Sudbury·Updated

Ontario Northland's Polar Bear Express train gets facelift

The Polar Bear Express has served as a vital link between Cochrane and Moosonee for 50 years. Over the next three years its coaches will be overhauled.

Minister responsible says $17 million investment shows ONTC open for business

The Polar Bear Express cars will be refurbished over the next three years at Ontario Northlands refurbishment division in North Bay. (Supplied/Ontario Northland)

The Polar Bear Express train that runs between Cochrane and Moosonee is getting facelift on its 50th birthday.

The train, which is run by the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission, is the only land link to communities on the James Bay Coast. It transports over 60,000 passengers each year.

The coaches used for the Polar Bear Express will be refurbished over the course of the next three years at Ontario Northland's refurbishment shop in North Bay.

The refurbished coaches will include leather seats, accessible washrooms, modern flooring, luggage space, dining cars and a family car.

The upgraded interior or the Polar Bear Express will include leather seats accessible washrooms, modern flooring and luggage space. (Supplied/Ontario Northland)

"There's a lot of children that ride on our trains and a lot of families, and it's a long distance train so we want to make it as comfortable as possible," said Corina Moore, interim President and CEO of Ontario Northland.

The upgrade comes at a cost of $17 million dollars and is being funded by the Ontario government. 

"The Polar Bear coaches will be redesigned to better meet the needs of the community. This will provide continued work for the refurbishment shop and send a clear signal that the ONTC is open for business," the Minister responsible, Michael Gravelle, said in a release.

Critics have charged the uncertainty over the future of the provincially-owned operation has hurt business.

The Polar Bear Express cars will be refurbished over the next three years at Ontario Nortlands refurbishment division in North Bay. (Supplied/Ontario Northland)

The province announced it was divesting all divisions of the ONTC in 2012, but has since changed direction and plans to keep the operation in public hands, except for the telecommunications division Ontera. It is now a division of Bell Aliant in the private sector.

The union that represents workers at Ontario Northland is pleased that the refurbishment work on the Polar Bear Express is now underway. The work was first announced in 2011, said Brian Kelly, spokesperson for the General Chairpersons Association representing unionized employees.

"It keeps some of the organization running in the shop, but it still raises grave concerns," he said. "What happens after the work that we are doing now expires? What are we going to do next?"

The union has been pushing for the province to create a strategic alliance between the ONTC and Metrolix, the provincial corporation that provides transit services in southern Ontario. The agreement could provide work for the ONTC refurbishment division, Kelly said.

Ontario Northland also plans to move to online ticketing and a new reservation system in the next year.

It's holding information sessions in Cochrane on Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Cochrane Station and Moosonee and on Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Northern College Gymnasium.

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