Group petitions for new ride
http://www.thesudburystar.com/ArticleDi ... ?e=3420886
Northern Ontario's passenger rail service is like Swiss cheese, says Linda Savory-Gordon, a professor at Algoma University. It's full of holes, with various lines across the region, but few connections between them. Savory-Gordon is a member of a coalition that's trying to change that. The Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains posted a petition online about a month ago calling for the reinstatement of passenger rail between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury -- a service that hasn't been in place for more than 25 years. The petition has 54 signatures so far, only about 1% of its 5,000-signature goal. However, Savory-Gordon says the group plans to give presentations in cities around the region to bring attention to an issue she has taken to heart. "Rail is so enduring. It's so environmentally good, it's so efficient and low in cost for maintenance," she said.
Once it gathers more signatures, the group plans to send its petition to Premier Dalton McGuinty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. In the meantime, coalition members have developed an argument in support of rail centred on its benefits to areas such as tourism. Poor rail service means fewer tourists and less spending in the region, according to Albert Errington. "It's the long drives to connect to Northern Ontario that are really undermining our economy," he said. Errington owns a tourist lodge north of Wawa that's only accessible by train or float plane. He is also the co-chair of the passenger train coalition. He said gaps between rail lines damage his business. Patrons must drive to Sault Ste. Marie or Wawa to catch the train that reaches the lodge, making for a long trip from places like southern Ontario.
But those seeking better rail service might have an even longer road before them. A spokesperson at the Crown corporation Via Rail, Malcolm Andrews, said a Sault Ste. Marie to Sudbury service is unlikely -- at least one offered by that company. "To look at operating something that's a brand new train service; it's something that happens pretty rarely," he said. The coalition members say the problem is that passenger rail isn't as profitable as freight shipping. Unless ticket prices are hiked up or the service is heavily used, passenger rail involves spending without much potential for earning. Errington said private rail companies that are focused on profits don't have much to gain by investing in moving people, especially outside of highly populated urban centres.
The Huron Central Railway, a private company, owns the set of tracks between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury and uses them to ship freight. The president of the HCR, Mario Brault, said his company has no interest in reinstating passenger service. "Are we opposed to passenger service? No. Are we going to invest in this business? No," he said. "Anyone who would like to promote passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury would have to come up with a very solid business plan and ways to finance the service." He said it would take millions of dollars to rehabilitate the tracks so trains could rain at speeds fast enough for passenger rail. The provincial government has funded some rehabilitation on that line, but its trains only run at about 40 to 50 kilometres per hour -- not fast enough for passengers.
Rick Winston, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, said the government is proud of the support it already provides for passenger rail in Northern Ontario. However, he said the provincial government is reviewing transportation options in the area over the next two years. Winston couldn't say what would transpire from the review or whether the results could lead to more passenger rail service. For the other co-chair of the coalition, Maria Price, the issue is personal. The senior citizen likes to visit Toronto and Ottawa from her home in Sault Ste. Marie, but she finds travelling hard.
"I'm 82 now and I'm really not interested in that drive. I can't do it. I can't afford the airplane so I'm basically stuck here," she said. The coalition eventually hopes to get a rail line from Sault Ste. Marie all the way to Ottawa. That dream might stay one for a while. "I was just thinking that getting a passenger train is not a sprint, it's a marathon," Price said.