Why a change in government could bring back the Northlander train

Politicians in northeastern Ontario say they want to restore the defunct Toronto-to-Cochrane rail service — but can they?
By Andrew Autio - Published on May 30, 2018
close-up of Ontario Northlander commuter train
Northeastern Ontarians think the return of the Northlander would make travelling to the region safer and more convenient. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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TIMMINS — Although it may not be a top priority for voters across Ontario, nearly every election candidate in the northeast is talking about the idea of bringing back the Northlander passenger train service.

The provincially owned Ontario Northland Railway operated the Northlander train between 1976 and 2012. It departed from Union Station in downtown Toronto and terminated more than 700 kilometres north in Cochrane — until Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government cut it and replaced the Northlander with buses, arguing that the province could no longer afford to pay a hefty subsidy for a train service that was seldom packed with passengers.

Residents of northeastern Ontario still lament the cancellation (as TVO reported last year), and local candidates in the ridings of Timmins and Timiskaming—Cochrane are appealing to their disappointment by promising to put the Northlander back on the tracks.

Timmins, a major hub in the northeast, wasn’t on the Northlander route —  passenger trains haven't rumbled through town since 1989. But residents did use the service: they could hop on a one-hour Ontario Northlander bus east to Matheson and board the train to Toronto there. In the new, geographically compact riding of Timmins, there is a near-unanimous sentiment that the trains should return to the northeast sooner rather than later. Even the local Libertarian Party candidate, Jozef Bauer, has said he’s in favour of bringing back the (subsidized) train service.

Timmins Progressive Conservative candidate Yvan Genier, a political rookie who is originally from Cochrane, says rail transport makes sense in general for the north, not only for its ability to move people comfortably, but also because of its potential for alleviating transport traffic on northern Ontario highways.

“When you see a train that has 150 cars behind it, you know there's a lot of cargo in that,” Genier says. “With one train, you're taking care of 300 transport [trucks].”

Regarding how the PCs plan to handle the Northlander issue, Genier acknowledges that the party has not yet released a costed platform in the current election. But party leader Doug Ford tweeted earlier this month: “[Northern Ontarians] want the Northlander, and I will deliver it."

The Green Party called the cancellation of the Northlander a “sad day for Ontario” at the time, and during the 2018 election campaign current leader Mike Schreiner has reiterated a promise to restore it.

The Northern Ontario Party, which is running to give a more emphatic voice for issues that directly affect those in the north, also wants to bring back the Northlander. Timmins candidate Gary Schaap says shutting down the train was a desperate move by the Liberals. “They were looking at the short term, they weren't looking at the long term,” he says.

New Democrat Gilles Bisson says the Liberals made a “dumb argument” when they cancelled the Northlander.

“GO [Transit train] service is subsidized by the province. Subways are subsidized by the province. Even bus service under GO is subsidized by the province,” says Bisson, who was the sitting member for the defunct riding of Timmins—James Bay when the legislature was dissolved. (He is running in the new riding of Timmins in the June 7 election.)

“So if we're prepared to pay a subsidy to operate that transportation infrastructure, why wouldn't the Liberals want the same type of service here in Northern Ontario?”

With the right scheduling, and more importantly, better marketing, Bisson says, the Northlander has the potential to be a provincial jewel. He notes that NDP leader Andrea Horwath announced her intention to revive the Northlander at a Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities meeting last May, and that remains the New Democrats’ policy if the party is able to form government. “We were the first to commit to it, and now I'm glad to see that other parties are following our lead,” Bisson says.

For Timmins Liberal candidate Mickey Auger, the situation is more complicated. The Liberal Party’s position, as leader Kathleen Wynne explained earlier this month, is to put more Ontario Northland buses to the roads to help move northern Ontarians.

Auger, who has experience driving motor coaches, says that even the best drivers will encounter challenges on icy, treacherous roads. He says if elected, he would push back on Wynne's plan, as a simple matter of safety.

“I would like to have a conversation with her and say, 'We live in the North.' [We know] highways 144 and 11 are dangerous,” Auger says. “I would prefer to put the Northlander back in Cochrane so that people who have to go south for medical appointments don't have to worry about the highways. You can relax, get up and walk around, and get something to eat.”

The Northlander was especially important to Cochrane, a community of 5,300 people about an hour northeast of Timmins. The town has served as a railway hub for many decades. In Cochrane, passengers still board the Polar Bear Express route, another ONR service that makes a 300-kilometre journey to Moosonee on the James Bay coast.

The Ontario Northland Transportation Commission employed 154 people in Cochrane at its peak; that figure dwindled to 110 upon the closure of the Northlander.

Despite the support for the Northlander by local candidates, Mayor Peter Politis — who was the candidate for the PCs in Timiskaming—Cochrane in 2014 — isn't impressed with what any of the parties are suggesting.

“None of the parties are talking about a long-term plan that's going to sustain the development of the infrastructure, that is going to find the money to create a modern, high-speed rail network, that you'd think we be ideal for,” Politis says. “So I'm not seeing a long-term vision. I'm seeing the typical government short-term vision.”

Politis says he was particularly irked by Wynne's idea for more buses.

“That is completely unacceptable. That's not a vision. That's a reaction to a bottom line.”

 Andrew Autio is a freelance journalist based in Timmins.

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

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