Passenger trains of Northern Ontario

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Southbound Northlander train arriving at Gravenhurst, March 2012

In a few weeks, I will travel from Toronto to Thunder Bay by bus and by train, stopping at cities and towns like Sudbury, Chapleau, White River, Marathon, and Schreiber. I expect to write about the experience and the challenges of getting around Northern Ontario without a car. At one time, it was possible to take just one bus or train from Toronto or Ottawa to Thunder Bay. Now, the same trip can only be done in three separate segments.

Greyhound Canada, which once ran four daily bus trips between Toronto and Winnipeg, reduced service to just two daily trips in 2009, and then to just one trip in 2015. Greyhound pulled out completely from Western and Northern Canada in October 2018, cutting all its bus routes between Whitehorse, Vancouver, and Sudbury.

According to the joint Canadian National/Canadian Pacific railway schedule of 1976, there were daily passenger trains connecting Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto with North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Timmins, and Kapuskasing. There was also a daily train between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, and there were trains to Fort Frances, and several trains a week through the wilderness in Algoma District.

Most of those trains are now gone. The CP Sudbury-Sault Ste. Marie train lasted just one more year, before being eliminated in 1977. The 1990 cuts to VIA Rail resulted in the loss of the daily Canadian through Thunder Bay, Sudbury, and North Bay, and the end of direct rail service to Timmins and Kapuskasing. The Canadian, now operating on the less scenic and less-populated CN mainline, ran just three times a week, with only a shuttle service on the most remote section of the CP route between Sudbury and White River.

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VIA Rail RDC stopped at Cartier, Ontario on its way to White River

In 2012, the Liberal provincial government announced the elimination of the Northlander, a daily train operated by Ontario Northland between Toronto, North Bay, and Cochrane. This decision was made with the intention of “modernizing” Ontario Northland, the provincial Crown corporation that operates freight and passenger rail and coach buses in northeastern Ontario. In 2014, the federal Conservative government cancelled the subsidy to run thrice-weekly Algoma Central Railway’s passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. (A popular excursion train still operates to Agawa Canyon.)

Though I was too young to travel on my own when the devastating 1990 VIA Rail cuts were made, I was able ride the Northlander and the Algoma Central Railway passenger trains while they were still operating.

With a friend from Calgary, I rode the Northlander from to Toronto to Cochrane and back, in May 2012. We continued to Moosonee near the shores of James Bay coast on the Polar Bear Express, which continues to operate. I made a second trip on the Northlander from Cochrane to Toronto in September 2012.

Ontario Northland continues to operate a freight railway, scheduled coach buses, and the Polar Bear Express, a mixed train between Cochrane and Moosonee. There are no all-season roads to Moosonee, so the train remains a lifeline for the James Bay community. We also took that train in May 2012.

In February 2014, after learning that Canadian National (owner of Algoma Central) was planning on discontinuing the local ACR passenger service, a friend and I made the trip to Sault Ste. Marie to ride the train all the way to Hearst and back. It was an especially memorable ride because of the deep snow, as well as the opportunity to take photographs from the vestibules between the rail cars. We traveled with a group of snowmobilers from Wisconsin (their Ski-Doos were in a baggage car) as well as local residents heading to their cabins.

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