Next time you ride the Toronto subway, think of Thunder Bay

If you’re riding the trains or streetcars in Toronto, remember the folks in the northwest who made it possible 
By Steve Paikin - Published on Feb 18, 2020
Plant manager Dave Black stands inside one of the GO passenger cars that Bombardier is manufacturing in Thunder Bay. (Steve Paikin)

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THUNDER BAY — I suspect there’s not a chance in you-know-where that, when people in the Greater Toronto Area ride the subways, streetcars, or GO trains that bring them to and from work every day, they pause to think about the folks in Thunder Bay.

But maybe they should.

Those comfortable green GO train cars? Those sleek-looking LRVs (light-rail vehicles) on the TTC? They’re manufactured at the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay, a mere 24-hour drive northwest of Ontario’s capital city.

That plant is going through some very anxiety-inducing times these days. To be sure, it’s the author of many of its misfortunes. The Toronto Transit Commission had to sue Bombardier because its new streetcars were delivered way behind schedule and the quality wasn’t what it should have been. Eventually, both sides resolved those differences, but it got ugly for a while.

I toured the Thunder Bay plant last week, and it was eerily quiet. Yes, there was some manufacturing happening — double-decker GO train cars for Metrolinx. But it was a far cry from days past when the plant echoed with the sounds of 1,400 well-paid, unionized employees creating the subways and streetcars responsible for half a billion TTC passenger trips every year. Only about 500 employees remain. That represents a huge decrease for Thunder Bay, where nine of the top 11 local employers are public-sector organizations. Bombardier and Resolute Forest Products are the only private-sector companies in that group, and the city really needs those companies to be strong to keep the economy going, not just here, but in all of northwestern Ontario.

While Bombardier’s management and manufacturing mishaps have been well-documented, some of its travails are caused by factors beyond its control. For example, the American government now has a provision requiring that 70 per cent of the content of its transit purchases be made in the United States.

As plant manager Dave Black takes me on a tour, he is both supremely proud of and extremely defensive on behalf of the company that has been his employer for several decades.

“I took out my pencil and did everything I could to meet that 70 per cent requirement,” he says. “But I could only get to 67 per cent.”

That means if Bombardier wins any future transit bids in the U.S., the work will go, not to this Thunder Bay plant, but to one of the company’s American plants in New York or California. Yes, the company still gets the work. But that won’t do Thunder Bay any good.

Particularly upsetting is the fact that, a year ago, Via Rail gave a billion-dollar contract to the German manufacturer Siemens for a new fleet of trains: the engineering work will go to a Siemens plant in Germany; the manufacturing will happen at the company’s California location. The folks in the Thunder Bay plant aren’t the only ones upset about that. Quebec premier François Legault blasted the federal government over the lost business opportunity for one of his province’s crown manufacturing jewels.

Of course, Siemens presumably got the work because of its superior bid, and Bombardier’s inability to hit a home run with its most recent TTC deal surely worked against its being able to secure this work. And if Canadian companies want to be able to win bids in foreign countries because of their superior work, then we have to expect that, from time to time, foreign companies will win the right to earn our business, too.

a TTC streetcar in the Bombardier manufacturing plant in Thunder Bay.
A Toronto Transit Commission streetcar at Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant. (Steve Paikin)

Don’t try telling that to the folks here in Thunder Bay. They preferred the circumstances of more than a decade ago, when then Toronto mayor David Miller pushed hard for Bombardier’s Thunder Bay plant to get that streetcar contact because he wanted the city to favour a Canadian manufacturer and keep the economic activity within Ontario.

But those days are gone.

If Bombardier wins future American contracts, those vehicles will be built in the U.S. The company has plants in 20 European countries, so if it successfully chases business over there, the work will stay there as well.

Thunder Bay’s future therefore depends overwhelmingly on getting business in Canada, particularly in Toronto. Completing its current contract with GO Transit will keep the plant humming for another year. But after that? It would love the TTC to start replacing its three-decade-old subway cars on Line 2 (the Bloor line). If Bombardier could win that bid, it would be a massive lifeline for both this plant and the city for several more years.

Yes, the Ontario government has unveiled plans to spend $28.5 billion on future subways and LRTs in the capital city. But those plans are still years away from fruition. Thunder Bay needs something now.

In the harsh, dog-eat-dog world of business, we’re supposed to care less about who gets the work and more about seeing it go to the  highest-quality, lowest-cost bidder, regardless of where they are. And sanctioning inferior work won’t benefit anyone at the end of the day. For example, paying $50 million more for streetcars to keep the work in Ontario could mean not getting a handful of additional stations built, because the money’s unnecessarily tied up in too high a contract.

And if all the uncertainty I’ve already described weren’t enough, Bombardier announced on Monday that it’s selling its rail-building unit to the French company Alstom, which built cars for the newly opened Ottawa LRT. The deal is expected to fetch up to $9 billion for Bombardier, if approved by European regulators.

What all this will mean for the folks at the Bombardier plant in Thunder Bay is, at the moment, anyone’s guess. But when you see the care the employees are taking to build the GO train cars that I know I’ll be riding in before long, you’ll forgive me if I’m pulling for these guys to win another contract — and soon — regardless of who owns them.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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