Grand vision for Northern Ontario train service

From the Sault Star:

1297524343209_ORIGINALA passenger train service in Northern Ontario won’t just survive by increasing its passenger base.

The increased passenger base will come over a short time if operators think outside the box, create products, destinations and top-notch services that make them yearning to come back again.

That’s the vision that B. Allen Brown, CEO of Railmark Holdings Inc., has for a rebranded train service in Northern Ontario to be called Agawa Star Passenger Train.

“I believe this can become the best destination for tour trains in North America,” Brown said in an interview with The Sault Star. “Everyone loves trains, but most have never experienced a real train and we’re going to bring that experience to them in a number of different ways. You have to think outside of the box.”

Brown is proceeding with his plans as if Transport Canada has already agreed to the agreements penned between his company, CN Rail and the local stakeholder’s group, to operate both the passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, and the Algoma Canyon Tour Train.

He’s already spoken to CN employees, is looking to establish a “central” train station that can be easily spotted from the International Bridge and is searching for new employees to make his vision a reality.

The Transport Canada agreement is the only missing piece of the puzzle.

Transport Canada currently has all the information it needs to complete its due diligence before determining whether it will provide the requested $7 million in subsidies over a five year period to operate the train system.

Sault MP Bryan Hayes said “to my knowledge officials have now”Ž received all required documentation and are very close to making a recommendation in terms of options for the Minister to consider.”

Hayes said he’s pushing for an expedited decision once the minister has reviewed the file and recommendation.

“I’m not sure if those have been presented to her yet as I have been traveling, but hope to know more soon. Of course, I am hoping for continued funding and will know more early next week I expect,” he said.

But for Brown and his company, plans to soon be running the trains are chugging along.

Railmark Holdings Inc. is described as a 15-year-old American rail industry holding company with subsidiaries that provide railroad services in railroad operations, track construction and maintenance, rail freight logistics, rail development and railroad mechanical services.

While the company is mostly U.S.-based and headquartered in Michigan, it has conducted railroad business in 16 other countries.

Brown has been in the rail business since the industry was deregulated in the United States in 1981 and he wrote papers on the deregulation for his university thesis.

Brown has reviewed the books, examined the numbers and easily concludes that the passenger service, as it exists today, will never make ends meet without government assistance.

But his plan calls for strategic marketing in the U.S. and southern Ontario markets and the creation of new experiences that will enhance the train.

He expects that by August, new weekend dinner trains, complete with a special train chef – just short three-hour hauls – will be in place, offering various forms of entertainment, romance and family dinner experiences.

Other weekend experiences to be added will be theme train experiences like “princess train trips” or “magic train trips” that will attract the younger rider and let children live their dream of riding the rails.

The Agawa Canyon Tour Train will offer more interactive activities, better food and the Snow Train will make a return during the winter months, he said.

“We need to make sure we can hit all the cylinders from the time a person picks up the phone to book a trip right through to the time they step off the train,” Brown said. “Marketing and customer service are the key to the success of any business.”

And to ensure that customers – either locals or tourists – return, Brown is establishing a cross promotion package at the soon-to-be-released website where special packages and offers can be found for return visits.

Railmark Holdings is injecting millions of dollars into the Brown’s vision, which follows his company’s slogan A Train of Thought.

In addition, he expects to add a locomotive and six more passenger rail carts to the fleet.

Various agreements will ensure the tracks and rail bed are maintained to government standards.

“That slogan was developed in 1998 when our company was doing a lot of construction and maintenance work and customers did not always have a good experience with others in the rail experience. We wanted to make that experience better,” he said. “Our mission is to deliver industrial or retail customers service that exceeds their expectations.”

Brown knows that in its prime, the Agawa Canyon Tour would see more than 80,000 visitors a season, 35% of which came from Michigan alone and another large chunk from other American markets.

“Our research shows that moms and dads loved their train experience, but now we have a disconnected generation and we need to reconnect them and show them what the train and Northern Ontario has to offer,” he said.

After all, Northern Ontario has four distinct seasons that present an array of activities for the outdoor sportsmen, naturalist and eco-tourist. Package it all together and Brown sees success in one-day – or shorter, several-hour – trips.

“He’s working on the premise that he’s providing this service in a couple weeks and he’s going to keep moving forward until he hears otherwise,” said Tom Dodds, co-chair of the Sault Ste. Marie Stakeholders working group tasked with finding a solution to save the Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst passenger rail service.

Railmark Holdings has said it needs to hire more than 30 employees ranging from rail operators to ticket and marketing agents and food services operators to security.

Brown said he spoke with CN employees and understands that some may choose to take their severance packages and retire but he’s hopeful some will make the move his way.

“I want people to work for us who are passionate about customer service and the industry,” he said.

Railmark Holdings does not currently operate any passenger service but it has operated dinner trains and has experience with short-line railway.

The now defunct dinner trains in the U.S. shut down for different reasons, Brown said.

The Michigan Star Clipper Dinner Train halted its operations after the State of Michigan purchased land from Railmark during the recession in 2009.

And the Columbia Star Dinner Train ended its run after the City of Columbia cancelled its contract with Railmark, after a business merger failed between Railmark and Train Travel, Inc., he said.

Dodds said Brown’s philosophy is on track.

“To grow and sustain the system, as an operator you need to increase the passenger base, increase the value of the experience for the passengers and increase a variety of options to attract more people or keep them coming back,” he said.

He’s confident Railmark Holdings can do the job.

Brown is “an entrepreneur and he wants to drive this forward and he has the full support of the community efforts behind him to make this work.”

In the near future, Brown also wants to establish a train station, with some line extensions so the tour train, passenger train and extra rail cars can all be stored together, with a station building in the middle.

While the Destination North site has been considered, Brown said there are limitations to the site with the road system and overhead wires.

He prefers the Gateway site where a small station can be built and rail lines created to accommodate the train system.

Brown anticipates that his vision will create an additional 22 jobs, and if his passenger service system grows to other locations in Ontario as he hopes, the future could mean that passenger customer service headquarters will be created in Sault Ste. Marie.

Just over a year ago it was announced that the federal government was cancelling its $2.2-million annual subsidy for the local passenger service. A one-year extension was granted by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt in order to give local stakeholders time to develop a local solution that would save the passenger rail service used by the rural communities, property owners and tourist operators along the route. That extension ends March 31.