Attempts to save Algoma Central Railway (ACR) passenger service are still rolling along, with deadlines to account for the potential loss of the $2.2-million government subsidy fast approaching.
Tom Dodds, CEO of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation, said he is cautiously optimistic as talks move forward with the four respondents to the expression of interest which was sent out to various operators across North America.
“Right now we have basic passenger service, we’re trying to crank it up to something more,” he said.
Dodds is a key member of the working group trying to save the passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst after the Canadian government eliminated the line from the Remote Passenger Rail Program subsidy last year.
“When I pressed the folks in the bureaucracy why, they weren’t giving me the criteria the decision was made on,” said Dodds.
Instead of accepting the decision, groups such as the ACR Passenger Service Working Group and the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) began working on an alternate solution.
The working group consists of stakeholders from Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, and areas in-between.
“We created our own role, we just made it out of thin air,” he said.
Last April the federal government granted a one-time extension to the subsidy under pressure from those groups and municipalities affected. The extension will allow the Algoma Central Rail passenger service to run until March 31, 2015.
The ACR line is currently owned and operated by the Canadian National Railway Company (CN), which is primarily a freight rail operator.
The expression of interest was sent to approximately 25 firms, one of which the working group hopes will run passenger service on the CN line as a third-party operator, allowing CN to continue to run freight.
Hearst Mayor Roger Sigouin, who was interviewed before his recent re-election, said he remembers John Rowswell’s multimodal initiatives and sees the line as vital for moving freight from his town.
“We’re the best position of anyone else for wood, mining, anything else. West-East, North-South,” said Sigouin.
Sigouin spoke to SooToday in Sault Ste. Marie recently when a delegation from Hearst travelled to the city by train to meet with other members of the working group.
“I don’t know how much the government looks at rail in the north and passengers, tourists (are) all part of that,” he said.
Dodds said the process to find companies to operate the passenger service has been a productive one, with four qualified respondants to the expression of interest.
One respondant has since dropped out, which doesn't concern Dodds.
"They weren't aligned with what we were trying to do," he said.
Those threee remaining respondents are also interested in taking on operation of the passenger service along the ACR line as well as the Agawa Canyon tour trains, and all have been asked to provide formal proposals, advancing them to the next stage of the process.
“We want to have a firm that is focused on providing passenger service. It’s in their interest that the passenger experience is enhanced. We are hoping it will be enhanced to a point that it becomes a tourist attraction,” said Dodds.
“At the same time, the average Joe who wants to take his canoe out isn’t priced out of the opportunity to do so,” he added.
Those proposals are due this Friday.
The federal government has suggested that they are no longer interested in providing a subsidy to CN, but the working group is considering setting up a non-profit organization. Dodds hopes the government may be more inclined to fund a non-profit with a transportation and tourism focus than funding CN directly.
"Part of it is optics," said Dodds.
Setting up a non-profit can take up to a year or more to complete - time the working group does not have.
“In pragmatic terms there would have to be an existing non-profit to take that on,” said Dodds.
Dodds said he sees the continued passenger service along the Algoma Central Railway(ACR) line as another piece of the puzzle for the future of transportation in the Algoma region.
“A good rail east, a good rail north and a port,” he said, referencing the proposed Port of Algoma.
Dodds said there is a bigger picture than what the government is looking at it now.
“What’s the smart way for Essar Ports to approach CN and CP so they see it as a win?” he said.
Dodds said he knows that even if the working group finds a qualified respondent who produces an attractive business plan they still need to convince CN and the federal government.
“I’ve seen these things go sideways pretty quick," he said.
He has also seen stalled projects switch into fast-forward mode overnight.
“I’ve been working 20 years on a deep-water port. Suddenly it just falls in your lap because somebody from a large global corporation says ‘Wait a minute, these guys are right in the middle of the Great Lakes.’”
Sigouin also knows the battle is far from over.
“I know Mr. Harper has a different vision. He has money to fight overseas, we have to fight to keep (the ACR passenger service).”
(FILE PHOTO: A plaque in an ACR passenger car notes that the train is financially assisted by the Government of Canada. CN rail threatened to discontinue passenger service along the ACR line by April, 2014 but was convinced to continue for another year with a one-time cash injection by the government. Kenneth Armstrong/SooToday)