July 24, 2017 - To celebrate Canada’s 150th, VIA Rail announced the creation of the Canada 150 Youth Pass. For those aged 12 to 25, the pass is a dream opportunity, providing unlimited travel across Canada during the month of July at a price tag of only $150.
Unfortunately, this dream was quickly derailed when it became known that there would only be 1,867 of these passes sold. The limited number of passes available came as a surprise to young people across the country who were looking forward to an affordable way to explore Canada this summer.
But the number of passes wasn’t the only factor that excluded a large number of people from participating in this opportunity. If you take a look at VIA Rail’s Ontario route map, you can see that the rail lines completely by-pass many Northern Ontario communities, making it challenging for youth in Ontario’s northern regions to get on board. As someone who was born and raised in Northern Ontario, I’ve had firsthand experience with the lack of affordable and efficient travel options in Northern Ontario. This disparity causes a greater separation between Northern and Southern Ontario, which creates a heightened feeling of insignificance for those of us living north of Parry Sound.
Another issue that is prominent in many of Northern Ontario’s rail stops is remoteness. One particular example is Savant Lake, Ontario, which is located approximately 4 hours northeast of Kenora. This stop, which in technical terms is really not a stop rather a sign on the side of the railway, requires passengers provide 48 hours’ notice to VIA Rail to ensure that the train makes the stop. This requirement, along with unpredictable delays and the lack of a physical building acting as a station (which also means no heat in the harsh winter climate), makes it hard to convince people to visit the Wabakimi Area. This is unfortunate as Savant Lake, although remote, is an area admired by canoeists and those looking for an exciting, adventurous ambiance.
Furthermore, it is possible that investments in rail infrastructure could help enhance tourism opportunities in Ontario’s northern regions, by providing travelers with a relaxing and enjoyable way to travel across the area. Tourism can have broader economic benefits, by spurring job creation in the industry. Tourism resorts on lakes such as Oba Lake located on the Algoma Central Railway used to be fly-in and train-in fishing lodges; however, due to the termination of the passenger train on this route these businesses now rely on customers who can fly in. This has had negative effects on business operations as most customers cannot afford to fly-in or for other reasons cannot fly.
Canadian railway developments introduced many advantages for business travel, which puts this method above others. Most passenger trains allow business travelers to stay connected during the whole duration of their trip as in-station and on-train Wi-Fi is readily available – a component which is not feasible by car or plane travel. With that in mind, Southern Ontario companies sending employees on business trips should recognize that travel time in addition, could be utilized as work time and would therefore maximize their time away from the office. This, however, is not an option for most people in Northern Ontario.
For students deciding between various universities and colleges, the convenience of being able to visit home at an affordable price is often an important factor. Therefore, connecting Northern Ontario by passenger train routes could help to attract students to schools, increasing enrollment numbers in small post-secondary institutions. If students from Southern Ontario or other parts of the country want to visit home in Northern Ontario – or vice versa – their current options are to fly, drive, or bus. With harsh weather conditions in the winter, the high cost of flying, and the long hours involved in taking the Greyhound, students are often discouraged from going home to visit family and friends. Like business travel, train travel could also allow students to utilize their time away from campus to catch up on studying and assignments throughout the duration of their trip, which again, is something that is not possible in a car or plane. Passenger trains could help to address this, making students more likely to choose campuses in the northern regions of Ontario.
The question I want to raise, is if rail travel has such benefits, why isn’t Northern Ontario looking at revitalizing and growing their passenger train system? Could the expansion of the railways in Northern Ontario lead to broader benefits for the province’s northern regions, such as improving post-secondary education enrollment, connecting individuals with employment opportunities and health care, and enhancing tourism?
According to Linda Savory-Gordon, Research Associate at NORDIK Institute and board member of the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains, the potential positive impacts that revitalizing rail travel could have on Ontario’s northern regions are far too important not to raise.
The Economic Impact Assessment from 2014 states that the annual funding to run the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) passenger rail service was $2.2 million, a small investment when compared to the $2 billion base annual funding of the GO Transit Network. The study showed an economic benefit of the ACR of $38.1-48.1 million, as well as many social benefits including supporting tourism support, linking isolated communities and remote First Nations, and generating employment opportunities.
Following the CN Rail’s 2014 announcement that year-round passenger service from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst would be terminated, this left not only the tourism sector in northern Ontario suffering, but also affected residents from Hearst and Kapuskasing who used the rail to access medical services in the Sault. The hope of pro-rail organizations is that impact reports, petitions, and open letters, will lead to the reinstatement of this passenger rail service, as well as the return of the Northlander previously run by Ontario Northland. Since the train from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst was cancelled, it would now take 64 hours round trip to take the bus from the Sault to Hearst. This is the only form of public transportation now available to people from Hearst who wish to study at Algoma University or access health care there, as passenger air service is not available in Hearst.
As Northern Ontario continues to work to put itself back on ‘track’, the region is continuously encountering obstacles. Southern regions seem to forget what access has allowed them to achieve in terms of convenience, development, and efficiency in their daily lives. Residents of Toronto can hop on the GO Train every morning to get to their obligations, while residents in Northern Ontario face a fragile road network due to climate change, and constant highway maintenance, resulting in increased levels of isolation. This is according to NEORN’s Comments on Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Strategy.
As youth across Canada explore the nation this summer, Northern Ontario residents continue to feel barriers in accessing opportunities to travel, learn and connect. Having the demand of people who want to explore the northern regions of Ontario may be the push we need to revitalize the rail system, which could potentially help put us on the map.
Hannah Rowswell is a communications summer placement student at Northern Policy Institute.
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