The Northlander: another train reaches the end of the line -

The Northlander: another train reaches the end of the line

When the last train rolls out of a Canadian town it leaves an echo that never fades


(AP Photo)

If a train stops running through the hinterland, does anybody hear?

The Ontario government has just announced the end of the line for the Northlander. The Ontario Northland train that runs between Toronto and Cochrane, Ontario, will cease service at the end of September.

What’s the word for that? Disappointing doesn’t cut it. Short-sighted is accurate, but insufficient. Regrettable is an understatement, too.

You’d think as a nation once united by the railway, we would have coined a term to cover the loss, the heartache, the sense of isolation, betrayal and rejection that comes from losing a railway line.

The only expression that comes close is “they’ve killed another train.”

Time and time again, we’ve seen passenger service reduced to little more than a quaint memory in many parts of the country.

Try taking a train into Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, where trains ran for over a hundred years. Historic apple barns  and railways stations still line the route, now devoid of rails.

Old timers will rave about seeing the Lake Superior Shore from a passenger train running along the CP line through northern Ontario. But you can forget it: VIA travels only on the more northerly, less picturesque CN route.

Ever dreamed of taking a train through the Rocky Mountains? Many people do. You can catch the VIA train between Vancouver and Jasper—but you go through some of the best parts at night, again by the more northerly route. The southern route, with its historic spiral tunnels on the old CP rail line, means paying “land cruise” fares for the tourist train, the Rocky Mountaineer.

In Saskatoon, you can still catch the train, eastbound or westbound—but it doesn’t go through town every day. Regina gets off worse: the train’s long gone, and the beautiful Beaux-Arts station has been converted to a casino. In Edmonton and Ottawa, the train leaves from the far edge of town. You can catch a train from Sudbury to White River, but not from Toronto, or Winnipeg to Sudbury – unless you count the whistle stop in Capreol, half an hour’s drive from downtown Sudbury.

If you want to ride between Vancouver and Halifax you’ll have to endure long stopovers in Toronto, and again in Montreal, and you’ll miss Quebec City entirely. Not to mention Calgary, Thunder Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Fredericton, and dozens of other important Canadian cities with proud railway heritage currently unserved by our national passenger rail service.

And forget about getting a passenger train in Newfoundland, or Cape Breton, or Prince Edward Island. They’re trying to save the passenger train on Vancouver Island, but you won’t hear its whistle again for a while, if ever.

Did you know there are only 19 Via rail routes in the entire country? And none of them goes to Cochrane, Ontario, or any of the stops between there and Toronto. Which means the loss of the Northlander is going to hit that much harder.

Cochrane, Ontario, is Tim Horton’s home town. It may not have the romance of the Rocky Mountains or the Superior Shore. But it’s the gateway to Ontario’s northern coast: the Polar Bear Express leaves from Cochrane to Moosonee, portal to James Bay.

Consider the impact on the coastal communities of Moose Factory, Moosonee, Fort Albany, Kashechewan and Attawapiskat (in which few people have cars, and which are not served by permanent roads) of losing this rail link to the provincial capital.

Not to mention all the towns along the line: Washago, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Huntsville, South River, North Bay, Temagami, Kirkland Lake, New Liskeard, Englehart, Swastika, Matheson, Porquis Junction. There’s so much history in those towns—from Gravenhurst, birthplace of Norman Bethune, to Cobalt, the town that built Bay Street—that it hurts just to reel off the names.

Sure, they’re going to replace the train with buses. And there will be figures and studies and stats to show how it all makes economic sense.

But everyone who’s ever lived in a place that’s lost its rail service knows none of that will ever fill the loss.

When the last train rolls out of your town it leaves an echo that never fades.

Does anybody hear?



The Northlander: another train reaches the end of the line

  1. The ecomonic impact this will have is just the beginning of the End of Life in the North… it’s the link that binds us together as a region.. sevre that.. and each and every town in that link will then become vulnerable.. as the Gov’t will then have the easier task of singling out towm by town it’s remaining services until nothing is left… and the tree huggers will finally have their Great Park.. Northern Ontario

  2. Would you feel safe driving on this surface?
    (Highway 11 in the winter)

    An announcement has been made by the provincial government that the Northlander passenger rail service (provided by Ontario Northland which is a provincial crown corporation in Ontario) will cease operating on September 28, 2012. Ontario Northland provides passenger rail service in a corridor of roughly 1000 km (between Moosonee, Cochrane, North Bay, Muskoka & Toronto).

    While the province is investing in GO Transit:

    “Starting this fall, Ontario will offer refunds to GO Train riders whose trains are more than 15 minutes late, except when delays are caused by extreme weather, police investigations, accidents and medical emergencies.”

    “Investing in public transit is part of the McGuinty government’s plan to strengthen the economy. A strong economy protects the services that mean most to Ontario families — health care and education.”

    Attached is a picture of highway 11 North (near Temagami) in mid-winter. The province expects to provide “enhanced bus services” to replace the Northlander train. Would you feel safe riding on this surface?

    • No question the demise of the Northlander is awful. I would
      like to add – though – that you can’t compare the Northlander with GO Transit…
      its apples and oranges. GO Transit carries nearly 55 million passengers every
      year. It feeds in to the Toronto Transit Commission which services more than
      450 million passenger rides each year. (An average of 1.5 million people ride
      the TTC every workday) I sincerely hope there is a change of heart to protect
      the Northlander, as the loss of reliable rail service is a significant blow to
      the communities it services along its 1000km corridor!

  3. A spelling error: it is Capreol, Ontario…no i

  4. Thanks Nathan – that was a typo. It’s been corrected.

  5. Such nonsense – times change – other, more economic and adaptable forms of transportation will always be available – let things work themselves our – sentimentally motivated and in the case of railways massive subsidies just take money away from where it is far more needed

    • …like horrific, inhuman, uncomfortable transportation by bus?

  6. So sad. Been hoping this would be prevented all summer. Can’t even begin to express my disgust with all facets of the government these days.

  7. A romantic paen to rail travel that ignores the lack of a business case for said rail travel. If rail travel made sense economically compared to air or road, people would be using it. It does not. One may as well pine for the days of transatlantic passage on a sailing packet.

    • buses suck.

  8. Another thing in northern Ontario taken away and gone, oh well, we are north of Barrie so who cares eh?
    The minister says that the train will be replaced by buses….does that mean they are going to put roads into places with none? Let’s watch these brilliant minds build a road on muskeg. Must be the same guys who are going to drive the road that is there, in some places, as the picture below showed!
    Build up the GO train service and cut most of these communities only mode of transporting goods, and people. Can you imagine what groceries alone will cost there now without train service!?!?
    Tell you what let’s get the 1970’s movement of separating northern and southern Ontario going again. Then people in the south will have to pay more for the natural resources, energy, water etc. and we’ll have a real government that cares for ALL the people of the province.

  9. Northern Ontario has always been the poor relation in regards to Canada’s most populated province. And its probably about the numbers as i doubt there are more than 8 hundred thousand people living north of Gravenhurst. But these people need access to all that southern Ontario has to offer from medical specialists to theatre. And after the trains are gone we will be left battling the eighteen wheeler and waiting in our idling vehicles as our tax dollars are thrown at the futile talk of keeping asphalt intact. Thirteen years ago when VIA was axing the passenger service it was disclosed that ot had been forty years since a marketing rep. from Ontario Northland had made a cold call, or looked for new business or revenue. That attitude shows the mindset of the new age so now we can sit back and dream pf the day when we could take the train and experience a delightful form of travel as we dodge yet another tired trucker on the highway

  10. The taxpayer cannot subsidize every old and uneconomical transportation service. The money could be better used to reduce the outrageous taxes paid to travel by air in Canada – you pay extra for sales tax, air traffic control, security, airport improvements, and the local dogcatcher. Air travel is needed and produces jobs, uneconomic rail lines do ?

    Offer the line to private industry and see if they can turn it into a Rocky Mountaineer east.

    • yeah yeah… but the Liberal government, that killed the Northlander, has no problem to make a small $585,000,000 mistake with power plants – which will be covered by taxpayers. sure they only can “subsidize” their old mistakes.

      railways is not “old and uneconomical transportation service”. just look at Europe. and what do we get in exchange – busses? the most horrific, inhuman and uncomfortable way of long distance transportation ever.