All Ontarians are entitled to safe, reliable, and affordable passenger train service ~ Opinion


By Eric Boutilier

Five years after the provincial government canned the Northlander passenger train without so much as a single public hearing, is there any point in launching a new campaign to revive it?

A more appropriate question might be whether Ontarians are all entitled to transportation that is as safe, reliable, comfortable and affordable as what is provided at public expense for residents of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). If the answer is “yes,” then the Northlander is part of the equation and the case for its revival needs to be made.

It is for this reason that a new advocacy group, All Aboard Northern Ontario, has been formed. It is to provide a credible voice for the concerns of all Northern Ontarians who face a mounting number of transportation challenges.

When Queen’s Park arbitrarily cancelled our Northlander in 2012, we were told its loss would be more than compensated by “enhanced bus service.” Instead, daily bus service between Hearst and Kapuskasing was reduced to three days a week. Communities such as Cobalt saw their service cut from three times daily to once a day. Flights provided by Bearskin Airlines between Kapuskasing and Timmins, and by Porter from North Bay to Toronto and to Timmins were abandoned.

Instead of improvements, what we have received is a publicly-funded, multi-year exercise in navel gazing by our government. Known as the Northern Ontario Multi-Modal Transportation Strategy, it is based on a government claim that it wants to “ensure that the transportation system is improved and managed in a way that supports northern prosperity over the coming 25 years.”

Nice words, but we have reason to be skeptical. What has emerged is a recommendation to improve the region’s highways and airports, but empty platitudes on passenger trains, which served this region well for more than a century. All the draft report says is that “new and improved passenger rail service could become a reality, should a viable business case and sufficient passenger travel demand exist” and that it would evaluate rail service business cases “where appropriate.”

This lukewarm endorsement flies in the face of affordable and popular rail passenger improvements now being made all across the U.S., including services to places such as Maine, which have similar population densities and travel patterns as those along the Northlander’s route.

A 2009 study obtained by All Aboard Northern Ontario under a freedom of information request revealed the government’s own consultants had determined the Northlander had been “generating some 35,000 annual passenger trips out of total market base population of 200,000 (north of Toronto)” and found this to be “acceptable performance in terms of indicating support of the service by actually using it.”

In fact, the Northlander’s ridership increased after that study was delivered, rising to 39,579 in 2011. Yet, despite many public pleas to maintain it, the train was scrapped.

Queen’s Park is, in our opinion, doing a serious disservice to Northern Ontarians by sidelining the rail option, even while it endorses it in the GTHA by investing billions in the expansion of the GO Transit rail system. While no one expects to see a similar level of rail investment in our region, one has to wonder why efficient and effective all-weather rail is a solution for that region, but not ours.

That question is at the heart of All Aboard Northern Ontario’s campaign for the revival of the Northlander and improvements to the federally-funded VIA services in this region. They, too, were sliced to ribbons in the past by cavalier decisions made in Ottawa by politicians and bureaucrats who have no idea of the transportation challenges facing Northern Ontarians.

The time has come for our governments to be fair and equitable with Northern Ontarians. It is our intention to ask the tough, evidence-based questions of both governments on this issue. Using data obtained under our freedom of information requests and the services of rail industry professionals, we will also be producing a report to clearly demonstrate the costs, time frames and long-term benefits in reviving the Northlander. The report and other information will be posted on our website ( and presented in a series of public town hall meetings along the Northlander’s route.

If Northern Ontario is not to be consigned to a future as a “no man’s land,” as was so callously said recently by a member of the current provincial government, then some fire needs to be applied to the question of our transportation system’s future. With an election looming, it is the intention of All Aboard Northern Ontario to supply that fire.

Éric Boutilier is the North Bay-based founder of the All Aboard Northern Ontario citizens’ committee.

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  1. One of the biggest problems with the Northlander train service was the undisputed fact that it was never on time, frequently delayed by an hour, sometimes longer. The reason behind these delays was the fact that the ONR owned zero mileage of track over its service route, and was thus always bumped off the main line onto sidings for the passage of higher priority and highly profitable CN /CP freight trains.. Until this issue is resolved, and some chance of schedule compliance is possible, then there’s about as much chance of restoring service here as the proverbial snowball in Hell surviving.

    • They also charged exorbitant rates. I was told that even if the Northlander was totally sold out, both ways, all the time, they’d still not have come anywhere close to breaking even.

      Truth or not, I don’t know but we do know that commercial freight rail is not friend of passenger rail.

      All we have to do is ask Via about that.

    • Bill Wright….your statement that the ONR did not own any tracks in the Northlander Train service area is not true. The ONR owns the tracks from North Bay to Cochrane…which is in the Northlander service area.
      Another fact that you do not mention is the Northlander pulled into sidings to allow freight trains to have the right away was not only because freight trains were more profitable but the freight trains were too long to fit into the sidings…so the Northlander Train had no choice to pull into the sidings and give right of way to the longer freight trains as the freight trains would not fit into the sidings.

  2. Patricia Arney on

    Agreed Bill having waited 4hours in Ghurst to board our 90 Yr old family member who just wanted to go on the train again.
    That said the bus is a terrible alternative.
    Train travel is the best option for much of the European world -why can we not get it. I would love to ‘go west’ on the train as I saw many passing through Bala in my youth but that is no longer an option either.
    Unfortunately seems a dead issue as freight will rule and insufficient passenger uptake will make it unprofitable.
    I will still support efforts to revive it as long as it does not entail placing a red & white sign on my lawn

  3. If you’re like me I shudder when I contemplate a drive to Toronto particularly in the winter it’s a speed zone when you get close to Toronto and you have to participate in the race or cause an accident, so yes it’s necessary that they bring the train into Northern service particularly when Hospitals have become speciality destinations A sick person is especially vulnerable. A station in Orilla, Barrie, Toronto would alleviate this problem

  4. Emmersun Austin on

    Ontario & Canada are snoozing at various helms. CN is also snoozing for being anti-passenger rail. In this so-called “developed” nation we could easily have the best rail service rather than being continually piped down these black-top avenues. Hwy 60 “upgrade” is an extension of this: various authorities did Zero to ease traffic, nurture the area & facilitate cycling/walking. The focus is on the automobile.

  5. No wonder Ottawa is so cavalier in presiding over the demise of rail travel elsewhere in the province. They have an incomparable bus system. Furthermore, the rights-of-way purchased for bus transit have the appropriate geometry to support high speed, light-rail transit (LRT) in the future.

  6. Haileybury, Kirkland Lake and Timmins are three of our Northern Colleges with the majority of those students coming from Southern Ontario. The Northlander played an instrumental part in transportation for those students, even if just for a weekend. They could board on Friday morning and be returned by 6 p.m. Sunday….it was so great! Hopefully it won’t be long before that service is returned, and for those who wanted to take a quick trip to the south, as far as Toronto for shopping or weekend getaway’s, once again a easy effective safe way to travel!

  7. For too long we have drank the ‘kool-aid’ of the auto industry that Government paid (aka, yours and my money) for roads are the only way to travel. Do you expect the roads to earn money, you want toll booths to make it pay ? They why would you expect on-time, effective passenger rail to fully pay it’s self ? It becomes part of the Provincial transportation network. Widening roads has not solved the problem. I spent 3 hours on the bus last month just to get from Toronto to Barrie due to traffic and an accident in the south bound lanes, which were completely shut down.
    Yes, the rail companies and legislation need to re-class Passenger as Priority #1 trains, build more sidings so freight and passenger can meet and pass with minimal delay for both.
    Global warming is also part of the equation, Transportation – from the Governments own study, contributes 38% of Ontario’s Green House Gases (GHG’s) rail transportation is anywhere from 3 to 5 times lower GHG’s than the average plane trip or car. Don’t believe me, go to the web sites of CP Rail, VIA Rail or Amtrak or the Government study, NOMTS.
    Lets face it, we are addicted to our cars and we won’t give them up with out a fight. Convenience out trumps the environment.
    We need an effective, truly multi-modal transportation system for the province. The spine of which is passenger rail. This is how the TTC and GO (Government of Ontario) are structured.

    • Gilbert Hebert on

      YES!!!!!! – bring the Northlander back – there never was a logical reason to cut the subsidies to this valuable service – as a former municipal Councillor and Mayor, I personally rode the Northlander and took part in demonstrations at Queens Park – all in vain – most of my family were employees of Ontario Northland and its so called replacement by bus and other services were doomed from the beginning……the North must get involved in getting back what was so callously taken away from us – WE are NOT second class citizens…
      THANK you
      Gilbert Hebert

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