Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Transport Marc Garneau were invited to attend a Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) meeting in the Sault Friday, but attendees had to settle for photographs of the absent leaders instead.
The meeting, organized and held by CAPT at the Civic Centre, was billed as a “somber third anniversary” gathering, marking the beginning of the third consecutive year without passenger train service throughout remote areas of the Algoma district, specifically the run from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst.
CAPT states evidence clearly shows Transport Canada is wrong in its claim there are existing public, safe and accessible alternate modes of transportation (other than passenger rail) for people to reach private cottages and tourist lodges along the Algoma rail corridor, urging Transport Canada to support a plan to revive the passenger rail service.
“We keep on hearing from Minister Marc Garneau that we have apparently become less remote along this corridor, when in fact when we were up in Hearst we heard so much evidence of just the opposite,” said CAPT spokesperson Linda Savory Gordon.
“It’s terrible the research they did was from satellite imaging instead of doing actual on the ground research. That’s not proper due diligence.”
A video presented by CAPT at Friday’s meeting showed people travelling through the bush on extremely rocky trails and over rickety wooden bridges on ATVs to get to their destinations between the Sault and Hearst.
Dean Anderson, owner/operator of the Sault's Catalina Motel, said he is one of many tourism industry operators who are hurting through the suspension of the passenger rail service.
“I am struggling. I believe the passenger train is a tourism opportunity that has been untapped in our area and it can complement the (Agawa Canyon) tour train. I think we can take it and make it something…where at some point it may not need to be subsidized, where it can economically sustain itself,” Anderson said.
A business plan to revive passenger rail service between the Sault and Hearst, operated by Missanabie Cree First Nation, has been completed, and now all that is needed is for CN and the federal government to get on the same page with approval and funding.
“We’re optimistic that its going to happen, but in what timeline, I would not want to set that expectation. I’m hoping for as soon as possible,” said Jason Gauthier, Missanabie Cree First Nation chief, speaking to stakeholders Friday.
“We have upcoming meetings with CN, we have upcoming meetings with INAC (Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada). It would be almost impossible to know when all the people will align at some point in order for this to happen,” Gauthier said.
Transport Minister Garneau told SooToday, on a visit to Sault Ste. Marie in July 2016 the Sault to Hearst passenger rail line does not meet Transport Canada's criteria for funding under its Remote Passenger Rail Program (RPRP).
Transport Canada would not be involved with funding for any plan to revive the service, but would help with transport-related safety issues and regulatory issues, Garneau said at that time.
The feds then shuffled the file over to INAC, which in turn gave Missanabie Cree First Nation approximately $200,000 in funding to draw up a business plan to operate a passenger rail service from the Sault to Hearst.
It would be known as the Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban, which is Cree for Bear Train.
“We would have to pay to access the train line (owned by CN)… if we were to have the exact same access fees as we did in the past, it would be less but close to what the federal government subsidy was in the first place, somewhere around $2 million,” Gauthier told SooToday at Friday's CAPT meeting.
Gauthier said two passenger cars and two baggage cars would be needed for the Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban.
The economic benefits for everyone involved between the Sault and Hearst, including Missanabie Cree First Nation, tourists, lodge owners in the tourism industry and private cottage owners, would outweigh the cost of government support for the Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban venture, Gauthier said.
A 2014 BDO study reported the Sault to Hearst passenger rail service, with its ties to tourism, generated up to $48 million annually, employed 220 people, and generated $5 million in annual tax revenue.
Gauthier said INAC is already on board in terms of support, “but their job is not to run trains, its Transport Canada’s.”
Now that there is a First Nations interest in reviving the passenger rail service, CN is more receptive to granting rail access, Gauthier said.
“We’re hoping to see them (CN) as partners, not adversaries. That’s been our perspective, that’s been our goal.”
“I think in order for us to be optimistic we have to assume that they (Transport Canada, INAC and CN) are negotiating in good faith,” Gauthier told an audience member.