Northlander: A solemn anniversary – by PJ Wilson (North Bay Nugget – September 28, 2013)

There is still a feeling the axe is going to fall on Englehart, a year after the Northlander passenger train made its final run. “We’re all still very nervous,” says Val Kennedy, a union representative for Ontario Northland.

The small community midway between North Bay and Cochrane was devastated when former Northern Development and Mines minister Rick Bartolucci announced the province was going to sell the Crown corporation in March, 2012.

At the time, Ontario Northland employed about 1,000 people in Northeastern Ontario. More than 10% of those employees worked out of Englehart. The community has been hard hit by the uncertainty. “Who’s going to buy a car?” Kennedy asks.

A general store, in business a number of years, is closing down, she says. She blames its loss on the nervousness and fear in the community. On Sept. 28 last year, the Northlander made its final run, one passenger train southbound from Cochrane to Toronto, the other northbound from Toronto to Cochrane.

“Losing the passenger train was the worst thing to happen in Northern Ontario,” Kennedy says. “The roads were closed so many times over the winter, for the first time ever I felt like I was trapped.”

It particularly affects senior citizens, or those travelling to Toronto for medical reasons, she said.

“I feel like they don’t think our lives are as important” as the lives of people living in southern Ontario, Kennedy said.

The company now employs 937 people, down from about 950 in August, 2012, according to a company spokesperson.

Ontario Northland and its unions concluded negotiations this summer on those employees affected by the end of the Northlander, Rebecca McGlynn said.

In an e-mail, she said some of the employees who worked on the Northlander moved to other areas of the company, such as the Polar Bear Express, which continues to offer passenger rail service between Cochrane and Moosonee.

Some employees have retired and some who were close to retirement were “bridged” to their earliest retirement date.

“Our position has always been – and remains to be – that the passenger train should never have come off,” said Brian Kelly, president of Local 103 of the CAW, which represents many ONTC employees.

“The government is willing to spend a lot on public transportation in southern Ontario” while cutting service in the North.

“We are not opposed to subsidizing transportation” in other parts of the province, he said, but the North needs public transportation as well.

The provincial government, he said, “cries about spending on the Northlander and the Polar Bear Express, and that came to about $23 million (annually). They say they can’t continue to pay that. But they put billions of dollars into public transportation in the south.”

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