The last Northlander train from Toronto to North Bay and Cochrane trundled out of Union Station on Friday, leaving fans feeling they’ve been shunted to a siding.
Critics predict 1,000 employees face layoffs in remote, economically-strapped communities served by Ontario Northland, the provincial Crown-owned rail service.
As people wept and reminisced on the Northlander’s last run to Toronto, several regional mayors and MPPs vowed to maintain a full head of steam and continue lobbying the province to restore rail service and stop undermining far north residents, industries and tourism.
At Cochrane’s busy station — where Polar Bear Express trains to the northernmost Moosonee terminus still operate for locals and tourists — passengers joined Mayor Peter Politis on the last morning train after a protest rally. A similar afternoon rally was held in North Bay.
In a press release inviting final riders, Politis criticized the government for ignoring “all pleas for reasoning, all rationale on environmental impacts, and all exclamations by Northerners for respect of their way of life and their right to determine their futures for themselves.”
Ontario Northland’s website promises the Niska I ferry between Moosonee and Moose Factory Island will continue.
Some northerners rode converted one-level former GO Transit coaches south on business, to visit families and doctors in the centre of Ontario’s universe. Trains were also popular with GTA cottage-owners seeking to avoid traffic gridlock.
In Toronto, its buses leave two to three times a day from the downtown terminal.
Incorporated as the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway in 1902 and renamed in 1946, Ontario Northland influenced development of many towns during a mining and forestry boom.
The province first announced plans to dispose of the system 12 years ago, but a sales agreement with CN Rail fizzled in 2006.
This March, the government announced it would wind down its Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC), citing $100 million annual subsidizes plus stagnant ridership.
Infrastructure Ontario is now trying to sell ONTC’s business telecommunications system, Ontera.
“In a time of fiscal belt-tightening, we cannot afford an inefficient and expensive government-owned transportation and telecommunications system,” Northern Development Minister Rick Bartolucci said when making the Toronto-Cochrane-Moosenee derailing announcement Aug. 16 in Sudbury, his hometown.
Ontario Northland’s four used Trans Europe Express trains, bought in 1977, ran into the early 1990s after the sleek diesel locomotives were scrapped in 1984. Replacement coaches were converted single-deck GO Transit coaches, with 10 BC Rail coaches added in 2004 — including dome cars — for the Polar Bear Express.