.Advocates for passenger rail service in Northern Ontario will insure they submit their ideas on the province's Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Study.
A public open house and information session is scheduled for Wednesday at the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre.
Drop-ins will receive information on the strategy, purported to examine the transportation needs and opportunities for rail, road, air, marine and other modes over the next 25 years.
The draft report examines the existing transportation infrastructures which exist across Northern Ontario. It also looks at the socio-economic factors in the region and the objectives, challenges and opportunities related to transportation.
While the document recognizes that passenger rail services has declined over the past decade, it does not address the existing infrastructure as an opportunity to rebuild passenger rail service in Northern Ontario to better help connect the North with other parts of Ontario.
But ironically, rail is only given a cursory nod and one that is more geared towards freight rather than passenger service, said Linda Savory-Gordon, co-chair of the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains (CAPT).
CAPT submitted its written comments on the Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Strategy Report when visiting an open house in Toronto last summer.
It recommends the restoration of passenger rail service in Northern Ontario citing benefits like a reduction of carbon emissions, providing equal transportation access to Northerners, aid in the retention of population in Algoma communities and help with health care transportation costs.
Rail service also aids in the economic development and diversification of the Northern economy due to the downturns in resource-based economies, offers safe alternatives to highway closures with increasing occurrences of extreme weather events and provides transportation into remote areas not accessible by roads.
CAPT also recommends that the Ontario and Canada government work together to create a seamless, integrated passenger rail service, with bus and ferry feeder services.
“With both levels of government planning and working together we could return to having a very effective, safe, environment-friendly passenger rail system in Northern Ontario that is in line with passenger rail in southern Ontario and other developed countries within the next 10 years – much before 25 years,” the one-page report states.
Savory-Gordon said CAPT and it's counterpart, the North and Eastern Ontario Rail Network (NEORN) were quite vocal in the position that passenger rail service was not even considered in the 25-year plan.
“For a government claiming to be interested in reducing carbon emissions and considering the vast area that Northern Ontario covers, rail isn't even considered in the strategy and the infrastructure is already there, it just needs the support of government,” she said.
NEORN advocates for the revival of passenger rail service throughout Northern Ontario and the creation and developed of an interconnected network of rail, motor coach and marine services, which they say are consistent with the Northern Ontario Growth Plan.
NEORN states in its paper that it's disappointing the strategy development paper contains “little to no mention of the need to reinstate and retain regional and remote passenger train services” and shuttle services.
It says railroads have abandoned lines in Northern Ontario since 1995, leaving the north isolated and with fewer reliable inter-city transportation options.
Statistics gathered by CAPT show that rail service is also especially important to increase Northern Ontario's tourism sector. Visitors will spend a maximum number of four hours travelling by road in the summer months and only half that in the winter.
“That's why we need rail service reinstated. It's an important part of diversification for Northern Ontario with a lot to offer and tourism is already a big employer and could grow if we make it easier for travellers to get here,” she said.
Rail travel is also becoming more important to Northern Ontario residents of all ages. The Seniors Health Advisory Committee and the Ontario Health Coalition have both indicated support for passenger rail service, especially one that could make transportation for health care needs more reliable, safe and comfortable for patients.
Students are also increasing their levels of support and consider it an affordable, quick and safe method of travel to and from home communities and places of learning.
“All of our communities are very isolated for students in Northern Ontario,” Savory-Gordon said. She said one university student in Sault Ste. Marie must travel 30 hours by bus to get to his home community of Hearst. A lack of passenger train service or airport facilities in Hearst makes travel to and from Sault Ste. Marie difficult.
Ian McMillan, director of Tourism Sault Ste. Marie agreed rail transportation is important to th tourism industry in Northern Ontario.
“We have seen enhanced interest for rail service. We are coming off two really good seasons with the Agawa Passenger Train and we want to ensure that it has the opportunity to continue to grow,” he said, adding that the restoration of passenger service in the north is also important.
McMillan said non-traditional transportation routes, like adding cycling lanes along the highway in the North Shore is another area that needs to be examined in the study.
The MTO is mandated to have the strategy completed by next year, just prior to the 2018 provincial election. Implementation plans are not expected to begin until after that election.