Hollowed out rail services hamper northern travelers

Dear editor,

Can the federal government, Transport Canada and VIA Rail make travel through Northern Ontario anymore complicated? I’m asking for a friend, because public transportation in this region clearly wasn’t designed for ordinary people needing to get from point A to point B.

To begin with, VIA doesn’t connect any of the largest cities in the north together. They don’t even make arrangements with regional transit providers to make bus/train connections possible like they do elsewhere in the country.

The services that remain — Sudbury-White River and The Canadian — suffer from chronic delays ranging from many minutes to multiple hours.

Most of the intermediate stations that haven’t been torn down are locked to the public. So if passengers don’t have access to a vehicle, they must brave the elements — potentially risking frostbite during the winter or heatstroke and mosquito bites in the summer — should their train refrain from arriving on time.

The deficiencies in our region’s transportation network became abundantly clear to me over the holidays. There was a major snow storm that made the only highway along the north shore of Lake Superior impassable for a number of days.

While the Budd Car did complete its journey without a hitch, I ultimately postponed my trip to Thunder Bay for fear of being stranded in White River. The probability is that train service beyond this small community would have allowed me to get to my destination — regardless of highway closures, bus or flight cancellations.

The irony of VIA Rail’s apology for travel disruptions in the Québec-Windsor corridor and ensuing criticism by Canada’s Minister of Transport, Omar Alghabra, isn’t lost on Northerners.

VIA seems to have a bad track record (no pun intended) for stopping just short of places where people need to get to.

Seriously, whose idea was it to skip out on a city of more than 100 000 (Thunder Bay) just a few hours further up the line from White River?

Northern Ontario is the poor cousin of what’s left of this Crown corporation’s hollowed out system.

Of the Canadian’s eleven scheduled layovers, only three communities don’t have indoor facilities or waiting areas open to the public. Two of them are situated in Hornepayne and Sioux Lookout.

During the off-peak season, VIA Rail provides discounted Sleeper class tickets for a select number of communities in Eastern and Western Canada. These up to 50% off fares provide passengers with private cabin or semi-private berth accommodations, meals, snacks and beverages, among other perks.

You guessed it, none of them are offered in northern cities or towns.

The Trudeau government and executives at VIA Rail appear oblivious or indifferent to the challenges faced by Northerners. They are however quick to deflect constructive criticism or responsibility for said issues.

Canada’s intercity rail network is rotting away, literally. There are now buffer cars on the ends of some passenger coaches that VIA has identified structural conditions with. They may very well pose a safety concern in the event of a collision.

While a Request for Information (RFI) has been issued by VIA, there are to date no plans to replace any or all its 70+ year old fleet.

Is the federal government simply letting our trains wither away only to then cancel the service outright?

Ottawa, VIA, you can do better than this. These shortcomings are embarrassing and they epitomize the state of land based transportation in rural Canada.

Northerners need safe, affordable and reliable transportation alternatives that connect them to their communities — big and small.

For the love of all things good, fix it.

Éric Boutilier is a columnist for Northern Tracks, a self-published blog related to intercity transportation in Northern Ontaro.