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With a federal election just nine months away and one final spring budget to be released before that, passenger rail advocates are ramping up their push for funding to reinstate the Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst service.
The Coalition for Algoma Passenger Trains is encouraging supporters to submit input into the 2019 federal budget that will encourage them to include funding for passenger rail service in Northern Ontario.
CAPT volunteer Linda Savory Gordon said more than 400 letters of support were dropped off at Sault MP Terry Sheehan’s office before Christmas. She was unable to connect directly with Sheehan but passed the letters on through his assistant.
“This is a big budget coming up and the federal government needs to find this money to get the train running,” Savory Gordon said. “This was an election issue three years ago and Terry Sheehan promised that he would fight for funding to get this train going again.”
Sheehan has been advocating for the group, said Missanabie Cree Chief Jason Gauthier.
“I think if it was Terry’s decision, the money would be there but there is only so much he can do. He’s doing some work in the background, but it is challenging. We want to make this issue as high profile as we can for this election,” Gauthier said.
Savory Gordon’s submission to the 2019 federal budget suggests funding the Mask-wa Oo-ta-ban (Bear Train) passenger train service is consistence with the government’s focus on reconciliation, building local economies and mitigating climate change.
The Missanabie Cree First Nation project has seen the completion of a business and operation plan and all permits and certificate requirements have been fulfilled to run the train on the CN-Algoma Central track between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst.
“The Bear Train would operate through their traditional territory allowing them to access important cultural locations as well as to develop Cree cultural tourism destinations and products that will both education Indigenous and settler populations and create jobs for Indigenous people,” her letter reads.
Studies have shown the train contributes more than $48 million annually to the local economy with a small $2.2 million annual investment by Transport Canada. Small businesses and tourism operators would thrive with an operating passenger train service, allowing customers to get into remote resorts and areas barely accessible by roads, her two-page letter reads.
Passenger trains also mitigate climate change by reducing GHG emissions. They provide the aging population of Northern Ontario a safe and accessible method of transportation across the region and offer an alternative to highway closures during growing extreme weather events.
Savory Gordon said communities like Hearst have reported receiving several calls a week from potential tourists asking about the status of the passenger train.
“Hotels are finding it difficult, especially during the winter season, because there are not trains,” she said.
She said the annual funding request of $2.2 million is a very small amount of money needed to set the wheels in motion to help small businesses in the region and inject millions into the economy.
Gauthier remains optimistic that the train will travel the tracks again.
“A journey of one thousand miles starts with one step at a time and you just keep moving forward, jumping through the hoops one at a time,” he said.
Gauthier said recent conversations with CN Rail suggest the company is willing to establish a rail line agreement if other conditions are met. Missanabie Cree has already completed its operational and insurance certificate requirements.
The passenger rail service between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst was axed in 2014 after the Conservative federal government cut annual funding for the train. They argued the area was accessible by roads.
Since that time lobby efforts have continued to convince government that the annual funding is necessary to connect the communities along the railway, promote tourism and provide a clean transportation option.
This article first appeared on www.saultstar.com
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