Sudbury

Service cuts to Manitoulin Island, James Bay don't signal trouble at Ontario Northland, says CEO

Ontario Northland is cancelling bus service to Manitoulin Island as of today. The crown corporation also recently scaled back train service to the James Bay. But the CEO says these are not signs that Northland is running off the rails.

Government funding for public transportation company frozen at $31 million

Ontario Northland is cancelling its bus service to Manitoulin Island after 18 months and has also scaled back train service between Cochrane and Moosonee. (CBC)

Emerick Shawanda was a regular rider of Ontario Northland, during the 18 months the buses came to Manitoulin Island.

"We were right thrilled. It was a big thing," the 37-year-old from Wikwemikong remembers when the service was first announced.

"Now, that's it gone, it's kind of heartbreaking."

Especially since many of his bus trips were to take his infant son, Emerick Jr., to medical appointments. He has a surgery scheduled at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto next month and they were planning to take the bus.

"Now, I don't know how we're going to get there," says Shawanda.

"I don't know. I'm just ticked off about it."

Corina Moore is the CEO of Ontario Northland. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Ontario Northland CEO Corina Moore says they are replacing the Manitoulin Island bus service with a contracted taxi service starting Monday that will get passengers to the bus in Espanola for the same price as before.

"We feel this is actually going to be a better customer service experience for our customers," she says.

Kim Bilbija, 62 of Kagawong, was also a regular and is pleased there will be "some bus service" for Manitoulin, but says it will definitely be less convenient and Islanders will have a tough time making it to Sudbury and back in a day.

"I wasn't very happy about it," she says. 

"We're rural community that need accessibility to public transportation. And I think it's important that we not be ignored and just pushed to the side."

This change comes just weeks after Ontario Northland reduced its passenger train service between Moosonee and Cochrane, removing the Sunday train from the schedule.

"The community members are quite upset about it. As I stated to them, this is not an important service. This is an essential service," says Moosonee Mayor Wayne Taipale. 

"If you were in Toronto, would you take one day off the subway? It's the same thing basically. That's our life line."

Moore says these changes in service levels should not be seen as signs that Ontario Northland, which the previous Liberal government tried to sell off, is in bad financial shape.

Ontario Northland recently cut back its Polar Bear Express service between Moosonee and Cochrane, but still plans to expand passenger rail in northern Ontario in the years ahead. (Radio-Canada )

She says their annual subsidy from the provincial government is currently frozen at $31 million, but that has pushed Ontario Northland to make "strong business decisions" by landing more work for its refurbishment shop, new customers for the freight train service, as well as adding some 100,000 more bus trips over the past 18 months. 

"We want to be responsible with taxpayer dollars and we've made some changes to align with that," says Moore. 

"When budget is a certain amount, it doesn't mean cutting, it means growing revenue."

She says that will include expanding passenger rail service in northern Ontario, which the PC government promised in last year's election, replacing the Northlander train between Toronto and Cochrane that the Liberals scrapped in 2012.

Moore says those plans will be delivered to Queen's Park next month.

"The solution that we're putting in place will look different than the last one, the schedule will be aligned with what people need for business appointments, for medical appointments, to go down for shopping. It is I believe the right solution for the north," she says. 

"We've really diversified our business so that we can re-align, but also impact more people and businesses in northern Ontario."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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