The Northern and Eastern Rail Network (NEORN) wants Ontario Northland to take over the Huron Central Railway (HCR), a major rail artery linking Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury.
NEORN co-chair Howie Wilcox says that such a move would make sense, considering that the operators of the railway are now threatening to discontinue service if the government doesn’t fund the rehab work needed to maintain it.
“I guess it wasn’t enough, and now they’re back again looking for more money, $46 million this time,” Wilcox said. “So this led us to the idea of, ‘well if the province is going to invest this kind of money into the rail line, why don’t they take it over?’”
The parent company of the HCR, Genesee & Wyoming Inc., owns more than 100 short line railways throughout North America, Europe and Australia.
Genesee & Wyoming Inc. leases the rail line from its owners, the Canadian Pacific Railway.
In 2010, the HCR received $33 million from the federal and provincial governments to carry out extensive repairs to the railway, which services Algoma Steel, Domtar in Espanola and Eacom Timber Corporation in Nairn Centre.
Now the rail company is asking for $46 million over five years for similar rehab work.
“I think that’s just a ploy to shake the governments up to get money out of them, that’s all.” Wilcox said. “When you look at their own parent company - Genesee & Wyoming Inc. in the states - they have over a hundred short line railways, and they’re very profitable.”
“They made over half a billion dollars last year, and yet they’re coming to government looking for money to rehab the line.”
The passenger rail lobby group known as NEORN, which counts the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT) as a member organization, says that it’s time for Ontario Northland to somehow acquire the rail line from the Canadian Pacific Railway.
“The Huron Central is basically handcuffed by CP...they have to turn all the traffic over to CP at Sudbury,” said Wilcox. “That shouldn’t have to be, but that’s the way it is.”
Wilcox says that such a move would benefit industry throughout northeastern Ontario.
“It would give industry, particularly the northeast region...access to a US gateway here in Sault Ste. Marie, which would make them much more competitive in getting their products to the United States.”
Wilcox - who also co-chairs CAPT - would like to see a revival of Ontario Northland rail service throughout the north, as it would help bring tourism into northeastern Ontario from the United States via the Sault, and tourists from Europe and the far east by way of Toronto.
“Should the Ontario Northland bring back the Northlander train...there’s the opportunity to run a service on the line from the Sault over to North Bay, and be able to connect with that train to go to Toronto, for instance.”
Having the province acquire rail lines throughout the north would also help NEORN satisfy its ultimate goal - to have a northeastern Ontario rail loop that would, in theory, connect Sault Ste. Marie, Hearst, Moosonee, North Bay, the Muskoka region and Toronto.
“That gives the northerners another travel option,” Wilcox said. “Those who don’t like to fly or don’t want to have to drive, there’s nothing more comfortable than passenger trains, and nothing more energy efficient.”
The NEORN has been promoting its proposals through a series of ‘rally for rail’ meetings throughout Ontario, with the next one scheduled in Searchmont on June 4 at 7 p.m.