Locals throw bittersweet ‘party’ for Northlander
MUSKOKA – Muskokan residents turned the cancellation of the Northlander train into a remembrance party.
Area residents held a special ride to commemorate the importance of the Northlander to Muskoka and other communities.
More than 80 people from the region piled onto the Ontario Northland train at midday on Monday, Sept. 17, and embarked on a nostalgic roundtrip journey with stops in Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Huntsville to South River in an effort to both celebrate a service that helped build the country and to bid it goodbye.
The province will cancel the publicly funded service between Toronto and Cochrane as of Sept. 28.
Lucille Frith, Huntsville Train Station Society president and co-chair of the Committee Promoting Muskoka Rail Travel, said the main reason for organizing the trip was nostalgia.
“People do care about passenger rail service,” said Frith.
She pointed out that inadequate service and inconvenient schedules played a role in low Northlander ridership in Muskoka. But Ontario Northland’s hands were tied in many respects because the province made the final decisions, she said.
While politics loomed large in conversations throughout the train, memories also seeped through.
Russ Nicholls and his wife, Anita, boarded the train in Huntsville. Nicholls started as a telegrapher at New York Central in 1949 then eventually moved to Muskoka and helped with the rehabilitation of the historic Portage Flyer steam train.
“This is an opportunity to show off our railway operation and how important it is to Muskoka. The way it stands right now, the Ontario government is leaving the northerners standing out in the cold and I think it’s a sin. We’re not being looked after,” said Nicholls.
Nicholls met fellow telegraphers Wade Brown and Keith Austin in South River where they set up their equipment and gave a telegraphy demonstration. The train stations and rail lines offer an opportunity to learn about, and retain knowledge of, the country’s communication history through telegraphy, they said, and without these services such knowledge will fade from memory.
Others shared memories, too.
Bruce Wilson said he often travelled from Huntsville to Toronto on a weekend pass when he was in the military more than 60 years ago.
“I had one experience when I was 18 in the army. One car was derailed in Barrie, so I had to ride from Barrie to Huntsville with an 18-year-old girl sitting on my knee. It was a struggle, but I survived,” he said with a chuckle. “At that time trains were always full. There was gas rationing at that time, we didn’t have 400-series highways, and the train was the most reliable way of doing it.”
He said he enjoyed travelling by train, but conceded there was no other way for him to get to Toronto back then.
The discontinuation of the Northlander, he said, was terrible.
“There is too much traffic on the highway as it is, so why not keep the train running?” he asked.
Huntsville Coun. John Davis brought his granddaughters on the train trip.
“The train was what built Canada and it’s sad it is coming to an end,” said Davis of passenger rail through Muskoka. “It’s something we’ve allowed to slip by. We’ve spent literally billions of dollars when we should have been building trains so more people could travel up and down this province.”
He said he wanted his granddaughters to remember that trains played an important role in shaping the region and the north.
Huntsville resident Peggy Peterson said she took the train to the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto as a child and now takes it to attend medical appointments in the city.
“It was an easy way to travel,” said Peterson.
Kids can watch movies on the train, parents can have a nap and students can access the Internet for homework, she said.
Without the train, she noted, not only will those conveniences not be available but scheduling and duration of travel will pose issues as well.
Huntsville resident Jeff Austin said he enjoyed the event but was disappointed it heralded the end of Northlander service.
“All the links from the early years, our ancestors, they’re all going by the wayside and it’s unfortunate,” said Austin. “Sometimes I think the powers that be are forgetting where their heritage lies.”
Several rail travellers from outside the region showed their support for the Muskoka-led train ride by introducing themselves or coming to the train stations.
A gentleman for New Liskeard, Ont., for example, walked through the train thanking riders for doing something to show their support of passenger rail in Northern Ontario.
“We didn’t think you cared,” he said.
Lorne Fleece of North Bay made his way to the South River station bedecked in a vest plastered with Ontario Northland patches and railway-related pins. He had spent 39 years with the railway.
“It’s the end of an era, but change has to come about,” said Fleece.
He commented the more than 100 people filling the South River station were likely the largest crowd it had seen in a long time and said he came for the atmosphere.
The South River train station became a party during the trip with live music, lunch and historic walking tours around the village.
Community members came to meet the train and the passengers, making for a festive atmosphere.
Back on the train for the return trip the mood was more subdued.
Conductor Brian Irwin, an Ontario Northland employee for the past 29 years, said the shock among northern Ontarians around losing the train service is now turning into outrage and many are blaming the government.
“Especially north of North Bay. They feel like they are being left in the dark. They feel like second-class citizens,” said Irwin. “And the government hasn’t done anything to make it any better, that’s for sure.”
Despite a petition from Northern Ontario communities, neighbouring communities such as Muskoka and several grass-roots organizations calling for a revamped business plan for the Northlander, the province has pushed ahead with the divestment process.
The government has also stated the subsidy for the Northlander was about $100 million last year, despite the $24 million quoted annually in the past.
The divestment of Ontario Northland communication and transportation assets means more than 900 people will lose their jobs. And the government, he said, does not seem to be honouring the employee’s collective agreements.
But Irwin said it is not just employees who have concerns. He said the trains often see passengers on medical passes, elderly riders, people with disabilities and children.
“We have a lot of children going to SickKids for operations and a lot of them can’t fly after the operations,” he said. “We’ve had people who have travelled with us their whole lives, from childhood, and they don’t know how they’re going to get around.”
Dave Powley, co-chair of the Committee Promoting Muskoka Rail Travel and president of the Muskoka Rails Museum, maintains that the decision to cancel the Northlander was political, not economic.
He said the province had stated the Northlander subsidy was about $400 per passenger and the subsidy for rail in southern Ontario was about $5 a passenger.
However, if the two subsidies were merged, he said the southern Ontario subsidy would increase by only 25 cents.
“The costing just never ringed true,” said Powley. “If they ran this service two a day each way between Toronto and North Bay, and North Bay to Cochrane, the service would have quadrupled if not more in total ridership and would have made money. There was no reason other than politically not to have this happen.”
He said he does not understand why the province wants to “screw the north.”
“People in the north really need this,” he said. “It’s their life blood.”