Northeastern Ontario got an early Christmas gift from the provincial government on December 15, 2022. On that day, the province announced the purchase of three new trainsets for the restoration of passenger rail service to North Bay, Timmins, and points in between.
Prior to 1990, there were two daily trains between Toronto and Northeastern Ontario: the daytime Northlander, which ran between Toronto, North Bay, and Timmins daily except Saturdays, and the daily overnight Northland, which continued north to Cochrane and Kapuskasing, with a bus connection to Timmins.
The Northland, which was operated with VIA equipment, was cut as part of a devastating slash to VIA’s budget by the federal Progressive Conservative government. Other trains cut in 1990 included the daily train services from Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal to Sudbury, Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, and Vancouver. The remaining train service between Cochrane and Northern Quebec soon followed.
The only train service left in Northern Ontario were remote services still provided by VIA Rail (the local Sudbury-White River RDC train and the transcontinental Canadian, reduced to three days a week and rerouted on the more remote CN mainline), Algoma Central between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, the Polar Bear Express/Little Bear service to Moosonee, and the 6 days/week Northlander service between Toronto and Cochrane, which was re-routed from Timmins (though a bus connection at Matheson was maintained).
With the passenger service gone, the tracks through the urban areas of Timmins were quickly removed. The old railway right-of-way in Schumacher, a mining town just east of Downtown Timmins, became the new route of Highway 101, bypassing the old main street, hastening Schumacher’s decline. The station in Timmins was repurposed as a bus terminal for Ontario Northland and Timmins Transit.
In 2012, the Northlander, which used refurbished former GO Transit single-deck railcars, was cut by the provincial Liberal government, citing declining ridership and high subsidies ($400 per passenger). The train also required an auxiliary power unit, as Ontario Northland used only freight locomotives.
The new trainsets will be the first time in generations that Ontario Northland won’t be using second-hand passenger cars. In the 1970s, Ontario Northland acquired used Trans-Europe Express (TEE) trainsets from Nederlandse Spoorwegen. Though the cars were modern by Canadian standards, the motive power proved unsatisfactory in winter weather and were replaced by older EMD FP7 engines. In 1992, the ageing TEE cars were replaced by the refurbished GO Transit cars.
Like the old TEE trainsets, the new Siemens trainsets will operate in a semi-permanent configuration, with a Siemens Charger locomotive at one end and a combined passenger/control car at the other end, similar to how the new VIA Rail trains will operate. The Siemens Charger locomotives are used by several passenger services in North America, including Amtrak, Brightline, and VIA, while the Siemens Venture cars are very similar to those being delivered to VIA.
The proposed paint scheme, depicted in a government release below, evokes the old TEE paint scheme, with the modern colours used by Ontario Northland.
The revived Northlander service will operate between Toronto and Timmins, with a rail or bus connection to Cochrane, the southern terminal of the Polar Bear Express train to Moosonee. There will be new train stops north of Toronto at Langstaff GO Station (where there are connections to York Region Transit and frequent GO buses on the Highway 407 corridor) and Gormley, a station site with far less connectivity.
The trouble, however, is the Timmins terminus. Though the new Siemens trainsets are double-ended and will not require a wye to change directions, most of the track in Timmins has been torn up. As explained earlier, the track into downtown has been partially built upon, and the current end of track is 13 kilometres to the east of central Timmins, on Highway 101 in the small community of Porcupine.
This is where the new station is projected to be built.
The Porcupine area has local transit service, a Timmins Transit bus that serves Schumacher, South Porcupine, and Porcupine every 30-60 minutes. The proposed station site is about the same driving distance from the city centre as Timmins Airport, which offers direct air service to Pearson and Toronto Island airports.
According to the business case, the estimated annual ridership for the restored rail service by 2041 is 39,220 to 60,110. Assuming a train in each direction, six days a week, this will mean only 63 to 96 passengers per train, the capacity of just two coach buses, at only a marginally faster speed than the existing Ontario Northland motor coach service. A significant benefit of rail over bus is the reliability in winter conditions, certainly important for Northern Ontario, bus without significant investment in the track infrastructure, it is hard to find much in the way of improvements to the intercity network as a whole. Restoration of the Northlander still does not support travel to Sudbury, the largest community in Northeastern Ontario with the most important medical centre in that part of the province.
At least the Northlander will get new, reliable equipment for once that will be easier to maintain and obtain parts for. As it is essentially the same equipment as VIA and Amtrak’s new fleets, should the Northlander fail to meet even the meagre ridership projections in the business case documents, the equipment will certainly find new use elsewhere.
I wish I could be more upbeat about the future of passenger rail in Northern Ontario, an area that deserves reliable, useful intercity transport. The purchase of new rolling equipment is a positive development, but without significant improvements to track speeds, a more convenient Timmins terminus, and a complete transport plan for the entire region that can help build train ridership and support communities elsewhere in Northern Ontario, the renewed Northlander will suffer the same fate as the last iteration.
Correction: the Cochrane-Senneterre train lasted a little bit longer past the 1990 VIA Rail cuts.