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Passenger rail service in northern Ontario not economically viable, think tank says

A paper from the Northern Policy Institute says the economic case for passenger rail in the north is thin.

Northern Policy Institute report says government subsidies for passengers 100 times higher than the bus

The Northern Policy Institute says passenger rail in northern Ontario would be cost-prohibitive. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

A paper from the Northern Policy Institute says the economic case for passenger rail service in the north is flimsy.

In a report titled the Thin Case for Passenger Rail in Northern Ontario, Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the think tank, calculated that it would cost $400 in government subsidies for every rail passenger versus $4 for every bus passenger in the north.

But there are still some opportunities for passenger rail, he says, including short-run, short season routes for tourism.

"The paper does not say trains are dead in northern Ontario," Cirtwill said. "What it says is that there are very clear cases where trains should be considered."

The study was done because passenger rail is prominent in the public debate, Cirtwill said.

But while rail service is a popular issue in the north, now is not the time to make any moves, Cirtwill said.

"People are going to be looking to have their pet projects moved up because of course they're very enthusiastic about it and they see an opportunity where the government is seeking to stimulate the economy-- in air quotes," Cirtwill said.

But some disagree.

Lucille Frith, co-chair of the advocacy group Northeastern Ontario Rail Network, says, now is the perfect time to raise awareness, as the pandemic revealed the need for a safe service to connect people. 

"The isolation caused by COVID is only compounding issues in the north from the standpoint of getting people in and getting the economy running," Frith said. 

Ontario Northland says it has submitted a business case to the province for an integrated transportation network that includes passenger rail and bus service.

It adds that the government continues to review the initiatives.

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