Christmas came early for northeastern Ontario, and a major victory for citizen advocacy, when Stan Cho MPP, Ontario’s Associate Minister of Transportation, announced the purchase of three new train sets to restore the Northlander passenger train service on December 15th, 2022.
The promise to restore the service, first made in 2018, has now been transformed into a $139.5M purchase order for Siemens Venture trainsets to be delivered by 2026. Now we can be confident that the service will be reinstated, and the purchase of new equipment should help to assure its future over the longer term.
“Thank you to all the people who helped make this happen – our advocacy is working! Such great news especially at this holiday season. See you on the train in 2026.”— NEORN co-chairs Howie Wilcox and Lucille Frith
It has taken a decade of citizen and community advocacy by the Northeastern Ontario Rail Network, Transport Action Ontario, and other groups; more than 72 municipalities along the route passing resolution calling for the return the passenger train; and hundreds of people putting in hundreds of hours attending meetings, town halls, interviews, writing articles, and connecting with anyone who could help make the government understand the need for a passenger train between Toronto and Cochrane; followed by two elections worth of political promises and millions of dollars in studies and business plans, to get the this milestone.
Each Venture train, purchased as a follow-on to VIA Rail’s order and therefore mechanically identical, will be hauled by a diesel locomotive that meets the latest EPA Tier 4 emission standards, making them one of the most environmentally friendly engines on the market. The consists will each have one business-class car and two fully accessible economy coach cars, one of which will also be a cab car to allow bidirectional operation. The trains will include built-in wheelchair lifts, mobility aid spaces, galleys for food services, and fully accessible washrooms. The trainset interiors will also feature spacious seating and modern amenities, including Wi-Fi connectivity and passenger information systems with audio and visual announcements.
The train will travel north from Toronto on the Richmond Hill line as it did in 2012, making sixteen stops between Union Station and Timmins, but it expected to run through the night between North Bay and Timmins in each direction, making its schedule similar to the Northland formerly operated jointly by Ontario northland and VIA. There will be a rail connection onwards from Timmins to Cochrane to make the connection to the Polar Bear Express to Moosonee, which will probably be a continuation of the train from Toronto using the bidirectional capability of the Venture trains. Some communities that were omitted from the route earlier in the business case process, like South River, now appear to be back on the map, a further victory for community advocacy.
With the purchase confirmed, Ontario Northland can now move forward with the details of the business plan. This will include customizing the interior design of the trains to provide comfort and amenities suitable for the route; developing connectivity plans with bus services; details of corridor, station, and shelter infrastructure; and with community outreach, marketing, and partnerships. Most important will be securing track access and right of way for the service over tracks owned by Metrolinx and CN, including track upgrades required to ensure a smooth ride and robust on time performance.
The Updated Business Case projected investments of between $8M and $15M in stations, including a new facility at South Porcupine to serve Timmins, and up to $35M for track upgrades.
Hiring has already begun for staff dedicated to passenger rail service, operations and maintenance, with Krystal Perepeluk appointed as Director of Passenger Rail and Customer Service in October. Krystal Perepeluk brings more than a decade of experience with GO Transit and Metrolinx to the role, and was also involved in preparing MTO’s Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Strategy.
Ontario Northland will share progress updates at https://ontarionorthland.ca/en/northlander-passenger-rail-updates
So, what can we do as advocates while waiting three years for delivery of these trains? NEORN and Transport Action will continue to work closely with Ontario Northland and our elected representatives, along with the northeastern municipalities, Chambers of Commerce, First Nations, universities and colleges, and tourism offices from Washago to Moose Factory. We to ensure the passenger rail service is delivered on time and meets the needs of the many residents, visitors and businesses that will use the service; and to ensure that interest in riding the new service grows and grows.
We will also continue to advocate for the return of trains to the rest of northern Ontario, particularly the Algoma region, and the future of VIA Rail’s services in the region, which also need new equipment.
It remains unfortunate that the people of northeastern Ontario will have been deprived of their passenger train service for 14 years by the time the new equipment is delivered and the service can resume. The suddenness of the cut in 2012 and the utter lack of consultation by the Ontario Liberal government at that time will not be swiftly forgotten or forgiven, and attempts by Transport Action to obtain any documentation that would demonstrate evidence-based policy making came up empty handed:
“Due to the absence of methodologically sound research, there is no substantive basis to justify, support, maintain, retain, defend, uphold, stick with, promote, or otherwise find favour with the decisions to terminate The Northlander or to divest the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission.”— Dr. Barry Wellar, Distinguished Research Fellow and Chair, ONR-ONTC Research Task Force, Transport Action Canada, January 2013
To stop other routes from suffering the same abrupt cuts,we must advocate for full public consultation before any future reductions in service, and for decisions to be made on the basis of sound research, fully considering the economic, social and community health implications in both the short term and over the longer term.
Lucille Frith spoke to Ontario Morning on CBC Radio Sudbury about the announcement: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-112-ontario-morning-from-cbc-radio/clip/15956313-passenger-trains-returning-northern-ontario