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.