Better intercity transportation needed in the North

The deterioration of intercity transportation in the North is fully evident to those who can still recall being able to board a train, or in more recent times a bus, from Little Current to travel to the outside world. Today it generally requires owning your own vehicle, inducing someone to provide a lift or hiring a taxi at great expense to reach Espanola—the nearest connection to what remains of Ontario’s transportation network in the North.

The last scheduled bus service, operated by Abe Shamess (AJ Bus Lines) and his sons for years even as declining ridership and parcel service competition made it unprofitable to do so, severed a link to the outside world for those who, for many reasons beyond income, could not drive themselves.

But even if a traveller manages to reach the Highway 17 corridor, the challenges of travelling east, west or south have not been overcome, as the shortcomings of Ontario’s intercity transportation network will quickly become clear.

An example of the shortcomings in the intercity transportation network was made evident to one group of young visitors from Thunder Bay during the recent Little Current Lions Haweater Weekend festivities when they found themselves bereft of a vehicle and stranded on the Island come Monday morning. Upon inquiry to the bus lines operating in the North, they discovered that the soonest a seat on a bus heading to Thunder Bay could be secured was August 15, a full two weeks away. No passenger trains travel to Thunder Bay either and air service is prohibitively expensive to book on short notice.

Transportation has always proven to be a steep challenge to the delivery of programs in the North. The dispersed population across the North, many living in small rural and/or First Nations communities, have found innovative ways to meet those challenges, such as the Aging at Home Transportation operated by Noojmowin Teg Health Centre for the benefit of all of those people 55 and over for non-emergency transportation to local medical and mental health appointments, social purposes such as banking, grocery shopping, traditional gatherings and social community events.

But the Aging at Home van is not wheelchair friendly (although movement to and from the vehicle can be facilitated with the assistance of a companion) and is currently so oversubscribed that users are limited to booking the transport twice a year.

Ontario clearly needs a better solution to public transit—especially between communities.

Some of the stumbling blocks cited as being in the way of improving intercity transportation are the regulations that currently govern licencing of transit routes between communities. The province is currently seeking input to changes to those regulations that stifle competition and lead to monopolies on bus routes as well as innovative ideas on how to better deliver services between communities. Comment can be made by going online to the Environmental Registry (ebr.gov.on.ca) and searching registry number 012-7896. Comments can be left with the click of a button (there is also a mailing address and telephone number for those who wish to send their message retro-style). It is important that citizens (and businesses) in the North step up to make their concerns known on these issues.

Too often the power of speaking up and being heard is discounted with a nihilistic shrug these days. Governments live or die by how well they serve the people and (with apologies to Dr. Seuss) if enough people demand action, it doesn’t take an elephant’s ears to get the message.

It is often said that the squeaky wheel gets the grease—on intercity transportation issues it is long overdue that we here in the North squeak loud and clear.