Could a new rail line help the Tories in northern Ontario?

OPINION: Train service to the north won’t pay for itself. But the government doesn’t seem scared of large sticker prices when it comes to transportation
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 26, 2021
The Ontario Northlander train operated between downtown Toronto and Cochrane from 1976 to 2012. (Wikpedia/40rev)

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It may end up being a weird interregnum in our province’s transportation history: from 1976 to 2012, the Ontario Northlander train operated between downtown Toronto and Cochrane, 600 kilometres to the north, connecting with the Polar Bear Express train, the only year-round transportation link to Moosonee and James Bay. It was discontinued after the Liberal government brought in a cost-cutting budget in 2012 — but something very much like it may be operating again before too long, if an announcement this week from Queen’s Park pays off.

Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney on Tuesday unveiled the initial business case (IBC) for restoring the rail link between Toronto and northeastern Ontario, and the government clearly wants to sound like this isn’t just a bit of performative paperwork.

“The province, Ontario Northland and Metrolinx are moving forward with further planning for a 13-stop route that would provide service from Toronto to Timmins or Cochrane,” Mulroney said.

The “Timmins or Cochrane” bit in that sentence is an important detail that will need to be filled in. But, based on what’s in the IBC, it tells us at least a little bit about what the government is thinking so far.

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In short, the business case says that (surprise, surprise) restoring train service to the north is not going to pay for itself — costs are too high, and passenger volume is too low. Since that was the rationale for cancelling it in the first place, this is not a shock. But the Tories are undeterred by large sticker prices when it comes to transportation projects, so they’re soldiering on. What’s notable about the numbers put out in the IBC, and the Tuesday announcement, is where they’re choosing to spend their money — and where they’re choosing to cut their losses.

Metrolinx (which wrote the business case) looked at three possible destinations from Toronto: North Bay, Cochrane, and Timmins. It also looked at various service levels. The Cadillac option for service frequency — twice-daily trains — is, unsurprisingly, the most expensive, with estimated costs of as much as $700 million, and has the lowest “benefit-cost ratio” (a numerical attempt to estimate whether the economic benefits of a project can be justified by the costs).

The government is, instead, opting for the model that features seasonally adjusted service levels: it’s likely to return the highest BCR. What’s left to decide is whether the train will go to Cochrane — as the old Northlander train did — or to Timmins.

(Technically, the IBC also considers ending the train line in North Bay to save money; the government’s announcement seems to rule that out. Mulroney’s office, contacted by TVO.org to clarify whether the government was formally ruling out ending the line at North Bay, said in an email that “further analysis is required to determine where the service will end and what the finalized schedule would be, however we are confident that the proposed service route would provide the best value and options to connect people across the North.”)

The difference in cost projections between the two end points is small: going to Timmins would likely be slightly more expensive (as much as $236 million, compared to $233 million for Cochrane) but have a higher BCR number, as Timmins is the larger city and would connect more people to the train — and (hopefully, possibly) require a lower operating subsidy over the lifetime of the service. But the choice of operating the train seasonally would offset some of those costs, too. 

Most of the numerical differences between the Timmins and Cochrane options are pretty marginal, so it’s strange that the IBC barely mentions the most obvious difference: if a restored train service were to go to Cochrane, it would connect directly to the train that currently serves Moosonee (the Polar Bear Express), whereas a new train to Timmins would mean that anyone coming south from James Bay would need to disembark in Cochrane and take a bus to Timmins to re-embark on a train farther south, adding substantial complications and possible disruptions to travel (relying on a bus link also means relying on northern highways to be clear in the winter). Even in the best-case scenario, that trip isn’t exactly a picnic.

What the Tories (or perhaps, their successors) eventually choose will have as much to do with politics as with accounting. On that front, they may have a harder time in northern Ontario in 2022 than they did in 2018: the cutting of programs at Laurentian University is sending shockwaves across the north, and one of the aftershocks of that — the government’s proposal to separate the Northern Ontario School of Medicine from both Laurentian and Lakehead, setting it up as a standalone university — has already led one Progressive Conservative candidate in Thunder Bay to resign her nomination in protest.

It would undoubtedly help PC candidates if they were able to take some credit for bringing back the Northlander; whether that would help enough to make a difference in tough local elections is another question altogether.

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