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Contracts, specialty cars trigger new era at ONR: Hains

The Ontario Northland Railway holds a tour of its latest acquisition: specialty dinner rail cars.
The Ontario Northland Railway holds a tour of its latest acquisition: specialty dinner rail cars.

New contract work from GO Transit and CN Rail, and the acquisition of specialty rail cars, mark the beginning of a new era for the Ontario Northland Railway, vice-president Roy Hains said Friday.

Hains said the 10 cars, part of the BC Rail Pacific Starlight dinner train, will provide new ridership opportunities for the ONR, while the contracts will keep the railway's shop busy "forever."

Working up here forever
A few details of the CN contract were released by Hains Friday, during a tour of the Pacific Starlight cars.

The seven-year deal calls for the ONR to scrape and repaint multi-level auto racks.

It comes shortly after news the ONR had won an $81 million contract to refurbish up to 121 GO Transit commuter cars.

"We didn't expect to get them both," Hains said, "and they will keep us working up here forever. I think, if you look at the CN demographics and look at the CN shop and back yard, I think contract work is the way to go. So this place has been here 100 years and now with all this new work we'll be here at least another 50 years."

Ripple effect
Because of the scale of the contracts, the shops will undergo a $7 million dollar expansion and renovation to accommodate the cars, Hains said.

"And if I have to go to two shifts, I'll go to two shifts," Hains said, "and if that means more jobs then God bless."

The contracts will also have a ripple effect on the area economy since as many supplies as possible will be purchased locally, Hains added.

Even more work
Phil Koning, president of the Ontario Northland General Chairpersons Association, an umbrella group encompassing the six ONR unions, said going after the Go Transit and CN Rail contracts were all part of the railway's three-year business plan.

"That's why five of the six unions voted in favour of the business plan, because it provides us with stability and the ability to go out and seek even more work in the future," Koning said.

"And we hope it's the type of thing which will allow us to remain a publicly-owned agency when there's a change of government."

Significant coup
Then there's the other part of the equation, the Pacific Starlight dinner train cars," said Brian Stevens, president of CAW Local 103, an ONR union.

The ONR had hoped to purchase one of the cars for $300,000, but ended up buying 10 for $800,000.

That, Stevens said, was a significant coup.

"These coaches new would go for about a million a pop, and we got 10 for $800,000, a real steal for us," Stevens said.

"Regrettably it was at the expense of BC Rail enthusiasts.

Stevens said the idea of acquiring dinner train cars has been around since former Kirkland Lake mayor Joe Mavernac was chairman of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission.

"So this isn't new. What this is timing and it's good timing for Ontario Northland," Stevens said.
"The cars became available, and it was our good fortune that we got them."

Real experience
Stevens said the new purchase has created as much or more excitement as the acquisition in 1975 of the Trans European Express by the ONR.

"Our ridership started to go up when we implemented the T-train service and there was lots of employment, so it was good for everyone here," Stevens said.

"So we're hoping that these cars will generate that same kind of interest, and they should, since they're high end, top quality rail coaches. And they'll provide a real experience people have just not seen."

The dinner cars will be cleaned up and refurbished where necessary and put into circulation.

Governance issue
There are still a few loose ends to be tied, Stevens added, one of the biggest being the lack of a fulltime ONTC president.

"We're pressing the government and we want them to deal with the governance issue, and so there's some tension between us," Stevens said.

"But we're not going to relent until we start seeing what people in Northern Ontario are demanding out of the ONTC, and we're confident we'll reach that objective."

Right direction
ONTC chairman Royal Poulin said the governance issue now sits with Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci.

"And he's reviewing his options and he'll make the announcement in due time," Poulin said.

Bartolucci has already approved parts of the ONTC business plan, Poulin said, the parts dealing with the GO contract and the plan to buy the Pacific Starlight dinner train cars.

"We're hoping to get word very shortly, but we're definitely moving in the right direction," Poulin said.

"The government is reviewing all of the business plan and we should shortly know if the whole business plan is approved."