There’s nothing like a near-death experience to focus the mind. Just ask the people at Ontario Northland, the provincially owned company that runs trains and buses across the province’s northeast.
It’s been nearly five years since then-finance minister Dwight Duncan introduced an austerity budget that would have privatized Ontario Northland’s operations, sending shock waves through the north and reinforcing attitudes among local residents that the Liberals simply didn’t understand the needs of the region.
Formally called the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC), the agency has a long history. Founded in 1902, its rail expansion into northern Ontario was crucial to the settling of towns like Cochrane, and, after World War I, it built what is still the only year-round connection to Ontario’s James Bay shore.
The government backed off the privatization plan after a change in leadership, for the most part: under Kathleen Wynne, the Liberals sold only the telecommunications division on Ontario Northland (and wound up losing more than $60 million on the sale). “It was a real period of uncertainty for this organization,” says CEO Corina Moore of 2012-13. “Certainly it was a stressful time.”
Executives reassessed every area of the company’s business in response to the threat of privatization, Moore says, exploring areas for potential growth. They decided to shift some of the agency’s in-house rail repairs from its yard in North Bay farther north, to Cochrane. That made room for Northland workers to bid on repair and rebuilding work in the wider industry.
That decision is paying dividends: last summer Northland won a four-year contract with Canarail to refurbish that company’s Rocky Mountaineer passenger cars, adding 50 positions to the North Bay yard. The company also has new customers for its freight-carrying business. The additional work is welcome, and it reduces Northland’s traditional reliance on the lumber and mining sector in the north.
“Forestry and mining are cyclical industries, so the more diverse we can be the more stable we are,” Moore says.
While 2016 was a better year for ONTC than any since 2012, it’s not self-sustaining: the province spent almost $80 million on Ontario Northland in 2015-16, compared to revenues of $62 million according to its public accounts. (That figure includes both operational funding and investments to help upgrade Northland’s buses and passenger train.) Though she didn’t pursue privatization, service cuts have also continued under Wynne, with stations closed and schedules cut in 2015.
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