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Opinion: Dave Dale, Passenger rail service has high tourism potential

I can see entire groups of cyclists, hikers, snowmobilers and ice-fishing enthusiasts traveling by rail to northern destinations. It wouldn’t be hard to add a freight car or two for bikes, sleds and canoes to the passenger string.
heritage railway
Volunteers have been busy in recent weeks getting the rolling stock for the North Bay Heritage Train and Carousel Company ready for a Mother's Day weekend opening.

There’s an Ontario Northland Twitter post asking a multiple-choice question about how people intend to use passenger rail service between Toronto and Timmins.

The return of the Northlander is “one step closer” to reality after Premier Doug Ford announced that $75 million was earmarked to make it happen (although it’s still a couple of years down the road.)

A cynic might view it as a pre-election whistle stop for the Progressive Conservative campaign to keep the reins of power after ballots are counted on June 2. Always a strong supporter of recycling programs, it was a key plank for the region promised four years ago when they swept out the Liberals in 2018. The Grits had cut the service in 2012 to show they were capable of swinging a dull axe when managing budgets too. Some thought it was retribution for northern ridings not supporting the red and white party sufficiently. Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli, for example, replaced Liberal Monique Smith in 2011. It was a nasty time for politics, as I recall.

Regardless, if we can put the focus on moving forward, the ONR has been studying the re-implementation of the service ever since with several million in funding greasing the wheels of a business case and operational plan.

The Tweet asked social media users what they intended to use the service for once it’s rolling north and south.

A) medical appointments

B) Visiting family and friends in southern Ontario

C) Business

D) To travel to and from college or university

Of course, it’s Twitter so you’re going to have some snarky and highly critical potshots mixed in with the genuine reflections shared.

One person, whose profile states he wears an N95 mask despite Ford’s pronouncements, started hacking away at the business case issues. Ian Gardner brought up the comparative costs of bus service and suggested passenger rail service is already a money-loser in places with higher population density, such as Via’s Windsor-Quebec City corridor.

A supporter of the concept whose profile states he is an “Oxford graduate, entrepreneur, political activist. Sustainable development, intercity and rural public transportation, affordable homes, responsive government” engaged the critic. He noted the positive aspects for those who do use it, such as a family of four who would be able to travel more comfortably. He also cited an annual operating cost of only $10 million and noted the former service did well until it was moved to a daytime schedule, which forced travellers to Toronto to stay over for two nights to attend day-time events, medical appointments, etc.

“Roads are also ‘money pits but we build and operate national infrastructure to connect people and have an economy,” said Terence Johnson.

Gardner ended the dialogue by suggesting Johnson was confusing The Northland train with the Northlander (which was always a day train). So you (sic) looking back 40+ years”.

I’ve summarized that interaction because it basically reflects the never-ending circle of debate that ensnares the issue of passenger rail service: “It costs a lot and the benefits depend on how it’s operated with details like scheduling dictating ridership.”

Personally, I see passenger rail as a better option for northern residents requiring more service than coach busses, whether it’s for accessibility or other reasons. I see fewer and fewer families able to afford the level of highway vehicles required for such travel.

Likely more important, ridership and business-wise, is the tourism potential that goes both ways. Several of the Twitter commenters noted that aspect should be included in such surveys.

Johnson wrote in the additional response: “E. Tourism. To bring my family to explore northern Ontario. Much more relaxing by train than driving.”

I can see entire groups of cyclists, hikers, snowmobilers and ice-fishing enthusiasts travelling by rail to northern destinations. It fits with some of those market profiles and I can imagine a day when it’s not economical to drive up here with fully-loaded pickup trucks with trailers for the toys. It wouldn’t be hard to add a freight car or two for bikes, sleds, and canoes to the passenger string. The key will be providing transportation services and suitable packages for accommodation when they arrive.

Of course, in the spirit of finding dark humour in everything serious, I couldn’t help replying to the tweet survey with my own query: “How much to rent a sleeper roomette 24/7 in case someone is homeless and can't afford an electric vehicle or rent an office? Will need wifi to livestream a reality show. Asking for a friend.“

In other news, I attended the workshop put on by local municipalities for potential council candidates last week. Guru of such matters Fred Dean delivered a riveting presentation on the reality of being an elected official, including the workload, fiduciary responsibilities and accountability systems. Dean suggested people think long and hard about throwing their hat in the ring, including expansive conversations with life partners and family members who will pay a price for being in the public fray.

Not exactly a warm and fuzzy recruitment presentation, more of a culling of fence-sitters unsure of the commitment.

In my discussions with people considering such an adventure, however, the chief deterrent for most is the length of term being four years. While one year, which was the case five decades ago, created perpetual election cycles, and two years wasn’t much better considering the steep learning curve for newbies. I always thought three years was the best option: one to figure things out, one to get things done and the last one to decide how to get re-elected or run for the hills.

P.S. When do you think the ice will be off Lake Nipissing? I guessed April 17 about a month ago and that doesn’t look possible unless it rains real hard and there are high winds tonight …

Dave Dale is a veteran journalist and columnist who has covered the North Bay area for more than 30 years. Reader responses meant as Letters to the Editor can be sent to editor@baytoday.ca. To contact the writer directly, email: davedale@backinthebay.ca or check out his website www.smalltowntimes.ca