It was a short-lived relief shared among the larger community between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst when Railmark proved incapable of obtaining financing as per the terms of agreement with Canadian National Railway thus resulting in the loss of passenger rail service between the junctions.
The entire debacle occurred when the federal government announced discontinuation of the Remote Passenger Rail Program (RPRP) subsidy in January 2014. On April 14th, 2014, Minister of Transportation, Lisa Raitt, provided a stay of execution for one year in order to allow stakeholders to, well- get their stuff together and figure something out.
Despite the dedicated efforts of a working group comprised of stakeholders as of yesterday passenger service between the Sault and Hearst has been discontinued –albeit hopefully not for good.
In speaking with Sault Ste. Marie MP, Bryan Hayes, this week he cited low ridership as the overriding factor resulting in the loss of the RPRP. In the feds opinion, losing nearly a third of its ridership between 2005 and 2013, the 2.2 million dollar subsidy was not a good use of the taxpayer’s money.
“A subsidy per passenger was very significant and these are taxpayer’s dollars,” said Hayes. “We want a railway that is being used and I think everybody does.”
Dr. Linda Savory-Gordon, co-chair of the Coalition of Algoma Passenger Trains and a member of the working group stated that it’s no surprise that passenger train service in Algoma isn’t a profit-maker and more so the government should continue to support the service as they would support passenger service anywhere else in Canada.
“Regular passenger rail service in all countries receive government funding because it’s a public service,” remarked Savory-Gordon.
However, Savory-Gordon agrees that not only the continuation but also the expansion of passenger rail service is significant to the economy of Northern Ontario. When CAPT isn’t saving trains its members are always looking at ways to increase passenger ridership between the Sault and Hearst.
“CAPT wants to increase ridership by having a lot more events by encouraging people to use the train more,” explained Savory-Gordon.
“And that’s what I’m looking forward to –growth,” said Hayes about the future of passenger train service. “It is important to our Northern Ontario economy.”
Indeed it is.
Tourism-related occupations account for 40% of the total labour force in Northern Ontario. Total receipts for Northern Ontario was $1.414 billion in 2011. Algoma accounted for 15% of that total at $204 million. Based on 2011 receipts tourism accounts for direct employment for 2870 residents and contributed $113.5 million in wages and salaries in Algoma. (Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, 2011)
So what has any of this to do with passenger train service?
Research has found that the outdoors are a significant tourist draw in Northern Ontario and emphasized in the fact that “fishing and hunting are Northern Ontario’s signature activities. Only one tenth of the regions’ tourists go to cultural, heritage and entertainment events and attractions versus one half who engage in outdoor activities (49%) while on overnight trips in Northern Ontario.” (Overview of Tourism Opportunities for Northern Ontario RT013)
A report prepared by BDO Canada Ltd. emphasizes how critical passenger train service is to the tourism industry in Northern Ontario. It was found that tourism passengers accounted for 24% of the train ridership. The passenger train is “crucial to the commercial success of hunting/fishing/wilderness lodges between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst; and provides the opportunity for participants in outdoor sports or recreation activities such as snowmobiling, ATVing and fishing to access areas in Northern Ontario that would be otherwise inaccessible.”
The same report also found that the “emergence in popularity of ‘eco-tourism’ activities such as hiking, canoeing, mountain biking, rock/ice climbing, snowshoeing etc. has created renewed purpose for passenger service”.
The World Conservation Union defines ecotourism as, “Environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples.”
Research has also indicated that a new breed of tourists are seeking to pair eco-tourism with culturally engaging experiences.
“Culture can be the main reason to travel -without which visitors would not travel to a particular destination. In this instance, culture becomes the destination motivator and we view this as cultural tourism. Cultural tourists tend to be motivated by ‘learning something new’, ‘hoping to enrich their lives through their travel experience’s and ‘education and enrichment’.” (Ontario Cultural and Heritage Tourism Product Report)
Though a formal announcement is pending, and despite the most recent passenger service ‘train wreck’, Savory-Gordon was pleased to share that CAPT and Missanabie Cree First Nation were pressing ahead with plans to launch a new tourism train adventure in the fall of 2015.
“It’s going to be called ‘Journey on the Iron Horse’, which is what people in Missanabie First Nation use to call the train,” shared Savory Gordon.
CN would run the passenger tourism train that will leave the Sault to Hearst and then catch a shuttle to Island View Lodge in Missanabie. Tourists will engage in First Nation activities, cuisine and learn about the history and culture of First Nations people through the teachings of Elders. After an overnight stay, tourists would be shuttled back to the Sault along the Lake Superior Coast via luxury bus.
“This is really targeted at people who are interested in culture based tourism and who are particularly interested in learning more about indigenous culture,” commented Savory-Gordon.
Given that Northern Ontario is in peak tourism season there is an even more heightened sense of urgency to get passenger train service back on track.
“We’re optimistic that we’ll be able to get it going again,” stated Savory-Gordon who relies on passenger train service to get to her camp. “I’m hoping we’ll be able to get up there by the time the summer is over. That’s my hope.”
In an email dated July 15th, 2015 from CN spokesperson, Mark Hallman, he provided, “CN is unaware of any other suitable operator that could step in on short notice and meet the City’s requirement with the level of proposed short-term subsidy offered by the federal government. CN remains available to help the Algoma Central Railway Working Group in its search for another potential operator and would be there to help re-start the service in due course.”