing Union at 10:10 in the evening and arriving in Kitchener at close to midnight. The crowds that leave this train are far smaller than the crowds which greeted the 5:52 train in the morning, but looking at their faces, I see the same students, the same backpacks, the same weary travellers grateful to have this option.

This option disappears later in October, once Stephen Harper’s cuts to VIA Rail take hold.

Father and Daughter Wait for the Last Northlander

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