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Sunday, September 30, 2012

ONTC: Arbitrator says no

Trains magazine reported earlier this week that the arbitrator in the case between the ONTC unions and management has decided that the Northlander does not need to continue running while the grievance is heard.  ONTC unions complained that they had not received 90-days notice of the cancellation of the service.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Northlander is Gone

Yesterday, hundreds of people across Ontario came out to say their goodbyes to the Northlander.  I was fortunate enough to have arranged to meet the ONR staff in Toronto and to photograph the last northbound train leaving from the platforms at Union Station.  There was a large media presence, and a police one too.  I am glad to see the media paid attention, but I wonder where they were back in March?

In the evening, I photographed the southbound Northlander set against the Toronto skyline.  In time, I will be posting photographs of this historic, but sad, day in Ontario's railway history.

For now, here is a round-up of some of the media coverage of the end of the Northlander.

No doubt more stories and commentary will appear in the coming days.  Stay tuned.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Rick Bartolucci Wrote Me a Letter

If everything goes to plan, this message will appear as the Northlander departs Toronto Union Station on the morning of 28 September 2012 at 08.40 AM (Toronto time).  Never again will the iconic train stop to pick-up passengers and take them north.  After 35 years of service, today the Northlander dies.

On Thursday, I received a letter from the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines.  It was from the minister, Rick Bartolucci - or at least his office.  I had written to him some time ago to make the case, just as so many people and groups have, for saving the ONTC.  His response was cordial and somewhat "your call is important to us", but it failed to really answer my questions.  That is perhaps fitting, seeing as the minister has failed to effectively respond to any serious questions throughout the debate over the sale of the ONTC.

Despite his claims that the Northlander is a parallel service (GO buses and GO trains are, of course, also parallel), that Highway 11 is efficient (if you happen to own a car or like to sit on a bus that doesn't have tables and room to walk around) and that the economy is in a mess (which is exactly when the govenment must step in to protect the vulnerable from cuts), he cannot explain why the government is giving up on a 110-year old system.  Nobody believes that the system can continue as it is.  It is broken.  This is not a problem that can go away by throwing money at it.  A fix will take time, it will take effort and some people will lose their jobs.  The Northlander would probably be cut back to 3 or 4 times a week, but it could still run.  This has not been a good year for Ontario, but now is not the time to make it worse.  Mr. Bartolucci, I am not satisfied with this government's performance.  I know I am not alone.

When I was growing up, I used to pick up travel brochures for Ontario Northland.  To me, it was a mythical thing, taking people to a barren land I had never seen before.  This year, I actually got to visit that barren land and it touched me.  The varied landscape showed me that there are still places in the world that are pristine.  The people were friendly and welcoming towards me.  They deserve as much from this government as anyone, but they get so much less.  It's not really a barren land; rather it is a rich one.  Rich in history and tradition - a tradition centred around the Ontario Northland Railway.  Until the railway, only the First Nations lived in much of northern Ontario.  It wasn't until steel rails headed north that Cochrane, Timmins, Swastika, Cobalt and so many other places came into being.  In a strange way, I am indebted to the government.  Without their announcement last March, I would probably have never taken the time to visit the north, learn its history and understand their need for the ONTC.  If it weren't for Rick Bartolucci's decision, I wouldn't be writing this now.

Thank you Mr. Bartolucci.  Thank you for taking the time to respond.  We might not agree about the ONTC, but at least my views were noted.

Residents invited to join the Reinstate the Northlander rally this Friday

The fight for Ontario Northland starts a new phase.
Residents invited to join the Reinstate the Northlander rally this Friday

Extra buses slated for long weekend

Only weeks after the Northlander is cancelled, the first big test for a road-only North Bay to Toronto service.
Extra buses slated for long weekend | North Bay Nugget

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Temagami tourism may suffer with end of rail service

Another example of how the sale of the ONTC might make sense - if it had been handled differently.
Temagami tourism may suffer with end of rail service - CBC News

Please be advised that the Northlander passenger train will no longer operate after Friday

An open invitation for the Liberals to ride the last train.
Please be advised that the Northlander passenger train will no longer operate after Friday

The End of EMD London

The last chapter in the bitter fight at the EMD plant in London has now been written.  This week, the last five units to be built at the facility left the plant to begin their move to the Kansas City Southern.  This brings to an end over 60 years of locomotive production in London.  Walter Pfefferle was on hand to record this last move.  Here is his video:

ONTC sell-off built 'resentment,' says former MPP

I'm sure retired politicians love to sit back and see what a mess their successors are making.  This article highlights some very key points.  I think that one could make an erudite argument for selling the ONTC and allowing the private sector to run services themselves.  However, this is not what the government has done.  Instead, they announced their plans before clearly planning the divestiture process.  Coupled with the lack of consultation and transparency, the government did not handle the issue in a way that leant credibility to their case.  Regardless of the merits of the economic case for divestiture, the way the plans were announced made the opposition and the bad press inevitable.
ONTC sell-off built 'resentment,' says former MPP - CBC News

Huntsville station mails guest book to McGuinty

Showing the human face of the ONTC issue to Dalton McGuinty.
CottageCountryNow Article: Huntsville station mails guest book to McGuinty

Passengers reminisce with railway memories

Canada's history is held together by railways.  These letters prove it.
CottageCountryNow Article: Passengers reminisce with railway memories

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

ONTC Press Release: The End of the Northlander

"Please be advised that the Northlander passenger train will no longer operate after Friday, September 28, 2012." So begins a press release from the ONTC put out Wednesday evening.  Confirmation does not get more absolute.

Read the full press release here

ONTC workers left wondering about jobs

The Northlander stops running on Friday.  Then what?  So far, nobody is clear as to how many employees will lose their jobs, or when.
ONTC workers left wondering about jobs - CBC News

In a related development, Trains Magazine is reporting that the unions representing the ONR workers are meeting with an arbitrator and the ONTC this week to discuss their grievance that they were not given 90-days notice for the end of the Northlander service.   A decision is expected later this week.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Ontario Northland News Archive

 The Northlander in happier times

Since the Ontario government announced the divestiture of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission on March 23, I have been writing about the issue and posting links to articles about the decision. 

In this, the last week of the Northlander service between Toronto and Cochrane, I thought it was fitting to remind readers that both my views on the issue and all the news links are tagged with the label "ONR_Sale" and can be accessed through my Ontario Northland News Archive - click here!

With the end of the Northlander this Friday, a chapter in the fight to stop the divestiture process closes.  However, this is not the end of the struggle.  There are other ONTC divisions to try and save and a Liberal government that needs to be held accountable for its actions.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The social pricetag for the ONTC

If you listen to Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government, the case for the dismantling and sale of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission is purely based on numbers: the cost of the subsidies, the limited number of riders and the money the government needs to save.  Never does this side of the case consider the human cost.

So many of the articles and issues that I have covered here deal with that human cost.  Many have dealt with the cases of communities losing some of their transport options, greater difficulty for people to get to medical appointments and the loss of a good form of public transport.  Others have dealt with the workers, nearly 1,000 in all, who face an uncertain future either in the private sector with new employers or unemployed if they are deemed surplus to requirement.  The North Bay Nugget has shown how this uncertainty is hurting the employees at the Transportation Commission.  Stress levels are up, morale is down. 

A man is angry with his wife, he breaks a wooden dowel over a dresser in a moment of rage.  He pleads guilty in court.  Another man, agitated, slits his throat at work.  This could be the plot from a social realist novel, there would be a TV mini-series too.  There would be, that is, if it weren't true.  Both of these incidents are tangible examples of how the environment at Ontario Northland is becoming toxic as the government slowly picks away at the 110-year-old institution.  Mental health and counselling resources in the north, already understaffed and underfunded, are gearing up for an increase in the number of patients as the divestment process goes ahead.  The same goes for employment agencies in a part of the province often short of jobs.

So here we are, the last week of the Northlander.  The media will cover the last run and then life will continue.  But then what?  The fight isn't really over.  There are other divisions to try and save and people will need help to pick up the pieces of their lives.  What is the human cost of the end of the ONTC?  A lot higher than the monetary figure Dalton McGuinty quotes.

Northerners ponder separating from Ontario

It's hard to tell if the CBC is overstating the desire for a separate province, but it is clear that the Ontario government often neglects the north of the province in favour of the richer and riding-heavy south.

The CBC hasn't offered much coverage on the ONTC issue on their website since the sale was announced back in March.  However, they are hoping to have coverage from the last train on Friday.

Is it time for a new province?  Separation is certainly back in the Canadian news after the Parti Québécois victory this month.
Northerners ponder separating from Ontario - Sudbury - CBC News

Hmmmm: Tory MPP supports unions' bitter fight with Liberals

Vic Fedeli tries again.  
Hmmmm: Tory MPP supports unions' bitter fight with Liberals

Friday, September 21, 2012

Whitby Rail Maintenance Facility will be Built

It's official!  The long-anticipated GO Transit maintenance facility in Whitby will be built.  The announcement was made yesterday, although no completion date has been announced.

In recent months, workers began clearing the site, suggesting that the plan would indeed go ahead.  The facility will be important for GO as it will create a maintenance hub to the east of Toronto.  Currently, all GO equipment must be serviced at the Mimico site west of downtown Toronto. 

Press release here.

Durham Region News article here.

This is not the first plan to build a maintenance facility in Whitby.  In the mid 1980s, the proposed light rail line from Durham Region to Toronto included plans to build maintenance shops in Whitby, essentially where GO's facility will be built.  For more details on the history of the site, see my book Stand Clear of the Doors.

Locals throw bittersweet ‘party’ for Northlander

The farewell trip through Muskoka went ahead as planned.  The turnout was excellent, showing that people are aware of the train.  Unfortunately, increased ridership will not save the Northlander.
CottageCountryNow Article: Locals throw bittersweet ‘party’ for Northlander

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Liberals end Northern rail service ... add rail link in T.O.

The Pearson Airport Link is not a new announcement, but the principle is the same.  While the north of the province loses rail, the GTA gets more.  It will be interesting to see if there really are enough buses to cover the overflow from the trains.
Liberals end Northern rail service ... add rail link in T.O.

Northlander train closure could lead to rising shipping costs

I don't doubt that the break-up of the ONTC will lead to higher costs.  However, I do have to question the article's assertion that the Polar Bear Express will be sold and no longer subsidised.  According to the government, the PBX will continue to operate and the subsidy will be maintained. 
Northlander train closure could lead to rising shipping costs | Wawatay News

Friday, September 14, 2012

Overhead Walkway and Island Platform Now Open at Oshawa Train Station

Workers were hastily tidying up earlier in the week when I visited.  Now I know why.  Much work remains to be done, but the platform and bridge are basically ready to go.
VIA Rail Canada Inc. | Overhead Walkway and Island Platform Now Open at Oshawa Train Station

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nostalgic ride on Ontario Northland set for Sept. 17

A farewell trip on the Northlander from Huntsville to South River is being organised.  Details are in the article.
CottageCountryNow Article: Nostalgic ride on Ontario Northland set for Sept. 17

Rail Grinder

I recently visited the VIA/GO Station in Oshawa to see how the construction is progressing.  The third track has now been installed, but still needs to be aligned and tamped.  Crews are also working on the new platform.

While I was watching, I was lucky enough to catch RG 309, a Loram rail grinder, as it sped through the station.

What's a rail grinder?
Metal rails take quite a beating thanks to heavy metal wheels rolling over them all the time.  When the rail gets worn, it causes damage to wheels and make for a rougher ride.  To fix this, railways use rail grinders to smooth the tops of the rails, restoring the smooth ride and thus preventing further wear and tear. 

I have yet to see a rail grinder actually at work.  It's quite a sight to see, as this video shows.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Here is a fun shot from a recent trip to see the progress at the VIA/GO Station in Oshawa.  I was watching the switching on the CP Oshawa GM Spur when I noticed a CN truck parked at one of the hotels near the track.  Result?  Canada's two main rival railways, even if Hunter Harrison has been at the helm of both.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A BTS Look at Diorama Landscape Photography

These photos are stunning!  I think there might be some potential for model railway scenery here.
A BTS Look at Diorama Landscape Photography | Fstoppers

UPDATE: Rumours surround ONTC

After reports of a visit to the ONR facilities by CAD surfaced in the North Bay Nugget, the ONR has denied that the Quebec-based company will be touring the North Bay refurbishment facility.  Even if CAD isn't visiting, they would certainly be a prime candidate to buy the refurbishment division.

The loss of the GO Transit refurbishment contract is now seen as the first sign of trouble for Ontario Northland.  Apparently CAD, the company who did win the contract, is set to visit the ONR facilities.  Are they looking to buy?
Rumours surround ONTC | Local | News | North Bay Nugget

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Rails of the GTA - Volume 2 Featured

My most recently published book, Rails of the GTA - Volume 2, was recently featured on the Toronto Railway Historical Association's website.  You can view it here.

If you are in the Toronto area, be sure to visit the Toronto Railway Museum at Roundhouse Park.  Also be sure to register your support for the "Save the Museum" campaign.

For more details on my books, click here.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

ONR in Trains Magazine

On pages 18 & 19 of the October 2012 issue of Trains magazine, there is an article on the sale of the ONTC.  Nothing new in it really, but a good recap of the issues facing the Commission.  Unfortunately, some of the facts are now out of date, for instance the articles states that there was yet to be an end date for the Northlander - one was announced about when Trains went to print.

It is good to see more coverage.  I would think that many Trains readers will be natural allies of Ontario Northland.

Friday, September 07, 2012

What does the ONR actually cost?

If you listen to the McGuinty government, you will come to the conclusion that Ontario Northland costs millions of dollars a year to run and that each Northlander passenger is subsidised to the tune of $400.  If you listen to the unions, the subsidy is lower and could be minimal if the ONTC was absorbed into Metrolinx funding.  If you listen to Steve Paikin, the entire system is simply too expensive.  In a recent article, Paikin argued that the railway now costs far too much to operate, especially if crews on nearly-empty trains are making six-figure salaries.  Nothing new so far - the unions have been calling for a restructuring for a decade to improve the ONTC's efficiency.

What is new is Paikin's suggestion that as many as 400 employees (close to 40%) could be able to claim a 14-year severance package, something that would cost more than the government could possibly hope to save from the sale.

North Bay Nipissing News has looked further into this claim and found that MPP Vic Fedeli is also trying to find out if such a severance package does exist.  Both have filed requests with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines in the hopes of confirming the claim.  So far, there has been no useful response.

For its part, the ONTC unions readily acknowledge that the clause does exist and is in line with agreements at both CN and CP.  The clause can only come into effect in the case of layoffs, something that has yet to happen.  The unions were also quick to note that half of the ONTC's workfore does not have a job security clause.

How much does the ONTC cost?  It's hard to say.  The government claims it can save $270 million by selling it.  However, if this 14-year clause is correct, the government may be forced to pay out up to $450 million, according to Fedeli.  Add to this the ONTC pension fund, which may cost up to $200 million.  I've never been strong at mathematics, but this seems to me that the government may have to pay up to two-thirds of a billion dollars in order to save $270 million.  Something doesn't add up.

McGuinty Fails to Gain a Majority

Two by-elections were held in Ontario yesterday, one for the riding of Vaughan and one for Kitchener-Waterloo.  By winning both seats, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals would have had sufficient seats to form a majority government.  While the Liberal stronghold of Vaughan was retained by the Liberals, Kitchener-Waterloo went to the NDP in a hard-fought campaign.

While it is unlikely that McGuinty's decision to sell the ONTC influenced the result, other issues facing the government, such as ORNGE or his treatment of teachers, are casting a shadow over his party.  A delegation from northern Ontario travelled to Waterloo in the hopes of talking with the premier about Ontario Northland.  They were ignored and McGuinty left by a back door.  I'm not sure if this was a deliberate snub, but McGuinty has yet to meet with northern leaders once to discuss the issue.

The results are clear.  One seat is only one small part of a government, but the residents of Kitchener-Waterloo (who just gained a GO Train stop) knew that they would decide whether McGuinty gained a majority or not.  They chose to deny him this privilege and I agree - McGuinty does not deserve a majority.

Ticket Barriers for Vancouver

I hate ticket barriers.  They prevent platform access for photography, stop people from being able to see friends and family off on journeys and generally destroy the social cohesion of a railway or transit station.

Imagine my surprise when CBC's Q started yesterday with a tribute to the fare-dodger.  This came in response to the recent installation of barriers on Vancouver's transit system.  I especially like the point about what is "public" transit?

Canada has yet to catch-up with the UK when it comes to fare enforcement.  We have yet to have "revenue protection officers", blanket ticket barriers and a ban on platform tickets (despite the requirement for them to be available).  I do not advocate fare-dodging, transit does not work if people don't pay for it.  However, why destroy a social place like a station in the process?

Signal box: End of the line for 'much-loved' building?

Innovations in railway technology are inevitable.  In this case, it is important to respect the history and allow English Heritage to properly preserve signal boxes.
BBC News - Signal box: End of the line for 'much-loved' building?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Fedeli asks Auditor General to probe Liberals' numbers

Vic Fedeli ways in on the ONTC issue again.  I hope that this plan has greater success than his previous ones.  I am also sceptical that the PCs would in fact bolster the ONTC.  After all, they tried to sell it once already.
Fedeli asks Auditor General to probe Liberals' numbers

Walkom: Windmills, trains and Dalton McGuinty’s tin ear

Dalton McGuinty doesn't seem to be making many friends with his policies right now.
Walkom: Windmills, trains and Dalton McGuinty’s tin ear -

All aboard the Africa Express

Another musical train, this time in the UK.
BBC News - All aboard the Africa Express

Le Québec indécis

Ca y est, une autre éléction est terminée.  J'aurais aimé parler d'un nouveau chapitre dans l'histoire de la souveraineté québécoise, mais les évènements d'hier soir ont marqué un début amer pour le nouveau gouvernement to Pauline Marois, la première Première Ministre Québécoise.

Après neuf ans en pouvoir, le parti Libéral du Québec est maintenant l'opposition officielle, sans chef car Jean Charest n'a pas pu garder son siège.  La Coalition Avenir Québec, même pas un vrai parti il y avait un an, a pu gagné 19 sièges, un résultat décevant selon les sondages qui mettaient la CAQ en deuxième place.  Mais c'est le Parti Québécois qui a remporté la victoire, ayant gagné quatre sièges de plus que les Libéraux.  Celà donne au PQ un gouvernement minoritaire, mais un madat faible pour leur plan souverainiste.

Personne ne parle des résultats ce matin.  Au lieu, ils parlent d'une homme de 62 ans, armé de deux fusils, qui s'est enfoncé dans l'édifice Montréalaise où Marois donnait son discours de victoire.  Dans la tirade suivante, deux hommes ont été frappé, un est mort.  On apprend ce matin que Marois été la vraie cible de cette fusillade.  La police a vite arrêté leur suspect, mais pas avant qu'il met feu à une porte arrière.  Lors de son arrestation, il cria aux médias "The English are waking up!"

Les conflits des années 60s et 70s semble se réveiller de nouveau.  Partout au Canada, ce fut une année d'actes violentes dans les lieux publics sans précédent.  Le Québec a son propre histoire de violence, soit le massacre à l'Ecole Polytechnique ou la bataille d'Oka, mais récemment la province était plutôt tranquille.

Personellement, je suis content avec une victoire péquiste.  Je ne suis pas Québécois, je suis un Canadien bilingue, mais j'aime parler ces deux langues et je crois que le Québec est une société distincte.  Si le Québec veut devenir son propre pays, je donne mon appui.  C'est une province avec de bonnes priorités en termes de santé, culture et le travail.

C'est horrible que ce nouveau chapitre commence avec une telle tragédie.  Espérons que ce n'est pas le début de quelque chose de plus grand.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

McGuinty Government Derails Celebrating the Northlander Train

It would have been a nice gesture as a thanks to the north.  Instead, Dalton McGuinty has appeared once more as someone who cares very little for the north.
General Chairperson's Association (GCA) | McGuinty Government Derails Celebrating the Northlander Train

Monday, September 03, 2012

Reflections on Labour Day

The first Monday in September means different things to different people in North America.  To children, it is the last day before they head back to school.  To families, it is the last hooray of summer and the unofficial end of the season.  To workers, it is Labour Day, a holiday that has been observed for over a century.  It was a day off work and a chance to show your solidarity with fellow workers.

To the rest of the world, Labour Day doesn't mean much because May Day is the global equivalent.  However, the rest of the world should take note because North American workers are facing an attack on their rights unprecedented in recent years.

I have discussed several high-profile issues, including the back-to-work legislation imposed on Air Canada employees and the closure of the EMD plant in London.  In fact, the EMD issue has become the poster child for anti-union tactics in North America.

The most recent attack has been directed at Ontario teachers.  September 1st was the expiry of their previous collective agreements.  To prevent the previous agreements from rolling over, the government sat down to renegotiate new, and poorer, deals.   The Catholic and Francophone teachers' unions agreed to new deals with the Ontario government, deals which included concessions to reduce the deficit (or so the government said).  The English teachers' unions did not agree to the concessions and are now faced with a draconian curtailment of their rights.  The law will force a new agreement onto the unions which will include a clause banning the right to strike for two years.  The law is also retroactive because the government was unable to pass it before the September 1 deadline.  So, while the previous agreements did indeed roll over, the law will negate this.  The entire issue is likely to end up before the courts.

What we are seeing in North America today is a general feeling that unions are a thing of the past, holdouts to the new world of corporate supremacy and reduced rights for workers in favour of economic progress.  The problem is that governments are also increasingly siding with companies.  Take the case of Ontario teachers.  The government's stand is 'Parents: look at the evil teachers who are asking for more money and might strike.  We can't have that, you might actually have to look after your kids for once.'  There is a growing opposition to this new reality.  The Occupy movement was a sign of this, as is the growing popularity of the NDP in Canada.

We are also seeing a new class division, between university-educated professionals and the rest.  This is most obvious in the extension of shopping hours.  Our new retail economy has divided people between high-earners and those employed to serve them.  Civic Holiday, an August holiday in Canada, is increasingly not as stores are open for the convenience of shoppers.  What this means is that if you haven't got one of the professional jobs, you do not merit a holiday.  Retail employees form a new underclass to serve the more privileged.  It's like going back in time.

Is there hope for the future?  It's hard to tell.  Political movements tend to go in cycles and we are in the middle of a very pro-business right-wing one.  However, the tide is turning: France now has a Socialist in power.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Send Dalton McGuinty a Postcard!

Remember how nice it used to be to get postcards from people when they went on holiday?  Remember how good it felt?  Share that joy with Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and politely suggest that the sale of the ONTC might be reversed, benefiting all Ontarians who value transportation services.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Transportation costs will rise: Moosonee mayor

One group that hasn't been heard from much throughout this process is the residents of the James Bay native communities.  Moosonee, the ONR's northern terminus, has no road access, so the railway is absolutely necessary for passengers and for all freight.  The mayor of Moosonee recently expressed concern that, if the Northlander is killed, rail maintenance facilities will also close, thus making maintenance of the Polar Bear Express stock virtually impossible.
Transportation costs will rise: Moosonee mayor | North Bay Nugget

ONR could close if not sold

At this stage, I don't think that the ONR will simply close, especially if all these companies the government claims are fighting to bid on it actually exist.  However, the wording does appear to suggest that the Ontario government is indeed trying to dismantle the ONTC as fast as possible.
ONR could close if not sold | North Bay Nugget

Minister Duncan heckles Northerners in legislature

Generally thinking, a finance minister should be quite good at numbers - it's their job.  However, the fact that Ontario finance minister believes that over 40,000 passengers is "nobody" is a troubling revelation.  
General Chairperson's Association (GCA) | Minister Duncan heckles Northerners in legislature

Are ONTC Pensions at Risk?

Are ONTC pensions at risk?  The association representing ONTC workers certainly think so.  In a press release, the ONPA voiced its concerns that the pension fund has been mismanaged by the Ontario Government.  They are most worried that the amount a former employee can claim may actually drop.  This demonstrates that the ONTC issue extends far beyond current employees because pensions are wrapped up in the ONTC too.