Public transit is on the chopping block in Northeastern Ontario. On September 28th, the McGuinty Liberals are planning on silencing the whistle of the Northlander passenger train once and for all. With the train service killed, they will then move to sell off public bus service and freight operations as quickly as possible. Thrown into this fire sale will be valuable public telecommunications infrastructure that has connected many isolated communities with cellphones and Internet.
The government says this is about providing northerners with better options for transportation. No one's buying it. The dismantling of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission will have a profound impact on the northeast part of the Province.
To tell you the truth, I can't really imagine life in the north without the familiar shriek of the Northlander. Every morning and evening I hear the sound cutting across the timberline pretty much as it has done for more than a century. It is as much a sound of the north as the cry of a loon on Lake Temagami. But the fight to save the train is about more than nostalgia.
The train was originally developed as an economic development engine for the province. Despite years of neglect, it is still limping along in carrying out this duty. In the far north towards James Bay, the train is the only mode of transport and movement of supplies to communities that have no road access. Passengers make do on cars that are over 60 years old.
South of Cochrane, the train ferries people south for work, medical appointments and family visits. In the summer, you'll always find Europeans and Americans using the train to explore the north. The government will tell you that cutting these services is about making tough choices and finding better ways to provide public services. They claim that the government has provided a $439 million "subsidy." It's dubious math.
The "subsidy" in this case includes all the planned infrastructure investment made over the last decade on improving the 1,000 kms of line. The government doesn't bother to mention that during the same period the ONTC generated one billion in revenues and spin-off economic impacts of $2.5 billion. [LINK]
The investment in rail infrastructure should be comparable to investments in highways or the $2.5 billion expenditures on Metrolinx between 09-11. The government is quick to boast of these other "investments." Why, then, is any money spent improving the rail line to Moosonee derided as a "subsidy"?
What the numbers show is that, in Ontario, there really are two provinces, two standards for services and two very distinct approaches for public transit.
Let's compare bus service. Unlike Go or TTC, the Ontario Northland Bus service doesn't receive a dime in subsidies. Despite being heavily utilized, the bus line hasn't received nearly the reinvestment that the subsidized services in the south rely on.
Now let's compare train service. The Northlander is on the chopping block because the province is tired of kicking in about $11 million in annual subsidies. This is roughly the same amount the McGuinty government has promised Go commuters in refunded tickets if they are inconvenienced by more than a 15-minute delay.
So why are one group of public transit riders so much more valued than another?
Could the Ontario Northland be run more efficiently? Certainly. Could new ideas be brought to look at the best options for public transit? Definitely. But this is not what's on the table.
The government should take a deep breath and look at the options before initiating a fire sale of assets. When you listen to their logic it's clear they haven't thought through the implications. For example they have made vague assurances that if the train is killed and the bus line sold off, the government will guarantee service through a potential subsidy to the private sector. And yet, isn't this fear of subsidies the reason they are ditching the train and bus service in the first place?
The Northlander train is set to be killed on September 28th -- just a week before the university students head to Union Station to come home for the Thanksgiving break. When viewed from Queens Park, this might not seem like a big deal. But then neither, apparently, is cutting off an entire section of the province.
When viewed from the north, the timing speaks volumes. And this is why people are fighting back. Public transit is as much a right for families in the north as it is for commuters in the south.