A few weeks ago Premier Doug Ford was in Timmins to announce a $75 million boost to bring back passenger train service to northeastern Ontario.
This was a followup to his 2018 campaign promise to bring passenger rail service back to the North. It was not the first time Northerners have heard similar promises.
And while we hope the Ontario Conservatives follow through on this vow, we are not holding our breath. After all, this is an election year and Northern Ontario is not known as a hotbed of Conservative voters, so whether this promise will be fulfilled is anyone’s guess.
It is also anyone’s guess whether that promise, once fulfilled, will not be reversed by a new government, which is perhaps the real concern here.
Northern Ontarians have seen this happen time and again when it comes to Ontario Northland.
We know transportation in the North is not a money-making venture. How could it be? The region’s scattering of small, rural communities strung out along sections of remote highways cannot possibly generate enough revenue to make bus and rail transportation even a break-even proposition.
Transportation in the North must be subsidized by the taxpayer because that is the only way to ensure transportation options exist. If it was left totally up to the free market, the cost of a single ticket would be beyond the reach of most ordinary people, and let’s face it, the rich do not need the bus or the train.
Without subsidized transportation, residents in places like Longlac or Fauquier or Swastika are left with few options: buy a car or use your thumb to get where you need to go.
It is patently unfair that Northern Ontario communities must practically beg the province — to bow and scrape — to ensure even the minimal availability of transportation in and out of the region.
The $75 million announced in Timmins earlier this month is in addition to an updated business case for passenger rail transportation between Timmins and Toronto. That business case amounts to three options for bringing back passenger rail service between Timmins and Toronto (and points in between) that range in price from $450 million to around $650 million.
Those are big price tags, yes. But are they really that hefty when you compare those costs to what Ontario spends subsidizing Go Transit in southern Ontario?
In 2018-2019, Go Transit received $478 million a year in provincial subsidies alone, and during the pandemic when ridership dropped, the government basically doubled that subsidy to Metrolinx (the provincial agency that oversees Go Transit) to $961 million.
And a year ago, the Ontario Conservatives announced an “historic” $16.8-billion expansion of Go Transit.
Now, we are not suggesting that residents of the south are undeserving of having access to public transit options. Go Transit moves millions of people a day; clearly, there is both a real-world and environmental need to move as many people as possible with as little impact on the environment as possible.
The point is the province has no issue throwing gobs of money to fund passenger transportation options for the millions upon millions of southern Ontario voters — are residents of Northern Ontario any less deserving because there are fewer of us? It is precisely because there are fewer of us that the service should be subsidized.
We argue the provincial government has a responsibility to ensure Northerners have as much access to reliable, affordable and convenient (or as convenient as possible) passenger transportation as any other resident of this province.
Transportation should not be a carrot at election time, nor should dangling the possibility out there be a kind of stick to secure votes.
And yet that right to access is routinely considered a secondary concern. When Sudbury’s own Rick Bartolucci was the minister of Northern Development back in 2012, he announced his government was cancelling the train service because the money was needed to help fill Ontario’s $15-billion deficit that year.
In essence, the government Bartolucci was part of decided passenger transportation in the North was not worth the cost. Put another way, the Ontario Liberals were saying Northern Ontario residents were not worth the cost.
The fact the Grits were in a minority government at the time and fighting to hang on likely had something to do with it, too. Passenger rail service in the North was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
So how much was passenger rail costing the province at that time? Just $103 million a year.
Enhanced bus service was promised in return. A decade later, enhanced bus service has not panned out and Ontario still has a budget deficit.
The fact of the matter is, every resident of every rural and remote community in Northern Ontario deserves access to affordable, reliable and convenient transportation. Ontario’s GDP is dependent upon the resources Northern Ontario produces and the people who live and work here to provide those resources live shorter, unhealthier lives for the privilege.
And while we appreciate the promise Ontario has made, the vague timeline to have passenger rail service restored sometime in the mid-2020s has us questioning the province’s commitment to the cause.
For all Northern Ontarians suffer and sacrifice to live and work in this beautiful region of the province, surely the government can afford to give us a lift. It is not too much to ask, is it?
Sudbury.com's editorial opinion is determined by an editorial board made up of senior staff.