Mark Clairmont |

GRAVENHURST — The return of the Northlander was much as it left — late and picking up only one person in Gravenhurst.

Mayor Paul Kelly rode the test train to Toronto — along with other north-eastern Ontario mayors and lobbyists — to meet with Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney to again plead their case for the return of passenger rail service to the great white north.

The north invading the south with Gravenhurst being the Mason-Dixon line as the only train station on the line still municipally owned between Barrie and North Bay where today’s train originated.

MPP Norm Miller and Bracebridge Mayor got on in Bracebridge where they both tweeted at the shelter there and en route to Ontario’s capital city.

With bells ringing, its horn blaring and a small round of applause from hopeful bystanders, the Northlander landed in Gravenhurst as part of a track test on lines it shares with CN freight trains.

On an early snowy Monday morning — with even school buses on the road — a dozen supporters, including three councillors and two train buffs huddled out of the wind on the north end platform of The Station looking north for the southbound Northlander.

It would have been warmer and more fitting had they been inside the recently nicely renovated Station waiting room.

Looking north they were momentarily distracted by a freight train coming from the south that presumably took track precedent in delaying Northlander on their shared track — a crux of its problem.

But finally at 9:30 a.m., with engines facing both ends, the distinctive big blue train with Inuit wording on its three passenger cars paused long enough to take on Kelly and receive light applause from trackside bystanders, all whom hurried back to their cars for home or to race further down track for another photo-op.

A GO train fatality this morning at Richmond Hill may also have delayed the ride into Toronto and Queen’s Park. Hopefully the minister’s schedule was flexible.

It’s almost hour-long lateness in arriving here wasn’t lost on the greeters who joked about its timing.

Timing that dates back almost a decade to 2012 when it last passed through town on its last people’d trek to Toronto before being deadheaded back to Cochrane and  near-obscurity in — ironically — mothballed in northern Ontario.

If this was a track test to see if the Northlander could get up a head of steam to withstand speeds needed to maintain regular usage, it began off track.

Because a Northlander return would have to share track with freight trains, track condition is of concern, noted Orillia railroad advocate Steven Bergeron. He and his roommate, Trevor, were on hand with a camcorder to chronicle the passing for a local Facebook page of rail supporters they belong to.

Bergeron, who on the Northlander’s last trip south to Toronto in 2012, said the tracks aren’t maintained to the same high standard as required to carry passengers and at speeds of about 65 mph required for safe, smooth commutes. That includes corners where they are pitched slightly differently to carry freights.

Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith tweeted this photo of Northlander officials sitting up front in one of three Northlander cars that carried municipal and provincial government officials seated behind headed to Queen’s Park to talk to the transportation minister about bringing back the train. (Graydon Smith photo)

Bracebridge Mayor Smith, who was sitting in the car with Miller who he hopes to replace at Queen’s Park, tweeted: “Mayors from the Northeastern Ontario have joined us today on the test train. They are enjoying the ride and discussing how this potential service could benefit their communities. Looking forward to pulling into Union Station!”

Vic Fedeli, Nipissing MPP, minister of economic development and former North Bay Mayor

and former North Bay mayor, tweeted this morning that he was also aboard

the ‘The Northlander’ for its test-run to Toronto.

“They’re checking the times along the way,” says Fedeli from onboard the test train. “It’s also to evaluate the track conditions. We see them, the men and women from Ontario Northland up and down the cars, looking at the mile markers, they’re looking at the various stations. They’re working with Metrolinx, who have their people here as well.”

Fedeli says there weren’t any hiccups, but they did undertake a scheduled pullover to allow a freight train to go by.

“This is the CN track from North Bay to Toronto, so that was exciting. There’s a lot of people greeting us along the way at the various stations,” he says.

Fedeli added: “A blistering snowstorm as we’re taking the train in the warmth and comfort, we had a hot breakfast served to us at 6 o’clock, used my laptop and did a lot of work in the comfort of this, while Highway 11 north of Latchford is closed because of weather,” he says.

The ONTC has previously said the goal is to see passenger rail return in the mid-2020s.

There are still no specifics on timelines, but Fedeli reiterates they want to get it right.

The Ministry of Transportation tweeted that they’re gathering data on the train.

Mulroney announced Timmins would be the location of the northern terminus station.

Better late than never was the sentiment today in Gravenhurst where a Northlander made a quick two-minute stop en route to capital city.

Gravenhurst Mayor Paul Kelly waves and shouts “goodbye” as he boards the first Northlander to take on passengers in nine years.
Gravenhurst councillor John Gordon, left, economic development officer Jeff Loney and councillors Sandy Cairns and Penny Varney joined Mayor Paul Kelly and John Cooper, in waiting and welcoming the Northlanders while wishing officials well in their pursuit of transit happiness.
Train advocate and railway buff Steven Bergeron, of Orillia, was on the the Northlander’s last trip to Toronto in 2012. He’d like to see rail transit more integrated throughout Central Ontario with the Northlander feeding in to it.
Heading south to capital city is the dream ride for many northern travellers who want the Northlanders’ return.


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