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Couple describes gruelling trek to get to camp (3 photos)

Rally urges Transport Canada to revive defunct Sault-to-Hearst passenger rail service
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A group of stakeholders, each of them with an interest in seeing the remote Sault to Hearst passenger rail service revived, held a rally outside the federal government offices at 22 Bay Street Monday morning.

The gathering urged the federal government to restart the passenger service immediately.

The group included residents, cottage owners, tourist industry representatives, an Algoma University student from Hearst, disabled people who need the passenger train to get to remote destinations, artists and Coalition for Algoma Passenger Train (CAPT) members. 

The Sault's Al and Joan Johnston own a private camp 77 kilometres (48 miles) north of the Sault.

It's been tough, to say the least, for the couple to get to their camp since the Sault to Hearst passenger rail service went into limbo last summer.

"We are getting in there by four wheeler (after parking their vehicle near Harmony Bay) on an operating logging road, and then we go on a 30-year-old logging road bushwhacking it through the bush, over logs and dried out creeks, then we have to winch our machine up a bluff and then on to the railways tracks, then ride beside the tracks for a while to our cottage," Al told SooToday.

"There are five camps on our lake, three Americans and two Canadians . . . the Americans cannot get there and they're totally disgusted with it," Joan said.

The trek to their camp is inconvenient and dangerous, the couple said.

"We need a train now, and I think the Department of Transport should never have allowed it to be cancelled," Joan said.

After the previous Conservative government announced an annual $2.2 million subsidy to CN (which owns the Sault to Hearst passenger rail line) would be discontinued, passenger train lobbyists successfully fought for $5.3 million in funding over three years to keep the Sault to Hearst passenger rail service running.

Stakeholders hoped a third party operator could turn the passenger rail service into a self-sustaining, enhanced rail experience for tourists.

Michigan-based Railmark was chosen by the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation (SSMEDC) to be that third party operator, but Sault to Hearst passenger rail service came to an end in July 2015 after the city declined to sign a funding agreement, citing Railmark's failure to secure a line of credit.

On a visit to the Sault in July Minister of Transport Marc Garneau, representing the new Liberal government, said the Sault to Hearst route does not meet Transport Canada's criteria for funding under its Remote Passenger Rail Program (RPRP), stating communities along the line do have access to roads.

Not so, say Sault to Hearst passenger train lobbyists.

"My camp is near 70 other properties, and for years we had only one access to get to our properties and that was by railroad," said Len Piccolo (Mask-Wa Residents Association) at Monday's rally.

Piccolo said there is indeed access by road, but that road is owned by a logging company.

"That road is private property, it's at the whim of the loggers whether we can use that road . . . it's 63 kilometres from the highway to my camp and if you get caught halfway between, you're in a real jam."

"When we have the railroad we have an option, if we get stuck we can use the railroad . . . as residents of the area we deserve the railroad and we need the government to put up what they said they were going to put up for us," Piccolo said.

Tourism industry stakeholders, affected by the unavailability of Sault to Hearst passenger rail service, were also on hand at Monday's rally.

"Our business has operated partly by selling train packages, putting snowmobilers, fishermen and even just rail enthusiasts on the train, setting up a package whereby they stay at one of the lodges along the line," said Dean Anderson, owner/operator of the Sault's Catalina Motel.

"This was the only train I know of in North America where you could put your snow machines on the train or ATVs on the train, and where you can get on and off at any point." 

"This winter we didn't have a snowmobile package . . . that's what a lot of American customers desire."

"I have numerous repeat customers who keep calling me for updates, wondering when or if the train is going to get going and as an operator it leaves me in an awkward position," Anderson said.

"We would really like Transport Canada to listen to the actual facts, to acknowledge this really is a remote rail corridor," said Linda Savory-Gordon of  the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT).

"I think the government is trying to save some money. Northern Ontario has a sparse population and fewer voters, maybe they think they can get away with making some cuts with us."  

"If the people down in Toronto were told they no longer had roads into Muskoka there would be a major revolution," Savory-Gordon said.

Missanabie Cree First Nation, led by Chief Jason Gauthier, has a proposal whereby it would operate a passenger rail service along the route.

Garneau, during his visit to the Sault, said the file would therefore be turned over to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). 

Gauthier could not attend Monday's rally, as Missanabie Cree First Nation is holding its annual community gathering.

But Savory-Gordon, while fully supportive of the Missanabie Cree First Nation plan, said there is no need for the feds to do a turnover to INAC and no need to wait.

"We have a business plan, we have a strategic plan that includes a business plan, everything's in place, it's not INAC's responsibility to provide transportation, it's Transport Canada," Savory-Gordon said.

"The mission statement of Transport Canada is to provide public, usable, safe transportation, and we don't have that."

Savory-Gordon said CAPT would like to see Transport Canada come through with annual funding for five years until Missanabie Cree First Nation can get self-sustaining Sault to Hearst passenger rail service rolling.

Savory-Gordon said details of an online, electronic petition urging the federal government to move on the issue will be released soon.

Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing MP Carol Hughes, a New Democrat, has called on the federal government to resurrect the passenger rail service.

Sault MP Terry Sheehan has said he is working to bring Transport Canada and INAC together for an inter-ministerial dialogue to get the passenger rail service running again.