CN decision to cancel Snow Train branded disingenuousMonday, December 30, 2013 by: Bob Mihell
Photo by travel writer Ellen Creager, published with permission, as seen in the Detroit Free Press.
The Agawa Canyon Tour Snow Train, whose 2014 season was cancelled November 30, will remain snowbound indefinitely, according to CN officials.
“From CN’s position, the decision has been made and we will no longer operate the snow train,” Jim Seeney, CN director of public and government affairs, said late last week.
Lindsay Fedchyshyn, a CN communication officer, echoed that position December 17.
“At this point, the decision to cancel the snow tour is final. We’re not doing it again,” she said.
For Tom Dodds, chief executive officer for the Sault’s Economic Development Corporation, with whom CN has a contractual agreement to operate the Agawa Canyon Tour, those comments came as a surprise.
“In my discussions with them(CN), I assumed there would be no chance to talk about the snow train [this season]. My hope was we would talk about things going forward,” Dodds said.
He added that Tourism Sault Ste., a branch of the EDC, has sent emails to CN requesting discussions “in the spirit of the agreement” regarding the winter tour cancelation. Dodds said CN has yet to reply.
Sault MPP and Minister of Natural Resources, David Orazietti, however, weighed in more forcefully on the agreement between CN and the EDC.
The agreement followed a $10 million investment shared equally by Orazietti’s government and CN for a refurbished fleet announced May 15, 2009 at the Roberta Bondar Place with much fanfare.
The expenditure included the purchase of three Electro-Motive F-40 locomotives, eight coaches, two café/lounge cars, three club cars and a presentation coach from Ansco Investment Company of Denver, Colorado at an estimated cost of $6 million.
Orazietti said December 19,”I think it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that it’s two separate trains, two separate cost centres. There is one agreement, and it is the same train.”
He noted that the operation of the Agawa Canyon train including all three seasons was generating profit. “It is making money, and that was the desired outcome.”
Orazietti said that he has conveyed his viewpoint to CN officials. He said that his government had no present plan to intervene in the dispute, pointing out that the agreement was signed between the EDC and CN.
Although the preferred action now by the EDC is to have discussions with CN about the future of the snow train, Dodds said, “I personally believe the agreement is quite clear.”
SooToday.com has made a request under the Freedom of Information Act for access to the agreement between the EDC and CN.
While the EDC is subject to the Act, CN is a private company.
On December 23, Fedchyshyn replied by email on behalf of CN.
The email said: “CN does not disclose contracts with its business partners. Therefore, it is your prerogative to use whatever FOI provisions you believe to apply.”
The rail company, however, have made the reasons for the cancelation of the snow train for the indefinite future clear.
Seeney said, “We’ve had discussions with stakeholders for sometime about our concern about the lack of increase in ridership on the snow train. We have explored various ways to try to get that ridership increased.”
Fedchyshyn said that the snow train ridership level had stagnated at about 1500 passengers per season, and was failing to grow despite efforts by local stakeholders and the rail company. She noted that the costs of operating the winter run were operationally higher for CN because the harsh winter “was tough on equipment”.
Fedchyshyn stressed that CN remains committed to the Agawa Canyon Tour Train.
“For what’s it worth, and we think it is worth a lot, we are still working with all stakeholders to promote the summer and fall tours,” she said. “That is where we are going to focus our energy.”
Both CN spokespersons, however, were vague about identifying the “stakeholders” with whom the company has been in consultation.
Fedchyshyn said that CN passenger rail group did have discussions with representatives from tourism groups and the EDC going back several years about the low ridership on the snow train.
“We fully understand their frustration, but we’ve been watching this closely and it has stagnated,” she said. “It is no longer sustainable for us.”
Dodds said, however, that the cancelation of the snow train this year “was never an issue on my radar back in the spring”.
He noted also that local hotel operators were planning on the snow train operating in 2014, and were scheduling bus tours to take advantage of it.
“So the message wasn’t conveyed as well as one might think,” he said. “I think [CN] has suggested for sometime they were having difficulties getting the numbers up. They’ve been saying that in previous years as well.”
Dodds said that there was nothing in past discussions to lead the EDC to conclude the snow train was not going to operate. “We would have kicked up a fuss much sooner if we had known.”
The snow train had scheduled six runs between January and March for 2014. That represents less than five per cent of the total Agawa Canyon Train trips annually.
Carol Caputo, executive director of Algoma Country Tourism, also said she was “caught off guard” by CN’s cancelation of the snow train.
“It is very sad for the city of Sault Ste. Marie, and the region itself,” she said. “The train is the number one tourism attraction in all of Northern Ontario.”
Caputo’s organization is the local umbrella group that represents tourist operators along the train route to Hearst, Algoma municipalities, and Sault and Algoma region hotel/motel owners.
Caputo said that there had been no communication about canceling the snow train between CN and representatives from her group before the late November media announcement.
Fedchyshyn said that CN knew some groups were “upset about the timing of the announcement”, but there had been no confirmed ticket sales for the snow train when CN pulled the brakes.
“In terms of announcing [the cancelation] formally we did it as soon as we could, which was late November,” Fedchyshyn said. “Our position is that we didn’t expect the local stakeholders to be totally surprised about [the decision]. I can’t say more than that.”
Meanwhile Sault MP Bryan Hayes, whose Conservative government provided about $1 million for technological enhancements for the tour train, pointed out his government had no role in the operational decisions of the tourism service.
Linda Savory-Gordon, a lead spokesperson for the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains, a broad based lobby group focused on restoring passenger rail service to Northern Ontario, said that her organization is supportive of the tour train, but is leaving the direction to the EDC.
“We are staying clear so as not to muddy the waters,” she said. “For what [CAPT] is doing, trying to increase passenger rail service, whether it’s the line from here to Sudbury, or the line from here to Hearst, it’s also crucial for tourism.”
When asked whether CN was also reviewing its regular passenger rail service north of the Sault, Seeney said, “We have no comment on things that may or may not happen in the future.”
Seeney did confirm, however, that none of the Agawa Canyon passenger cars would be reemployed outside the region, and would remain in the Sault.
He did confirm that several of the locomotives would go to Toronto for maintenance repairs during the winter before returning for the summer season.
Since 1999, the Agawa Canyon Tour Train had experienced a steady annual decline in passengers. In that year, 88,667 riders made the trip. By 2009, that number had declined to 26,488, which included 1,909 for the six snow train runs.
Since the refurbishment of the Agawa Canyon Tour for the 2011 season, the number of overall passengers, especially tour packages for groups, has risen modestly.
Tourism Sault Ste. Marie has targeted both traditional markets in the United States, and markets in Southern Ontario.
Other SooToday.com coverage of this story
Further coverage by Detroit Free Press