They call it "Black" Friday -- September 28th, the day passenger train service died in Northern Ontario. The loss of public transit has exposed a deep political divide between the north and south in Ontario. And yet, my decision to travel on the last run of the Northlander wasn't just political, it was personal.
I grew up on the train. My great uncles worked the line between North Bay and Timmins. I knew its storied history and can recite the litany of how the train opened the north for settlement. In many ways I felt as it if the Northlander was my train. And as I travelled on this last journey, I realized that thousands of other people from south, central and northern Ontario, also felt the same way.
Along the 800 km route of the Northlander, all kinds of people came to say goodbye. At rail crossings they waved. In towns people held up protest signs or recorded the last voyage on their cell phones. At Engelhart Station, over 300 people came out to bid farewell. Many were crying. At Cobalt, school children held homemade signs denouncing the death of the "Choo-Choo." At a rally at the North Bay station, the anger was palpable. This was a line in the sand moment. A betrayal. A fundamental breach between the north and south.
Onboard the last run, train buffs were out in force. One couple came all the way from Chicago to say goodbye to Ontario's most historic train. But many of the folks who purchased ticket were just trying to get home -- seniors with canes, students with schoolbooks, young families with little children running up and down the aisles. None of them were looking forward to the brave new world where the trains will no longer run and public bus service in the north sold off or discontinued.
If you listen to the McGuinty spin-doctors the Northlander is an anachronism, a bloated and outmoded transport relic stranded in the lean, mean 21-st century. But there is nothing anachronistic about the Northlander. On the southern part of its journey, it serves as the commuter line for people in Washago, Gravenhurst, Bracebridge and Hunstville. Anyone on this part of the line will tell you the Northlander beats the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 400.
As the train moves north through Muskoka and Temagami, it transforms into a world-class travel experience offering a unique window on some of the most stunning country in North America. I have traveled VIA, Amtrak and British Rail and have never seen anything that matches the Northlander.
Culturally, it is the quintessential Canadian trip, a journey through the land of the Group of Seven. Socially, it's like being on a village on wheels with people visiting along the aisles. In the food/bar car, people gather to play cards, watch movies, trade stories and interact with the rail staff.
Even on this last ride, the sense of community in the bar car was as strong as ever, just a little bit sadder. One staffer confided to me that if she wasn't laughing with the customers, she would probably break down and cry. She, like other staff members, had just been informed that she was out of a job the minute the train touched into Cochrane Station.
What a shoddy way to treat people. It was the frontline workers who kept the Northlander viable through decades of political indifference and upper management incompetence. In the 1990s, it seemed as if the political appointees at the ONTC were trying to run passenger service into the ground. And yet the staff kept faith and this beleaguered line held its own. Ridership is back up, and the quality of the service has been climbing despite years of under-funding.
To the McGuinty Liberals, the train is just one of many political assets that can be discarded based on a narrow political calculus. No doubt the young Turks working on the Premier's spin team will tell you its about "making the tough choices" in times of austerity. But it speaks to a fundamental indifference to the realities of Northern Ontario.
People in the north have never dreamed of equal treatment with the urban south; instead they have been more than willing to settle for a basic standard of fairness. Killing public transit breaches that standard. The fact that the government is shutting down train service just before Thanksgiving weekend when all of the students will be trying to come home has sent a clear message that this government just doesn't give a damn.
No doubt, the McGuinty Liberals are counting on the public having short memories. But in the north, people don't forget. There is an unprecedented level of anger and bitterness. This isn't going to be smoothed over with a few grants and some sweet-talking from the Premier.
As I traveled along the communities of the Northlander, it was clear that a new battle has begun in Northern Ontario. There are those who are out to restore our access to public transit. And then there are those who believe its time rethink the relationship between the resource rich north and the urban south. The train has always been the primary symbol of who we are as a region, and the decision to kill the Northlander will set the political discourse in Northern Ontario for years to come.