Passenger train service could return to Ontario’s cottage country

Passenger Train Photo by Shutterstock/Mary Anne Love

Passenger trains haven’t rolled through the Muskoka-Parry Sound area since September 2012. The Ontario government at the time, headed by Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty, cancelled the rail service, claiming it was financially unprofitable. But Lucille Frith, co-chair of the North Eastern Ontario Rail Network (NEORN) and the Committee Promoting Muskoka Rail Travel (CPMRT), is fighting to get it back.

“It’s not ‘if’ the trains come back,” she says, “it’s ‘when’ they come back.”

CPMRT started in 2007, long before the passenger trains to Ontario’s cottage country were cancelled. The group worked with Ontario Northland, the company that operated the passenger trains to the Muskoka-Parry Sound area, to improve rail service. Under CPMRT’s guidance, Ontario Northland bridged their relationship with Canadian National Railway (CN), improving freight and passenger train scheduling on shared tracks. “We got up to 85 per cent on time,” Frith says.

The rail service to Muskoka-Parry Sound, however, received little attention, despite significant improvements, like Huntsville’s renovated train station in 2007. “[Ontario Northland’s] mandate was from North Bay to Moosonee, and it had nothing to do with marketing in Muskoka,” Frith says. She recalls multiple occasions when people approached her and said they didn’t know there was a passenger train running through the area.

Even with no marketing or advertising, passengers travelling to Muskoka made up 51 per cent of Ontario Northland’s customer base at the time the service was cancelled. Ontario Northland continues to operate a passenger train between Cochrane and Moosonee, but no passenger trains operate in the Muskoka-Parry Sound area. The only way to get there is by car or bus.

In 2018, during his campaign, Ontario Premier Doug Ford promised to reinstate train service to northeastern Ontario, a promise Frith won’t let him forget. In June of this year CPMRT conducted a survey, asking people all over Ontario whether they would use a train service to the Muskoka-Parry Sound area. “We had just under 5,000 responses in 28 days,” she says. “Plus, about half of those gave us their email addresses to keep in touch because they wanted to follow what was happening.”

The results were overwhelmingly positive. So much so that Frith shared them with Ontario Northland and a consulting engineering firm working for Metrolinx. The two companies are pouring over the results and are expected to release a report by December on the feasibility of reintroducing train service to the area.

“We’ve known for a year now that Ontario Northland has been working with Metrolinx on how to make this program work,” Frith says. “There are huge advantages to working with Metrolinx.” By partnering with the company that operates the Toronto Transit Services and GO Transit, passengers travelling from northeastern Ontario could connect with trains all over Toronto rather than being dumped at Union Station.

“If we connect with GO, we then have access to all of the public transportation connections in southern Ontario. We can take GO to Kitchener. We can take GO to the airport. We can take the UP Express. We can get off the train and get on the subway at Vaughn,” Frith says. “The options are so much better than they were in 2012 when they cancelled the service because there were no connections.”

Currently, the GO Train travels as far north as Richmond Hill, but Frith says Metrolinx has expanded its jurisdiction to Washago, 20 kilometres north of Orillia. If Metrolinx and Ontario Northland were able to connect GO Transit with a passenger rail service, Frith says it could relieve traffic on Highway 400, reduce carbon emissions from cars, and assist people with accessibility needs who aren’t able to ride chartered buses—not to mention make the trip from Toronto to cottage country much smoother.

No steps, however, will be taken until Metrolinx and Ontario Northland release their report, expected before the end of the year. At that point, the decision to fund the train service will be placed in the hands of Ontario’s politicians.

But Frith isn’t letting the red tape get her down. She remains optimistic that passenger train service will return to northeastern Ontario. “I’m excited about this because the light is at the end of the tunnel,” she says, “and we see it getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

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