President and CEO Corina Moore says the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission has spent the past 120 years meeting the unique transportation needs of northerners and expects that tradition to continue when passenger rail is eventually restored to the Toronto–North Bay–Cochrane/Timmins corridor.
"A very important milestone in our plan to reinstate passenger rail was reached today," observed Moore, Tuesday, as she joined a virtual media conference, later adding, "As many of you know, this has been a goal of ours at Ontario Northland — and [a goal of mine] personally — for so many years. Seeing this first major milestone achieved is just extremely exciting for all of us."
During that announcement, Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney indicated further planning and design work should be completed in 2022, with passenger rail service potentially restored in the mid-2020s. Part of that further planning includes the 78-page Initial Business Case for the project.
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That business case reads: "Northern Ontario has limited passenger transportation options that increase the cost of travel and restrict residents’ mobility to, from and between northern communities. The primarily auto-oriented transportation network is particularly challenging for those who are unable to drive, choose not to drive, or do not have access to a vehicle. As a result, the quality of life for residents in northern communities, including Indigenous communities, is impacted due to limited access to services and businesses...such as hospitals and other specialized medical services. Limited travel alternatives for the businesses and communities in Northern Ontario also limits the potential for economic development in the north."
Ontario Northland is a Crown agency of the provincial government and reports to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario through the Minister of Transportation.
The Initial Business Case is billed as "a decision-making tool employed to assess the strategic and economic rationale for an investment, and the financial, deliverability and operational considerations required to implement it."
The business case assessed six service pattern options and three potential northern termini for the service — North Bay, Timmins and Cochrane — and found 17 options for analysis using those variable daily train frequencies and three northern endpoints.
Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli announced, "We're excited to be moving ahead with a proposed route with 13 stops from Toronto to Timmins or Cochrane, including one in North Bay. The stop in North Bay would also increase connectivity to Ontario Northland's bus routes travelling through this region. This announcement is excellent news for North Bay and the surrounding communities."
"As the transportation experts of our region, we recognize the importance of a modern and reliable passenger rail service that connects rural Ontario to Toronto," stated Moore. She promised the company's long history of providing transportation to, from, and within the north will "ensure the revitalized service is designed to meet both the personal and business needs of our passengers."
The Northlander passenger rail service was discontinued in 2012 by the Liberal government of the day as it moved to divest parts of the ONTC. In 2018, Ontario PC candidates — including Nipissing MPP Vic Fedeli and now-Premier Doug Ford — made a campaign promise to restore passenger rail service.
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Fedeli remarked Tuesday, "Dependable and efficient passenger rail has been long-awaited in the north. We made a commitment to return passenger rail to the north and today we are one step closer to fulfilling that commitment. The planning we are doing today will help ensure that when passenger rail returns to northern Ontario, it's done right. And, we are not taking any shortcuts."
Moore pointed out the return of passenger rail will help passengers avoid the pitfalls of winter travel and the congestion of travel in and around the GTA.
"I envision passengers enjoying a comfortable and safe travel experience with all the modern amenities — WiFi, food services, spacious seating, power outlets, and accessible washrooms — everything you would expect in a world-class long-distance rail service," said Moore.
When asked why the return to service is still several years down the line, Mulroney remained steadfast in the presented timeline of the project and reiterated the need to make sure the infrastructure — much of it already in place — is safe. The Minister also suggested the timing has allowed for public consultation on how the service should operate.
"I know people in the north are eager to see the reinstatement of passenger rail," responded Mulroney, "which is why we're working to deliver just that. We take safety very seriously and we need to do the necessary track audit and review the infrastructure that's in place."
This despite the following passage found on page 66 of the Initial Business Case: "The service will primarily operate on existing rail corridors that are owned and operated by Metrolinx, Ontario Northland or CN. These corridors are currently in use for existing passenger or freight rail services and are not anticipated to require significant upgrades. Minor upgrades to the corridor are proposed to allow for the operation of a safe and reliable service."
According to the business case, "Ontario Northland and Metrolinx propose to implement a passenger rail service along the Northeastern Rail Corridor, with variations on the frequency, amenities and northern terminus of the service...The scope and scale of upgrades would be dependent on the level of service offered."
"An enhanced transportation network that integrates rail and bus services provides an exciting opportunity for the region to grow and improve," shared Moore. "A connected northern Ontario means more opportunities for businesses, more students choosing rural colleges and universities, more people accessing medical appointments in comfort, and more tourists visiting our beautiful northern Ontario."
Moore also noted the collaboration between the ONTC, Metrolinx, provincial government and other project stakeholders is proof agencies and commissions can work together to further their various mandates while teaming up to improve the lives of Ontarians.
"Working with Metrolinx has enhanced an already great partnership," noted Moore, "and I'm looking forward to continuing the important work of the next planning and design phase with our sister agency."