Railway into the North
In contrast to our usual posts about urban networks, Transporting Cities took at trip to experience a remote service where modern information systems simply don’t exist and where there are few stations to signpost. We took a ride on Canada’s Algoma Central Railway.
This may start to sound like a travel blog but keep with me…
We had heard that the Algoma Central Railway (ACR) provided a passenger service 3 times a week from the city of Sault Ste. Marie up into the forest landscape of northern Ontario. We were interested to see how a service, with no population centres on route, was still operating.
I called a Toronto local, Scott, and told him he was joining me on this excursion north. He almost immediately corrected me on how Canadians pronounce Sault Ste. Marie – the Soo.
On route to its terminus at Hearst, the ACR crosses two equally infrequent passenger routes operated by the state operator, VIA Rail: at Franz with a service to Sudbury and further up the line at Oba with a service to Toronto.
Our plan was to ride up to Dubreuilville and stay overnight before taking the VIA Rail service the following day from Franz back to Sudbury.
Pat told me that CN had received a government subsidy to operate the passenger service for many years, retaining the original brand of ACR; however, following an announcement that this support would be withdrawn this year, CN had announced that the service would cease. Public pressure by the small towns, remote tourism lodges and camp owners resulted in a new financial commitment being secured to continue operating the service temporarily, until a proposal for self funding can be found. As part of the new subsidy, a new company, Railmark, will operate passenger services in future.
He wished me well on my journey and told me that his brother-in-law, Pat, was the manager of the hotel and would be there to welcome us to Dubreuilville.
The Train Without Stations
Not having a canoe or fishing gear to load up, we walked out to the edge of the Soo to find the ACR depot: The train was being loaded up next to the car park which allowed passengers to drive their trucks right up to the edge of the baggage cars. It became apparent early on that passengers were using the service to travel to cabins along the route, rather than any of the communities. Our conductor, Marnie, knew some of the passengers by name and was able to confirm that they needed to get off at a specific mile marker – we realised later in the journey that the train stopped literally wherever a passenger needed to get off – mile 45, the lake near mile 68, the hut after mile 20 etc. The ‘stations’ in the timetable were more like landmarks that we passed along along the way, indicating a long lost community or settlement.
Some passengers unloaded fishing gear; some unloaded coolers of food; some even unloaded their canoes! We saw two passengers who hadn’t been to their cabin for a few years and so the path leading from the track had become overgrown – the driver had to guess where to stop and we saw the men climb down from the train and simply disappear into the trees. As each passenger got off, Marnie took note of when they thought they may return so that she could inform the driver when to slow down on the following journeys, ready to spot the waiting passengers.
Trundling northwards at an average speed of about 30 mph we were treated to views of the Montreal River, Bridal Vale Falls and the Agawa Canyon. In summer and autumn ACR operate a tourist train tour taking passengers on a day trip up to the Agawa Canyon and back to see the various sights and changing foliage.
Taking some time to explore, I left the carriage and leant out of the doorway as the train was rumbling along. It’s rare these days to be able to lean right out of a train and I felt the thrill of being beyond the protection of health and safety barriers – rocks and branches came hurtling at me and I wanted to record some of the scenery. I decided it was safer to just stick my phone out of the doorway and record some footage; however, we then passed a large rock and I scraped my hand. This is why most footage is taken upright!
At one point, Scott and I remained the only passengers on the train so we took the opportunity to talk to our conductor, Marnie. She usually works on the tourist train but had been called in to work on the train up to Hearst, the final stop where she would spend the night before travelling back down to the Soo the following day – her husband was one of the drivers too. Marnie was worried about the future of the service, its loss would cut off entire sections of wilderness from those people who want to visit their cabins, businesses and communities. Some people might be lucky enough get access along a logging road but others would simply lose access to their cabins altogether. Whilst talking to Marnie, I also noticed a bag of mail on board and wondered how this would be delivered in future.
After a a good few hours, we stopped at Hawk Junction, the only real station along the line where about 30 passengers joined the train. The station looked like its heyday was long gone, the only building we saw was the Big Bear Hotel behind the station, now a cafe.
Our contact in Dubreuilville, Pat, had told us he would pick us up from train. This caused some confusion on board between Marnie and some of the other passengers: apparently, the actual station at Dubreuilville is behind the old timber mill so most passengers get off somewhere nearby, usually where a road crosses railway. With no mobile signal to contact Pat, they decided that Pat would most likely be waiting on ‘the road’ so the train was slowed down as we approached the Dubreuilville area with the driver ready to stop if he saw someone! We had visions of walking into town, dragging our wheely cases through the wilderness. The train eventually sounded a long horn and came to a stop when I heard the driver exclaim through the radio that his Facebook friend, Pat, was waiting by the track.
Pat was parked on the side of a dirt track. There was no settlement in sight. The train then pulled away, slowly, and left us in the hands of Pat, the hotel manager, brother-in-law of Pat, the hotel owner.
I hadn’t seen a town since the Soo and I was slowly realising how remote Dubreuilville was as we were driving down a dirt road from the railway, still no settlement in sight. Then we saw a bear sitting in the middle of the road.
Dubreuilville, population approximately 700-900, was a very compact, French speaking settlement. Pat had grown up in the town and so proudly drove us around the 10 or so streets that make up the town. He showed us the town shop (hardware shop, supermarket, beer store and sports bar all rolled into one) owned by the Mayor. The mill had closed in the 2000s as the price of timber dropped. The closure significantly affected the town’s economy as it was the only major source of employment, causing many of the residents to leave. The recent development of a nearby gold mine was providing some local employment but few new permanent residents. Tourism to the town had relied upon access to the extensive network of ATV and snowmobile trails in the nearby wilderness reserve but opposition to their noise had lead to a government ban on access, put the tourist market at risk. It was interesting to hear how three local developments can have such a material impact on a small community. Had it not been for the railway, we would never have found ourselves in the area and I was left wondering how many isolated communities had simply been abandoned when the local industry declined.
The Relais Magpie was the only hotel in town and Pat was keen to welcome its first European guest – me! Showing me the recent renovations undertaken in the hope of attracting motorcycle tours that pass around the northern shore of Lake Superior. He had installed amenities such as a man cave, a jacuzzi and a heated garage for bikes and ATVs, he’s also moved his whole family into the hotel to support the business.
Change of Plan
Pat and his son came with us for dinner at the sports bar, specialising in Poutine. Afterwards, we took some time to relax back in the man cave; having been without mobile signal for the day, I was checking my emails when I spotted one from VIA Rail notifying me that Train 186 had been cancelled due to flooding. That was all – no clarification of what service Train 186 actually was, no alternative travel advice – nothing. It was lucky that I had access to the internet in order to look up what Train 186 was and confirm that it was indeed the service to Sudbury that we were due to catch. Unhelpfully, the VIA Rail website doesn’t provide a realtime service update for this train, advising passengers to call instead. I have no idea how a passenger standing at a remote station would ever know the train had been cancelled or how to check if they don’t have mobile signal.
The next scheduled VIA Rail service to Sudbury was 3 days later meaning that we were at risk of being marooned up in Dubreuilville – not that Dubreuilville didn’t provide a warm welcome but we had a flight booked 2 days later back to Toronto.
Our only option was to try and catch the ACR back down to the Soo. Pat offered to drive us back to the dirt road we had been met at the previous day and so we set off worried about how we were going to catch this train – we suggested that Pat park his car across the track so the driver definitely knew he was there but he didn’t like that idea.
Without an actual station, and with no way to call the ACR office on a Sunday, we arrived just before the train was due to pass, dropped our bags by the side of the track and waited.
The train didn’t come – Pat assured us that in all the time he has known, the train has never come early, so he stood waiting with us. Out of politeness, we suggested that he leave us to wait and we’d call him if the train didn’t come. He then pointed to the large bear waiting up on the side of the road and we thanked him for waiting with his car!
After an hour we started to worry that the ACR had been cancelled like the VIA Rail train – how would they let people know? Do people just wait in case the trains is operating?
Scott was clearly getting worried about spending another 3 days stuck with me on my train adventure and I noticed him march off with his phone. A few minutes later I heard him ask someone on the phone if they could give him an update on the train’s location. He had apparently called the CN Railway police, not a call centre that usually responds to customer enquiries. From the sound of it, he was ‘strongly encouraging’ them to provide an update on this CN operated train. He did well – we found out that it was operating and that we should wait about another 25 mins and it should pass us.
Scott spend the next 25 minutes preparing himself to run and jump onto the side of a moving train.
Thankfully the blaring horns of the ACR came from a distance. Scott stood ready with his bag, clearly eager to get on board. Thankfully, the driver had spotted us from a distance and slowed in time for us to see Marnie leaning out of the door ready to scoop us up.
Hoping for an amusing anecdote that I could include in this post, I asked Marnie why the train had been delayed on route to Dubreuilville: she told me that speed limit on the track north of Dubreuilville had been reduced from 6o mph to 30 mph at some point in the last few years, so the train always ran at least an hour late on the way back; regular passengers just knew that it ran an hour late so nobody had go around to updating the online timetable.
As we were approaching the Soo, we made an impromptu stop straight across a level crossing. Leaning out of the train, I saw two railway employees walk up to the engine and climb on board. Marnie told us that due to the increased journey time now, drivers would exceed their permitted hours if they took the train all the way from Hearst to the Soo so a replacement crew was dispatched by car to intercept the train and drive it for the last 35 miles. During the changeover, the train sat across the crossing for more than 5 minutes but none of the car drivers waiting on the road seemed to mind this obstruction.
Safely back in the Soo, we decided to drive to Sudbury the following day. We were reflecting on the impact of the service, discussing how this small line supported many different user groups along its length. By chance, our waitress, Julia, told us that she had worked at wilderness lodge at mile 206 the previous summer, noting that guests had arrived on the ACR as it was the only simple way to get there without a seaplane. In such a remote location, it was a struggle to get fresh produce up to the lodge before it had spoilt and she saw the line as a possible way of supporting these deliveries.
This brings me back to the financial future of the ACR: the fact that the line needs public funding obviously means that the current level of use is too low to be self funding. To ensure the services’ future, the new operator has a responsibility to stimulate new passenger traffic to help develop fare revenue. I was able to plan a journey on the train through a fair amount of internet research; however, the company’s website does not make this a welcoming service, an accurate timetable would probably be the first step.
The operator needs to promote the unique appeal: the journey is an absolute experience in itself – it took this Londoner to a different world. Packaging this up and capitalising on travellers’ sense of adventure could stimulate passenger growth and introduce new visitors to the region – all contributing to the local economy.
Dubreuilville and other communities in the area are lucky to have this train enabling visitors to reach their remote region – I would encourage anyone with a sense of adventure to go north and jump on board the ACR while they still can.
Author: Liam Henderson
Update: This post has been featured in Sault Ste. Marie local press – http://www.sootoday.com/content/news/details.asp?c=93996