Could a new rail line help the Conservatives in northern Ontario?
It may end up being a strange interregnum in our province’s transportation history: From 1976 to 2012, the Ontario Northlander train operated between downtown Toronto and Cochrane, 600 kilometers north, in conjunction with the train. Polar Bear Express, the only form of transportation available all year round. link to Moosonee and James Bay. It was cut short after the Liberal government brought in a cost-cutting budget in 2012 – but something a lot like this might work again before too long, if a Queen’s Park announcement this week pays off.
Transport Minister Caroline Mulroney on Tuesday unveiled the Initial Business Case (IBB) for restoring the rail link between Toronto and northeastern Ontario, and the government clearly wants to make it sound like is not just performative paperwork.
“The province, Ontario Northland and Metrolinx are moving forward with additional planning for a 13-stop route that would provide service from Toronto to Timmins or Cochrane,” said Mulroney.
The passage “Timmins or Cochrane” in this sentence is an important detail that will need to be completed. But, from what’s in the IBC, that tells us at least a little bit about what the government thinks so far.
Our journalism depends on you.
You can count on TVO to cover the stories others don’t – to fill the gaps in the ever-changing media landscape. But we cannot do this without you.
In short, the business case indicates that (surprise, surprise) restoring rail service to the north is not going to pay for itself – the costs are too high and the passenger volume is too low. Since that was the reason the cancellation was in the first place, it’s no shock. But the Conservatives are not put off by the high sticker prices when it comes to transportation projects, so they continue to persevere. What’s remarkable about the numbers released in IBC and Tuesday’s announcement is where they choose to spend their money – and where they choose to cut their losses.
Metrolinx (who wrote the business case) looked at three possible destinations from Toronto: North Bay, Cochrane and Timmins. He also looked at various levels of service. The Cadillac option for the frequency of service – trains twice a day – is, unsurprisingly, the most expensive, with estimated costs of up to $ 700 million, and has the lowest “benefit-cost ratio” ( a numerical attempt to estimate whether the economic benefits of a project can be justified by the costs).
Instead, the government opts for the model that presents seasonally adjusted levels of service: it is likely to return the highest BCR. Whether the train will go to Cochrane – like the old Northlander train did – or Timmins remains to be decided.
(Technically, the IBC is also considering terminating the train line in North Bay to save money; the government’s announcement appears to rule this out. Mulroney’s office, contacted by TVO.org to clarify if the government was ruling out this. formally the end of the line at North Bay., said in an email that “further analysis is needed to determine where the service will end and what the finalized schedule would be, but we are confident that the proposed service route would provide the best value and the best options for connecting people across the North. ”)
The difference in cost projections between the two endpoints is small: going to Timmins would likely cost a little more (up to $ 236 million, compared to $ 233 million for Cochrane) but would have a higher RBC count. because Timmins is the largest city and would connect more people to the train – and (hopefully, perhaps) require a lower operating subsidy over the life of the service. But choosing to operate the train seasonally would also offset some of those costs.
Most of the numerical differences between the Timmins and Cochrane options are quite marginal, so it’s odd that the IBC barely mentions the most obvious difference: If a restored train service were to go to Cochrane, it would connect directly to the train that currently serves Moosonee. (the Polar Bear Express), while a new train to Timmins would mean anyone coming south of James Bay would have to disembark at Cochrane and take a bus to Timmins to re-board a train further south, adding complications substantial and possible disruption. to travel (counting on a bus connection is also counting on the northern highways to be clear in winter). Even at the best of times, this trip isn’t exactly a picnic.
What the Conservatives (or perhaps their successors) ultimately choose will have as much to do with politics as it does with accounting. On this front, they may have a harder time in Northern Ontario in 2022 than in 2018: the cutting of programs at Laurentian University sends shockwaves in the North, and one of the aftershocks of this – the government’s proposal to separate the Northern Ontario School of Medicine from Laurentian and Lakehead, creating it as a stand-alone university – has already led a Progressive Conservative candidate from Thunder Bay to resign her appointment. in protest.
It would definitely help PC candidates if they could take credit for bringing the Northlander back; Whether that would help enough to make a difference in a tough local election is another question.