Recent developments have again put the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario, at risk. The third-party operator initially selected to run the passenger service, the Michigan-based Railmark Canada, has not demonstrated, to the satisfaction of funding administrators and the track owner, the financial ability to run the line and thus receive federal funding support. Railmark officially took over passenger operations on May 1st of this year but that service will now cease on July 15th. Canadian National (CN), the owner of the tracks, made the announcement on July 9th. CN will continue operation of the separate daily Agawa Canyon Tour Train for the remainder of the season (until October 12th).
The current situation emerged from a 2014 announcement by the federal Conservative government that it would no longer provide $2.2 million in annual remote funding for the passenger service after March 31st, 2015. CN, the freight railway corporation which had operated the service up to that point, stated that it could not do so without federal support and would discontinue the passenger line. (NOTE: CN’s last-quarter 3-month profit in 2014 was $877 million CDN).
A working group, the ACR Passenger Service Stakeholders, made up of passenger rail advocates, community leaders, and those served by the line such as First Nations, and owners of resorts and businesses, led an effort to find a new third-party to take over the ACR line and its tour trains. CN selected Railmark as the winning bid. CN has publicly stated it also seeks a third-party operator to take over the Agawa tour train.
The “Soo” to Hearst line is 470 kilometres (292 miles) long and has been in operation since 1914. With the severe winter weather that can occur in northern Ontario, the rail line remains the most reliable form year-round travel for the remote communities, First Nations peoples, tourist operations, trappers, and cottagers along its route. The upcoming cessation of the ACR train puts that travel at risk and could effectively strand many presently at various stops.
Community efforts in the region resulted in the federal government announcing this year that it will provide $5.3 million in support over a period of three years (via the City of Sault Ste. Marie) for the railway to continue passenger operations on the ACR line. Within that announcement was the provision that a review will be conducted at the end of three years to determine if further support is needed.
Local stakeholders have now re-started the process to find a new operator for the Algoma passenger train, as the federal funding still remains available. A study by the accounting firm BDO Canada found that the annual economic impact generated by the ACR service in 2013 ranged from $38.1 to over $48 million. The Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPTrains) is asking that ACR supporters email the CDN federal transport minister, Lisa Raitt (@ firstname.lastname@example.org), to continue federal support for the Algoma train.
To this observer, there are two options that appear immediately available. First, until a new third-party operator is chosen, CN could operate the passenger line to ensure that no one is stranded along the line and that communities and business are not negatively impacted. Second, there is a real opportunity for VIA Rail, as the national public rail carrier with a mandate to provide accessible transportation to Canadians, to expand its role in northern Ontario and assume the service. VIA’s expertise is specifically passenger rail and it has the necessary personnel and experience for such a line.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)