While it was announced that the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) will be divested and privatized, ONTC and the provincial government assure those living along the James Bay coast that the Polar Bear Express will continue its service.
The Polar Bear Express, one of ONTC’s two rail services, is the train that runs between Moosonee and Cochrane. Since the railway was completed in 1932, it has been a lifeline for the James Bay coastal communities as it offers a relatively inexpensive option for travel and cargo shipments.
On March 23, the Ontario government announced it was winding down the ONTC, which could include the selling of commercially viable parts of the operation such as its rail freight and refurbishment services. But some services, such as the Northlander – the train that runs between Cochrane and Toronto – will be cancelled.
However, a spokesperson for the ONTC said that the Polar Bear Express is expected to continue.
“Ridership on that train to Moosonee is considerably higher (compared to) our Northlander service,” said Rebecca McGlynn, manager of marketing for ONTC.
Last year, 60,000 passengers travelled on the Polar Bear Express. In the same period, 35,000 people rode the Northlander. McGlynn added that Ontario Northland has no plans to revise its current schedule, which runs both ways every weekday. Prior to 2003, the train ran on an alternate day schedule, going north one day and south the next.
In an email to Wawatay News, Ministry of Northern Development and Mines press secretary Adrian Kupesic said that the Ontario government “will ensure that services remain in communities where no other alternatives exist, including the Polar Bear Express between Moosonee and Cochrane.”
The announcement of the divestment of ONTC came as the Ontario government plans to erase its deficit by 2017-2018. Since 2003, the government has invested more than $439 million in the ONTC in an effort to make it economically viable. However, it said that the demand for ONTC services has “stagnated.”
“Due to the challenges posed by the current fiscal climate, we have been tasked with making difficult decisions in an effort to tackle the deficit while maintaining important services that all northerners rely upon, like health care and education,” Kupesic said.
The intended cancellation of the Northlander has drawn backlash from Ontario Northland Railway union workers as they brace for job losses.
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