Despite two consecutive Canadian federal governments pulling support, and the non-participation of the Ontario provincial government, those working to reinstate the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) passenger train continue their fight. Stakeholders now offer two new ways for supporters of the train to add their voice. For Canadian citizens & residents, a parliamentary e-petition is available, and for Americans, a draft email has been created to send to Minister of Transport Marc Garneau (see info at bottom for both options).
ACR passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, Ontario, first began in 1914. Crossing the rugged and remote Canadian Shield, and providing the only form of reliable year-round transportation for a number of communities, Indigenous peoples, and businesses along its route, the 296 mile/476 km line has had several train operators during its 100+ year history.
ACR history also includes members of the iconic Group of Seven, who travelled on the train from 1918 to 1922. These painters would be profoundly influenced by the geography of “Algoma country” as they created a distinctly Canadian art movement.
In 2001, Canadian National (CN) Rail took over both passenger and freight service on the ACR. In doing so, it received a remote rail subsidy for passenger service for the full length of the line. In January 2014, the Conservative federal government announced that it was cutting the $2.2 million annual subsidy, claiming that the ACR line was not in fact “remote”. CN Rail, despite an income of $635 million in the last quarter (three months) of 2013, stated it could no longer run the Sault to Hearst passenger train without federal money. CN Rail would continue to operate the popular Agawa Canyon tour train (which it still does).
Community stakeholders were successful in pushing the Conservatives to reinstate the subsidy until 2015, with the understanding that a new third-party operator for the ACR passenger train would be found. The government pledged that $5.3 million in support would be available for three years for that operator.
A new third-party operator did take over ACR passenger service in Spring 2015 but could not demonstrate the required financial solvency to receive the federal subsidy. Without that subsidy, ACR passenger rail stopped in July 2015 and has yet to return.
Community stakeholders then re-grouped, with a local First Nation (Missanabie Cree) leading efforts to create a non-profit rail service. Keewatin Rail (a First Nation-run railroad in Manitoba) has agreed to provide mentorship to the start-up. The assumption was that the now-Liberal federal government would honor the previous commitment from the Ministry of Transport to provide the promised $5.3 million over three years.
However, on July 20th, 2016, the Trudeau government claimed that the ACR did not qualify for that remote rail subsidy and that they would not honor the previous pledge. Minister Garneau stated that the line was not remote and that “most” communities along the ACR line have access to highways. However, this claim of reliable access has been disputed by the stakeholders. Some 400 km of the 476 km route has no road access and a number of the existing road systems are in fact private logging roads that can be both dangerous and arbitrarily shut down by their owners. Individuals along the line subsequently provided images to the media of the roads that the Trudeau government said were safe to use year-round. Here is one:
The ACR stakeholders are continuing to pressure the federal government to review and reverse its July decision. To that end, an e-petition to the Parliament of Canada is available to Canadian citizens & residents and can be found at ACR Petition. The petition can be signed until the morning of December 14th, 2016. For American visitors to Algoma country and supporters of the ACR train, the text of an email that can be sent to Minister Garneau can be accessed at US Friends of ACR. The website for the Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains – Captrains – provides further background and media links.
(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)