If you thought you saw the Northlander gliding through Huntsville last week, you weren’t mistaken.
The return of passenger train service to Muskoka is one tiny step closer following a test run on the track between North Bay and Toronto’s Union Station on Monday, Nov. 22.
The “purpose of the test train was to validate the times in between stops as well as evaluate the track conditions,” said Rebecca McGlynn, spokesperson for Ontario Northland. A test of the northern part of the route had been completed in March.
“Overall it was successful,” added McGlynn. “We got the information that we needed. Our employees from the rail side were very happy.”
It wasn’t entirely smooth rolling, though. Track repairs south of Gravenhurst caused a significant delay in the train’s return trip.
“It’s a good indication of the work that needs to be done going forward,” said McGlynn. “Going into an agreement with CN and sorting out those rights and scheduling would be part of the next phase.”
The train would run on CN rails, as it did before the service was cancelled in 2012. That means that the tracks need to be suitable for both freight and passenger trains, and that Ontario Northland and CN would need to coordinate schedules to ensure reliability of the passenger service.
“The information that was gathered [during the test run]was part of the updated business case that will go to government. This is still very much in an approval stage and the work that we did is being put toward finalizing that business case,” said McGlynn. “The next step is it goes to the Ministry for consideration.”
The Ontario government had committed $5 million in its 2021 budget for planning and design work for the return of passenger service. In May, an initial business case was released along with proposed service.
The train used for the test, which carried Ontario Northland staff, some of the mayors from towns along the route, and MPP Norm Miller, is stock from the company’s Polar Bear Express line. If train service between Cochrane and Toronto resumes, new rolling stock would have to be procured, a process that would likely take several years.
“It was really nice to have…many of the mayors from stops along the route join us on the test train,” said McGlynn. “We received a lot of support both from the province and the mayors and the municipal governments. It’s just really great to see. There’s a lot of support and momentum around this right now.”
The estimated capital cost for implementation of the service ranges from $26.6M to $116.7M, according to the initial business case, depending on the terminus of the track (Cochrane or Timmins) and the level of service. That cost includes new and upgraded track, procurement of rolling stock, and the additional new facility costs and new track requirements if Timmins is chosen as the terminus.
Annual estimated operating costs range from about $5M to $24M, again depending on service levels and route terminus, which includes staffing, fuel, track access charges, vehicle and track maintenance and other state of good repair costs. The initial business case estimated that “at the start of operations in the mid-2020s, the service is projected to require an annual operating subsidy of between $3.6M to $20.5M in the conservative scenario, and between $2.8M to $17.2M in the optimistic scenario.”
Lucille Frith, co-chair for the North and Eastern Ontario Rail Network (NEORN), an advocacy group promoting rail service throughout Northeastern Ontario, called the test train “another milestone.”
“The next issue that Ontario Northland has to deal with is the running rights with CN. They have to come to an agreement as to the priority schedule for Ontario Northland to run that train in order to provide the service that Ontario Northland plans on providing for its passengers. It has to be on time,” said Frith, adding that “running rights should not be a big issue because they are dealing with MetroLinx and Metrolinx runs on CN lines all the time and has a working relationship with them.”
And following that? A commitment in the budget by the Ontario government is paramount.
“If this doesn’t happen there will be no train,” said Frith. “There has to be money in the budget to acquire a train set or two because if it’s not in the budget it won’t happen. Trains take two, three, four years to acquire. They have to be built, you can’t buy them off the shelf and have them delivered the next day.”
Frith noted that there has already been “a tremendous amount of work apparently done on the tracks between Newmarket and North Bay… Even though the train ran on the tracks in 2012, the safety requirements are critical from the standpoint that if the track was allowed to deteriorate in any fashion so it just runs freight, that could be a detriment to the passenger train. We’re always looking at safety first.”
An updated business case is anticipated in early 2022. (See the initial business case here.)
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