Supporting Algoma passenger train should be at top of government’s to-do list

Mid July will mark one year since the Algoma passenger trains stopped running.  The service ground to a halt after third party operator Railmark could not come up with adequate financing to support their bid to run the route between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst. Despite this setback, the Algoma Passenger Train Working Group has maintained their focus and come up with a proposal that could see service flourish.  The only hitch is that Transport Canada has not confirmed whether money set aside for the line in Budget 2015 is still available.

The current proposal would see the line run as a not for profit venture led by the Missinabie Cree First Nation with a Board of Directors representing the First Nations, municipalities and socio-economic stakeholders of the Algoma passenger train.  The Working Group believes the train can be run with less cost while creating more employment and even more tax revenue.  That last point is important since the tax revenue the train generated in the past already out-stripped the cost of any subsidy.  When looked at that way, the federal investment was already a net benefit to our national coffers and making certain the train gets back on the rails should be a no-brainer.

There are even more positive economic arguments to be made for the service.  Those can be gleaned from a 2015 study undertaken by BDO Canada that showed how the train creates direct and indirect economic activity in the range of 28 to 38 million dollars a year.  On top of that, the service supports 170-220 jobs, while generating those tax dollars that more than replaced the original yearly subsidy that when cut, created the whole problem in the first place.

The government also has to consider the cost of safety for people who must get into the remote areas that were serviced by passenger rail. Without the train, residents from rail line communities - most notably Oba - property owners, and individuals who make their living along the line have been forced to rely on private bush roads that are not maintained for public use or even policed.  Washouts, snow drifts and other obstacles can strand people at any time.  When these events occur, there is nothing that compels the road’s owners to maintain or repair them, unlike the roads that serve communities that do not rely on passenger rail.  Additionally there are some worst case scenarios for property owners have been left with no access to their land at all.

These are all compelling reasons to free up the money that had already been set aside and get passenger services rolling.  On top of that, there is a lot of hope that the First Nation led venture will find ways to make the service run better and be expanded.  They have secured expert mentors with experience running passenger lines and have a vision that does not rely on a constant flow of profit as the only yardstick to measure success.

The sticking point has become the federal government who won’t say if they will honour the commitment of money for the Algoma passenger train from budget 2015.  At first the silence could be chalked up to a new government setting up shop and getting the lay of the land.  Now, with the election fading in the rear-view mirror it is time for the Minister and his department to do the right thing and help bring passenger rail back to Algoma.