Will Ontario’s Northlander Service Return?

Written by Marybeth Luczak, Executive Editor

The province of Ontario, Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (Ontario Northland) and Metrolinx are advancing plans to reinstate Northlander passenger rail service, with the release of an Initial Business Case.

Northlander service—which ran between Cochrane, North Bay and Toronto, in conjunction with bus service—was discontinued in 2012. Ontario Northland currently operates four buses daily between Toronto and North Bay, and one or two buses daily from North Bay to Timmins and Cochrane.

As part of the 2021 Ontario budget, the government committed C$5 million to support planning and design work for a new 13-stop route. That route, option 6 in the Initial Business Case (download below), would serve Toronto (Union Station), Langstaff, Gormley, Washago, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville, North Bay, Temagami, Temiskaming Shores, Englehart, Matheson, and Timmins or Cochrane. Buses would connect communities between rail stops.

Rail service would be offered “based on seasonal travel demands and would range from four to seven days a week,” according to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. “The target completion date for the next stage of planning and design work is 2022, which could allow a potential in-service date in the mid 2020s.”

The 460-mile Northeastern Rail Corridor between Toronto and Timmins or Cochrane comprises five main railway subdivisions owned by Metrolinx, Ontario Northland and CN. It is used primarily for freight, with passenger rail services provided by GO Transit, which operates Richmond Hill commuter rail, and VIA Rail Canada, which operates between Toronto and Washago as part of its trans-Canada rail service.

“We have listened to people, businesses and Indigenous communities across Northern Ontario who have long awaited the return of train service on the northeast corridor,” Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney said. “This important milestone in the planning process brings us another step closer to building a better transportation network in the North.”

“We made a commitment to return passenger rail to the North and we are one step closer to fulfilling that commitment,” said Vic Fedeli, Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade and MPP for Nipissing. “The planning we’re doing today will help to determine the details, and we are confident that the proposed service route would provide the best value and options to support economic opportunities, the tourism industry, and access to healthcare, education and other critical services.”

“An enhanced transportation network that integrates rail and bus services provides an exciting opportunity for the region to grow and improve,” said Ontario Northland President and CEO Corina Moore, who Railway Age recognized in November 2017 as part of its inaugural Women in Rail annual feature and the first woman to be on the publication’s cover since its inception in 1856. (Stephen Hayne, Manager, Marketing and Pricing at Ontario Northland, was one of Railway Age’s 2021 ‘20 Under 40’ honorees.) “We are proud to be moving this plan forward.”

Business case analyses are required by the government for all projects that exceed $50 million in capital costs. As projects develop in scope and construction, business cases are completed to define the rationale and requirements for delivery. The Initial Business Case is the first of four cases to be completed, and it selects a preferred option for further design and analysis.

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