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The Northern Policy Institute (NPI) recently published a report titled The Thin Case for Passenger Rail in Ontario's Northern Regions, which has left me in a state a profound dismay and disappointment. It contains some very misleading information and does little to improve sustainable transportation options desired by northerners.
The document in question attempts to undermine the need for safe, reliable and affordable modes of travel in this region, particularly in the Toronto-North Bay-Timmins corridor. I was hoping for better from an organization claiming to provide evidence-based solutions to support the growth of sustainable northern Ontario communities.
The service that used to connect Cochrane to Toronto, which was discontinued in 2012, reportedly by some to be due to insufficient ridership.
This claim is unfounded. IBI Group — the consultant hired by the government in 2009 — concluded that generating some 35,000 annual passenger trips ... is an acceptable performance in terms of indicating support for the service by actually using it. This suggests that annual traffic on the Northlander is excellent under the circumstances.
The number of riders increased to 39,500 during the last full year of operation of the train in 2011. It may very well have been fared better had Ontario Northland (ONTC) not chosen to have the train compete with its own motor coach service. Ridership may also have improved had the Crown corporation not chosen to bypass the Richmond Hill GO Station (pop. 185,000) or if it had put in place a co-ordinated bus link to connect customers in Barrie (pop. 143,000) and Orillia (pop. 31,000) with the train at the Washago Station.
The $11 million set aside annually by the province for the train represented a mere 86 cents for every resident in Ontario — pocket change when you consider the amounts of public money wasted on government scandals, botched projects and cancelled contracts.
If buses are indeed the be-all, end-all of solutions, the ONTC would still offer service to Manitoulin Island, as well as between White River and Hearst. Greyhound Canada would still be in the business of connecting communities between Sudbury and Winnipeg. Either Caribou Coach or Kasper Transportation would still operate between Longlac and Hearst.
Just because it appears to be cheaper, doesn't make it the right solution. Northerners know the difference between traveling with and without adequate space for their legs, room for their medical supplies, or — in this day and age — legitimate physical-distancing options.
Most troubling in all of this is what appears to be a conflict of interest by an NPI board member. I'm not sure how someone can possibly lead a publicly owned transportation company and publicly promote the return of passenger rail, then endorse this anti-rail report. If not a conflict, then it should be a moral dilemma for this publicly employed official, NPI and the public.
The NPI report cites “personal communication with ONTC executive” as a source. Therefore, it is next to impossible for the public to verify the information quoted.
It may also explain why my freedom-of-information request — to view ONTC's passenger rail restoration plan — was blocked in full, and why I have had to proceed with an appeal with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner. At the very least, this taxpayer-funded document should be made available for public comment and scrutiny — in full or in part.
Our elected officials campaigned on reviving this passenger train service. The MPP for Nipissing assured the public on numerous occasions that the service would be restored before the end of his and this government’s current term. He also backed the ONTC's capabilities for producing a credible plan.
The bottom line is this: If the Northlander is not to be restored as promised, it will demonstrate that our elected officials and the publicly paid bureaucrats were never sincere about their intentions or their commitment to this endeavour.
As a lifelong resident of the region, I've come to realize that we northerners can very often be our own worst enemy. We will cut off our nose in order to spite our own face.
Enough with the backroom politics and the double speak. The provincial government has obligation to provide northerners with a more human way to travel long distances than mere buses or unaffordable air service.
Éric Boutilier is the founder of the All Aboard Northern Ontario citizen's transportation action group.