$2.2-million federal subsidy for Algoma Central Railway passenger service extended

From the Sault Star:

Picture from Sault Online
Picture from Sault Online

Algoma Central Railway (ACR) passenger rail trains will continue to chug along between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst — for the time being — due to the extension of a $2.2-million federal subsidy to CN.

But that money dries up next March 31 and, as Transport Minister Lisa Raitt told stakeholders and media in Sault Ste. Marie Monday, the ball is now in others’ court to ensure the service survives.

“What we were asked for was a one-year extension, which made a lot of sense, so people can figure out how to move forward on it,” Raitt told reporters following the official announcement outside council chambers at the Civic Centre.

“But now the focus should be on working with CN and finding other people.”

The federal subsidy breaks down to about $448 per passenger trip, Raitt said.

“That’s a big subsidy that currently goes into it. We have a year-end date of March 31, 2015. I have no other money other than that. I can only gauge for one year at a time.”

Canadian National announced in January it would end passenger service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst effective March 30, following the federal government’s decision to cut a $2.2-million subsidy for its operation.

Since 1977, Ottawa has provided CN with financial support to ensure the continued operation of the ACR passenger rail service between the Sault and Hearst under the Regional and Remote Passenger Rail Services Class Contribution Program. In 2013, it became the Remote Passenger Rail Program, with a focus on remote rail services that provide access to established, year-round communities with few or no other transportation options.

“If you look at Hawk Junction, if you look at Hearst, if you look at Sault Ste. Marie, there’s other modes of transportation to get in and out of these communities,” Raitt said.

“That’s true because the passenger levels have really dropped since 2007. It was brought to our attention it was too quick a transition, so we’re going to give another year for transition out.”

The ACR Passenger Service Working Group, chaired by Sault Ste. Marie CAO Joe Fratesi, lobbied the Conservative government to extend funding for one year to give more time to find a solution to keep trains rolling.

Raitt said stakeholders have done an “amazing” job presenting their case to the federal government.

“They’ll work throughout the year, I’m sure,” she added. “But I think our message here is clear. We did discontinue this subsidy, we’re bringing it in for a year to let people get it together in terms of moving forward and I think that’s the best sense. People should focus on finding solutions outside government subsidies, is my best advice.”

The minister said both Sault Ste. Marie MP Bryan Hayes and Carol Hughes, MP for Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing, emphasized how many small businesses along the line depend on the service and needed time to “figure out how they’re going to move their goods or their services or their people that currently use the ACR.”

“It makes ample sense that we gave people a year and, certainly, the stakeholders did an amazing job of bringing the attention of the effects of the cancellation to our attention,” Raitt said.

“So, I think it’s fair they have a year to work together to try to bring together a private-sector solution.”

Regional stakeholders vowed Monday they’re ready to roll up their sleeves.

“This is now our time to work together to make sure that the needs of this region are very clear to CN, that we don’t come just with hat in hand with problems,” said Sault Mayor Debbie Amaroso.

She pointed to co-operation between Hayes, a Conservative, and Hughes, an NDP member, as well as “commendable” contributions from Fratesi.

“We come with solutions.”

Fratesi said his group had hoped Raitt would grant an interview in Ottawa before the end of April.

“All of us are just delighted that you accommodated us by coming to the Sault before the end of the month and not waiting until the 11th and a half hour,” he said.

Wawa Mayor Linda Nowicki said stakeholders might do well to take a cue or two from Madison Avenue.

“I’m very pleased with the announcement,” she told The Sault Star in an interview following the announcement. “It bodes well for us, but, as we’ve been told, we need to get together over the next year and come up with solutions and promote this service. It’s the only way it’s going to survive. It’s the same old comment … use it or lose it.”

She tags “inconvenient” schedule shifts a number of years ago for the slide in ridership.

“So there are many things that need to be looked at, and promotions (are) one of them,” she added.

The ACR Passenger Service Working Group, made up of municipalities, First Nations, small businesses, outdoor enthusiasts, tourism lodge operators and property owners who use the railway as a means of transportation, enlisted BDO Canada to draft a “socio-economic impact assessment” outlining how the line generates “significant” economic activity, sustaining hundreds of jobs and yielding millions in tax revenue.

That report is worth its weight in gold to Al Errington, lodge owner and Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains co-chair.

“We have a starting point and we can really talk about what we’ve had in the past as far as economic, employment and tax-generation impacts,” Errington told The Sault Star.

“But, also, it gave us a really good insight into what the potentials are.”

Errington’s Wilderness Island, located on Mile 206 on the ACR, is about a 7.5-hour train ride north of the Sault and is “very dependent” on ACR passenger train service.

“This is what we needed,” said Errington, slated to meet with Hayes Tuesday.

“We needed time to start to work on a better future for the passenger train, to optimize the operations, to expand the passenger train’s economic and employment impact on the region.”

He echoed Nowicki’s argument that schedule changes prompted a passenger decrease, down some 40%, he said, following 2007 amendments.

Errington also argues Ontario, which has a “responsibility” for short lines as it charges train lines property and transportation tax, has not been a prime player in the issue.

“The provincial government really has to become engaged in this whole process,” he added.

Source: http://www.saultstar.com/2014/04/14/22-million-federal-subsidy-for-acr-passenger-rail-service-extended-minister-tells-stakeholders-ball-now-in-their-court