Design for Democracy: Ontario Northlander, treasured transit

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"We are like the Third World in trains; I am surprised we are not shovelling coal back there."

- Ontario Northlander employee

Since I was born, I have spent every summer at the gateway of northern Ontario in Gravenhurst. In Lake Muskoka, I learned to swim and navigate the shoals of my childhood. My grandfather bought a cottage on this sheltered bay three generations ago for his grandchildren because it was shallow, and in the mid-'60s there were once a dozen of my cousins under the age of 10, seated at a picnic table, breathlessly waiting for lunch.

Today, Gravenhurst, like so many other historic small Ontario towns, is an example of highly commercialized planning as the main street boutiques, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores have been bankrupted by homogeneous big box stores and fast food joints. The vast expanse of these shopping malls' parking lots have replaced the cooling carbon sink of the Boreal forests and picturesque northern Ontario granite gateways with islands of radiating heat. The best defence for these small towns is to maintain their difference from the cities cottagers are fleeing; as they begin to look like suburbs, their rustic appeal is lost. You can stand in the centre of the vast expanse of these parking lots and be anywhere in suburban North America but for the dense forest and granite outcrops lining their edges.

Over the past four summers, I have held a 10-day arts and crafts camp for my two nieces and nephew. The fraternal twins are 8, and the elder niece is 10. The seemingly bountiful plastic toys of discount stores were not part of my childhood, so I teach my cousins how to make old-style arts and crafts projects -- wooden boats, crowns, mobiles out of sticks, and paper airplanes. Paints are to be closed tightly and brushes are to be cleaned, so they understand that their art supplies are not to be easily replaced, even though they can be through the new, nearby stores.

Across our bay, an adolescent boy chips golf balls off a tee into the shallow freshwater for golf practice, adding to the other balls drifting in from nearby golf courses. The non-biodegradable balls lie at the bottom of the soft clay lakebed, lying in wait to twist a swimmer's ankle. I have taught my young cousins how to play "Bay Rangers," and to clean up these balls by scooping them up for points. Over the past four years, we have cleaned over 140 golf balls from the lakebed in this closed ecological system of stewardship and abuse; once, his voice travelling over the water, I overheard the teenager mock my nephew as he held up a ball, triumphantly, to claim another 5 points. It is this difference in attitude between types of cottagers -- those who believe that freshwater lakes are for swimming, sailboats and kayaks, and those who drive jet skis and jet-propelled cigarette boats -- that reminds me of the growing division I see between those who believe in the necessity of ecological stewardship, as opposed to those who think only of their right to vacation.

I often ask myself -- if I had not had the privilege to study the flora and fauna of this once rural area, would I be such an active guardian of the environment for these children's future and my own? We often speak of the First Nations belief in thinking seven generations ahead to determine environmental damage; I have seen environmental changes to this fragile ecosystem even within the past four years. I have witnessed more phosphates floating on the water and the invasion of the Eurasian Watermilfoil, an aquatic nuisance species, due to the nitrogen run-off from golf course fertilizer, despite other evidence that water quality is becoming better from improved septic system monitoring. Clams are reappearing, but there are also visible algae blooms lining the lakebed's bottom, robbing oxygen from the fish, hastened by the unprecedented heat waves of our Ontario summers.

I do not own a car, so I take the Ontario Northlander train service to my cottage. On March 23, 2012, the Liberal government began "the process to cancel the Northlander service -- to be replaced by existing or enhanced bus service." This divestiture is to be completed within seven months. Ted Hargreaves, the ONTC chair, has stated in his letter of intent that this is a decision made upon "the inability to put the ONTC onto a sustainable path since 2003."

Rail employees feel betrayed by management and the provincial government, who have not attempted to implement alternate solutions to save their jobs; this is an exceptionally misguided divestiture of the Ontario Northlander by Premier McGuinty, although in 2002 he promised "not to approve or allow its privatization." The term 'sustainable' is misused in the cancellation letter by the Chair; this train system could be improved and integrated into the greater highway system to connect northern Ontario with Toronto, and relieve summertime congestion. It serves communities from Toronto to Cochrane in all weather conditions for those northeastern communities that have no other access to the south by bus. As the highways to cottage country are congested with bumper-to-bumper traffic each holiday weekend, the Northlander is beginning to be filled with savvy cottagers, having learned by word of mouth of its scenic delights. Buses cannot travel in the winter where trains can and an extended bus service will add to the already overburdened highway system.

 Not for sale

I took four trips on the Ontario Northlander to interview train employees and record their input. They suggested easy remedies to fill its seats -- a baggage car for daytrippers to stow their bicycles and for people to bring their pets, a morning and night train to enable commuters to work in Toronto, and installing glass ceilings, like the Polar Bear Express, so that passengers can view the moose, deer and wild turkeys along its route. First of all, they suggested a rebranding and extensive marketing campaign to attract tourists to fill its seats.

These solutions are easy wins they feel the management has not attempted before cancelling their service, and they emphasized that medical services alone should ensure its survival. Buses are inaccessible to seniors and cannot carry seeing-eye dogs, or those with medical conditions on stretchers or wheelchairs. A significant proportion of their ridership uses the train to go to medical appointments, as patients cannot fly after surgery due to blood clotting. The cost of each of these medical trips will be $700 per passenger, borne by the taxpayer, if this train service ends. One passenger wrote on their petition that he has taken the train for 17 years to go to see his doctor.

It is one of my secret delights, this ONTC trip to and from my cottage, and I share my defence of its continuation so that its clientele will grow. Its passenger service could be marketed properly for daytrippers, campers, bicyclists and cottagers, its infrastructure upgraded, and its connectivity integrated into a more European vision for the broader Ontario rail system. If there is a morning and evening train, commuters could work and train in Toronto, bringing back much-needed skills to the south. If the cost of its service fell under the Ministry of Transport rather than the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, taxpayers could choose to allocate funds for its service. Billions of our taxes are put into highways but not railways -- why are we not allowed to choose our mode of transport according to our need to live without a car? Despite repeated requests, Premier McGuinty has not yet met with the Northern Communities Working Group to discuss a revised deal for the railway.

There is no long-term or sustainable political transit vision for the protection of Ontario small towns, to preserve their main streets and charm. The Ontario Northlander could provide economic revitalization and service for daytrippers to visit their historical sites and beaches. These trains could add entire coaches, subsidized by the many Canadian camp programs for kids, for inner-city kids to have the same experiences I had as a child. Imagine a specially rented train coach filled to the rafters with children going for a swimming day trip to Gull Lake Beach, accessible by simply walking five minutes across the road from the Gravenhurst train station. Now imagine that opportunity for these children, medical appointments not met, and the jobs of 950 rail employees lost, because the Ontario Northlander no longer runs.

Thank you very much to the Ontario Northland employees who took the time to speak with me. For more information on a new deal for the Ontario Northland, link to

Elizabeth Littlejohn teaches sustainable design, social innovation and new media. The column "Design for Democracy" focuses on sustainable design solutions for a greener future.

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