Trains and Ontario’s Government — GO and Ontario Northland

NDP leader Andrea Horwath calls on the McGuinty Liberal Government in Ontario to scrap its plans to sell off the Ontario Northland Railway as one of the conditions for her party’s support of Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s 2012 budget. Good.

The announcement that Ontario Northland is to be sold off has been confusing. Employees of the ONR are in the dark as much as the general public. No date was given for when rail service will end; some statements refer to “privatization” suggesting someone other than the government might buy the assets and operate the system, yet elsewhere it is stated the passenger rail service from Toronto to Cochrane is simply being terminated. Not good.

So what’s the situation? Checking into the plans with Elise Bélanger, we found the Polar Bear Express passenger rail service from Cochrane to Moosonee will continue to operate. This is essential for the communities along the line, including a number of flagstops, that depend on the train as the only means of transport.

From Cochrane south, passenger train service is to be replaced by bus service. The government might have more intelligently announced that the transition it had already been making, with a combination of trains and buses, would now be carried to the next step. People would have grasped the picture better. Already ONR operates a busy schedule of buses daily between the north and Toronto, and has reduced train service to one a day. In other words, it set up the passenger train operation to fail.

The ONR is not the only combo of trains and buses operated by the provincial government. The GO Train (“GO” cleverly standing for both Government of Ontario and movement) started as a commuter rail service, and later had buses added. The rail line now connects north from Toronto to Barrie, east to Oshawa and west to Burlington, with buses filling in various routes to make an integrated system.

The Ontario government thus has two rail/bus systems operating in the province, GO transit and the Ontario Northland. The efficiency of the former needs to be extended to the latter, rather than letting the ONR continue to decline due to weak resolve to make it a success. Otherwise, Ontarians will rightly see this as yet another example of northerners getting the short end of the stick.

One example of how the ONR has been set up to fail is the minimal level of train service. When the opportunity to travel on the train is so limited, people will indeed look to other options.

Another example is the failure to invest in trains (buying used and ill-suited equipment from other countries, taking the discards from GO Train service in the south) and for a number of years not maintaining the tracks so that trains were slowed, arriving hours late.

Still another example is the way the Northlander trains and buses interconnect. A passenger can use their ticket on either one, since train and bus tickets are interchangeable — for example, from Toronto to Huntsville. But buses do not use the train stations along the ONR’s route; they go to the same terminals used by other bus lines. Again to use the Huntsville example, there is no waiting room, and no one on duty except in daytime.

It is good that Ontario’s NDP are pushing to keep the ONR rail service operating — but it will need to be upgraded in the same way the GO Transit system is continually enhanced. It will need to be reorganized with a stronger emphasis on the needs of the travelling public. And it would seem the time has come for the Ontario Government to put its two rail operations under a single organziation, with GO and Ontario Northland as part of a cohesive, integrated provincial transportation program.

About patrickboyer

Canadian author and publisher; lawyer and university professor; former Member of Parliament.
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4 Responses to Trains and Ontario’s Government — GO and Ontario Northland

  1. Pingback: Keep it simple stupid Air Rail link options dead on arrival | The GTA Patriot

  2. Andy MJ says:

    One of the constant problems is the lack of investment. You are so correct in your analysis. If you provide a poor and inadequate service, how do you expect it to grow and become viable? There needs to be an overhaul and review of the Northland service; reviewing the connections and ensuring that it works for Northern Ontario residents. It’s sad to see that the Government plans to end regular train service to the north.

  3. Tara Smyth says:

    Please fight to keep the Northlander train service operating. Last week, I travelled from Bracebridge to Toronto on the Northlander train-something I have done as often as possible since I was a child. While on the train, I had time to reflect on the government’s decision to sell off the Northlander train service and I didn’t like it.
    I didn’t like it and I don’t think enhanced bus service is the answer. I looked around the train and saw single mothers with children travelling from Timmins to Toronto, older ladies from Cochrane riding the train to their medical appointments in the city, and young students on their way to school. All were grateful for the train and did not know what they would have done without it. The bus was not an option and neither was driving.
    There’s a lot of talk about job creation in Ontario and maybe that’s the argument to use to keep our train service in the north. The people who work for the Northlander train are skilled and if we lose the train service we lose those skilled workers in our northern communities. Selling off the Northlander train service would be getting rid of great jobs that already exist and it would limit opportunities for tourism development in the north. The Northlander train is such a gem–there’s nothing like riding out of the city from Union Station, gliding along the shores of Lake Simcoe, sailing between the granite outcroppings of Muskoka and riding into the boreal forest of the north: it’s magic. Surely, the Northlander could be a tourist attraction in addition to keeping skilled jobs in the north.
    The train is historically and currently significant to many of us. I hope you will fight to keep the Northlander train service going because once it’s gone, it’s gone and I don’t think we will be getting it back. We will not only be losing jobs, or a vital transportation link to the north, but we will also be losing a Canadian gem. Please fight to keep the Northlander train service operating.

  4. Lynn Blunt says:

    It is unfortunate that the people in Ontario are continuously led to believe that the sell off of Ontario Northland has to do with rail subsidies. This time around, as the government has tried to divest the ONTC/Ontera previously, It is more about chromite than subsidies.

    Does it have issues, as indicated by Patrick Boyer, yes it does. Political appointees to the Commission, who have no background in the business it runs, have been allowed to make decisions regarding this Crown Corporation’s operations. Would you go see your plumber to obtain advice about your investments? Of course not. However, that is what was allowed to go on at the ONTC/Ontera. As with any government run operation, money is assigned to areas and if not used for that purpose, you are threatened it will not be available in the next fiscal year. Now, is that not poor planning. Don’t you think you might want to look at what is needed down the road and invest in your company in things such as rail upgrades and maintenance. Remember, this train travels through areas where temperatures heave the ground and the tracks along with it, not to mention the effects of the odd beaver damn that floods areas along the way. The work on rail lines is manual, for the most part, and not “computerized” as are many jobs now a days which is resulting in the decline of employment in other areas of business.

    The government does not want to come right out and discuss the real issue the divestiture has been based. If you read through articles in the Northen Ontario Business, you will find the are looking for. Check the April 5, 2012 edition entitled, “First Nation chiefs make statement on Ring of Fire corridor – Staking their claim”. The most important part of their article is as follows, “One day before Gagnon’s press conference, four First Nation communities signed a pact in Toronto agreeing to work toward the eventual operation of all the supporting infrastructure, transportation and services for the mining companies.” This is why the government will not budge on the issue of divestiture. They go on it the article to say the following, “In a statement, Eabametoong Chief Harry Papah said controlling the corridor means training, employment and business opportunities for his people.
    “By taking control of our traditional homeland, we can ensure that our communities really benefit in meaningful and long-term ways from the potential development in the Ring of Fire.”
    Aroland and Marten Falls favour a transportation corridor that was planned as a forestry road before the Ring of Fire was known to exist. The chiefs said it eliminates a bridge over the Ogoki River, avoids passing through a provincial park and will provide spinoffs for the communities.
    The industry-proposed roads are on sacred ground that needs to be protected.
    “It’s viable,” said Gagnon. “We know the land and we know where the portages are.”
    Gagnon said he’s confident that a Ring of Fire railroad is an eventuality.
    “We are going to build it and own it, that’s coming.”
    With their expectations outlined, Gagnon said the next step is to rally support from other chiefs and municipalities.
    “I want to walk hand-in-hand with industry to tell government this is how we want to see this developed.” This has not happened over night. You only have to thumb through the issues of the Northern Ontario Business back to when ONTC was denied the continuance of the contracts for the refurbishment of the Via Rail Contracts to see how this has all unfolded.

    Even looking at the Soo Today article of May 8, 2012, you see where Mr. Bartolucci is neck deep in this entire process with the aboriginals and the Provincial Government. The government has already made promises to the mines and the aboriginals, so how does he change that? ” Aroland First Nation raises questions about ethics of Ontario Mining Minister – after months of ignoring First Nations, Ontario attempts last-minute “buy off” of Ring of Fire First Nations

    THUNDER BAY – Today, the Chief of the Aroland First Nation raised serious questions about the ethics of Ontario Mining Minister Rick Bartolucci and MPP for Sudbury.

    The Minister, in a last ditch effort of questionable morality, arranged a secret meeting late yesterday (May 8) between the Aroland Chief, the Marten Falls Chief and Ontario officials.

    The goal of the meeting was to head off growing First Nation opposition to the Cliffs chromite mine and refinery.

    “After ignoring First Nations for months, Ontario thought they could divide and conquer us by holding an 11th hour meeting and making a few promises without our fellow Matawa Chiefs present,” said Chief Sonny Gagnon. “Ontario needs to deal with First Nations first rather than simply taking orders from Cliffs. We want the refinery in Aroland territory and we want the highest standard of environmental review for the project.”

    “We asked the Minister to pause the Cliffs announcement on the refinery, but Bartolucci said he had no control over Cliffs, “said Gagnon. “Who is really running this Province? Our elected officials or an American mining company?”

    A regional coalition of elected municipal officials and First Nations support locating the refinery in Aroland First Nation territory and it having the highest standard of environmental review.

    The refinery and mine could bring up to 1,000 desperately needed jobs to First Nations in the region.

    An area suffering from chronically high levels of unemployment following a downturn and restructuring of the forest industry.

    Unless properly reviewed in a joint panel, the Cliffs project with its 350 km long permanent transportation corridor and mega open pit mine threatens to open up a remote region of Ontario to uncontrolled mining development, dramatically alter river systems, discharge toxic pollution and fundamentally change the environment and way of life remote First Nations-forever.

    The Cliffs project is the canary in the coal mine of the Harper government’s rollback of environmental regulation.

    In October 2011, the Matawa First Nations were forced to launch a judicial review when the federal government decided to simply use a paper process called a comprehensive study to review the environmental impacts of this unprecedented mega project in the untouched headwaters of the Attawapiskat river system.

    Cliffs has supported the federal government in their decision, touting their preference for an American style regulatory process that gives corporations freedom and flexibility, and eliminates any independent oversight of the environmental assessment of the project.”

    As a 26 year employee of Ontario Northland and Ontera, I believe the Ontario people, especially the Northern Ontario people, have been lied to about the reasons for divesting Ontario Northland/Ontera. It is greed! This is a case of the government having everyone focus on the divestiture, while they go about working on this deal for the chromite. It is time to demand some answers or is it too late?

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