New operator for Algoma Central looking more likely

From the Sault Star:

1297524343209_ORIGINALA third-party operator expected to run Algoma Central Railway’s Agawa Canyon Tour Train and passenger service offers “a new beginning” for the rail line.

Al Errington, owner of Errington’s Wilderness Island, calls Friday’s announcement that will see the unnamed company with experience in passenger and tourism service “a sea change” for ACR.

“There’s a lot more development that can happen from the basic passenger train,” Errington said Saturday in a telephone interview from Detroit where he was attending Motor City’s Ultimate Fishing Show. “I think it’s going to be a big story over the next couple of years as far as development. A third-party operator really opens up a lot of development opportunities.”

But owner Canadian National Railway, he adds, wasn’t interested in pursuing those possibilities because of its emphasis on shipping freight.CN

bought Wisconsin Central

Transportation, owners of ACR, in 2001.

The not-named firm and CN signed a letter of intent for ACR operation.

“Now they’re getting into the nitty gritty of the agreement,” said Errington. It’s a process the cochair of Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains expects will take “weeks to maybe a month or more.” The new player, he added, wants to make plans for the summer tourist season. Running rights on the CN-owned tracks need to be negotiated.

“They’ve got basically a broad agreement that they’ve agreed to . . . now they have to take care of all the finer details,” Errington told The Sault Star.

His lodge, on Wabatongushi Lake in Chapleau Game Preserve, is only accessible by rail or float plane. Errington hopes the new operator will change the train schedule to encourage more ridership.

Three-day-a-week service between the Sault and Hearst -northbound on Saturday, Monday and Thursday, southbound on Friday, Sunday and Tuesday -is “not a great schedule.”

“It really cuts down on the number of guests I can bring in,” said Errington.

The executive director of Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association and member of ACR Passenger Service Stakeholders Working Group calls Friday’s announcement “a step in the right direction.”

“We’re very, very excited and very, very pleased,” said Carol Caputo, also attending the Detroit tourism show.

About a dozen members of her group operate lodges along the ACR line. The train offers tourists another option to explore Algoma’s wilderness.

“Passenger rail allows us to stand out from other areas in the province,” she said. “It’s diversification of product. We basically have something for everyone.”

Tracks to Trails brings snowmobilers, and their sleds, from the Sault to Hawk Junction, Dubreuilville or Hearst. Travellers opting for ACR’s Tour of the Line can take the entire 950-kilometre trip between the Sault and Hearst.

“There’s a whole bunch of product lines with regards to the passenger rail,” said Caputo. “It’s more far reaching than just the businesses along the line because of all the experiences it offers. It gets people into areas that are inaccessible unless they go by train. It’s getting people immersed in everything that’s great about Algoma.”

Linda Savory Gordon, also cochair of CAPT, wants to start work on a sustainability plan the working group will present to the federal government.

A third party was sought because CN announced in early 2014 it would cut passenger service between the Sault and Hearst because Ottawa chopped a $2.2-million annual subsidy. The working group is asking the Conservative government to offer $7 million over five years to help with service transition.

CAPT already has an “in-depth” draft sustainability plan, created over the last year with help from other players including the communities of Hearst, Dubreuilville and Searchmont and resorts along the rail line. It will be shared with chair Joe Fratesi and working group members “and see what everybody agrees on.”

“We suspect that there will be a lot of agreement on most of it because these are things that we’ve been discussing with each other,” she said. “It really shows the kinds of things that could be done on that train, could expand the ridership dramatically and also be quite a draw for both local people as well as farther away.” Plan components include trips that bring travellers to Wawa to learn about the Group of Seven and Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. A Searchmont trek offers children a chance to see Santa Claus at the North Pole. The latter event, held Dec. 20 and 22, sold out in less than 30 minutes with a minimum of publicity and drew 180, said Savory-Gordon.

She’s expecting further public interest in such excursions when the third-party operator promotes them in its existing “marketing and promotional networks.”

“People who really like rail excursions, tourism and so on will want to try this out now,” said the Algoma University associate professor.

The third party, to be named when the final operating agreement with CN is finalized, “want to make it work.”

“They’re just enthralled with our geography, our cultural mix up here,” said Savory-Gordon. “They just see the potential, potential, potential, potential. They just couldn’t get over it.”

The working group met with three potential operators. Each company sent representatives to the Sault in November. Group members did their research too, said Errington, checking company websites and annual reports in addition to telephone calls and face-to-face meetings.