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New report suggests passenger rail service 'doesn't make sense' for northern Ontario

Advocacy group for passenger rail in northern Ontario says Northern Policy Institute report has 'thrown a wrench' into its efforts. But the think tank's president and CEO is encouraging passenger rail proponents to take a closer look at its research
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A report recently released by the Northern Policy Institute (NPI) suggests that passenger rail service in northern Ontario is not economically feasible. 

The Thin Case for Passenger Rail in Ontario's Northern Regions looks at a number of considerations and data, but concludes that while there is no definitive answer as to whether or not passenger rail service makes sense for the north, there could be some ways in which short-line, short-season rail that targets the tourism sector or disconnected First Nations could exist.         

"I'm a supporter of passenger rail,” said the report’s lead author Al Phillips in a news release from NPI. “However, it is important to follow the data, especially when discussing the future of transportation in Northern Ontario. From an economic perspective, and in the context of allocation of resources, passenger rail does not appear to make sense for Northern Ontario."

Report doesn't highlight passenger rail's potential, says advocacy group  

The report has been largely panned this week by passenger rail advocacy groups, including Transport Action Ontario and the Northeastern Ontario Rail Network (NEORN). 

“This has thrown a wrench into all our efforts, that’s for sure,” said NEORN co-chair Howie Wilcox, who is also a former co-chair of the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT). 

Wilcox says that a number of factors were either not taken into consideration or not given enough consideration in the NPI report, including winter travel, greenhouse gas emissions and the potential in resurrecting the Northlander passenger rail service, which was discontinued by the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission in 2012. 

Wilcox also believes that not enough weight was given to VIA Rail service between Sudbury and Winnipeg, which currently uses the CN line. 

“If that train was switched over to the CP line, it would service 10 times the population,” he said.

Wilcox says there was only a brief mention of the opportunities for passenger rail service along the Algoma Central Railway. 

Citing a 2014 economic analysis report from BDO Canada, CAPT has stated in the past that the total economic impact of the Algoma Central Railway is between $38 million and $48 million annually. 

“It’s been a serious dilemma for numerous cottage owners and tourist lodges, and even the general public,” Wilcox said. 

The NEORN co-chair says that government subsidies are needed to prop up passenger rail in the north.  

“There isn’t a passenger service in the world that isn’t subsidized by government. What’s the difference?” said Wilcox. “All the other services in Canada are heavily subsidized, so why should there be any difference in northern Ontario?” 

But Northern Policy Institute President and CEO Charles Cirtwill says that in terms of economics, subsidizing bus service is a cheaper, more effective way to provide passenger transportation for northerners.  

Cirtwill stressed the recent report strictly went with data and research, and did not engage in opinions or hypotheticals.   

“This paper wasn’t about opinions, it wasn’t about hypothetical circumstances that would make rail more or less viable in northern Ontario - it was a specific question to a transportation expert that asked the question, ‘based on the available evidence, is it more cost effective to subsidize rail, or subsidize buses?’ And the answer specifically was that in the vast majority of cases, it’s much cheaper to subsidize busing, and you get far more for your buck,” he said. 

Report doesn't close the door on passenger rail entirely 

According to Cirtwill, there are three exceptions outlined in the report where a case could potentially be made for passenger rail service in the north: First Nations in rural and remote areas not connected by road or rail, the potential for connectivity between Toronto and northern Ontario, and short-rail, short-season tourism opportunities such as the Agawa Canyon Tour Train. 

“I would think that the folks from CAPT and NEORN should take a very close look at the paper, because it lays out the case for an exception that fits much of the thing they’re arguing for - in many instances, the return of short-line, short-season rail that targets the tourism environment, or disconnected First Nations,” said Cirtwill. “All of those things fit the analysis in the paper.” 

“I know it’s not the enthusiastic endorsement that someone who loves rail would like to see, but it didn’t close the door on rail either.”

The Thin Case for Passenger Rail in Ontario's Northern Regions can be accessed via the Northern Policy Institute website

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James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday based in Sault Ste. Marie
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