Last run of the ‘Algoma Spirit’ Passenger Train

This may seem like a late post, but I was on vacation up north last week and just returned home yesterday.

Today marks exactly one week since the last RailMark operated passenger train departed northbound from Hawk Junction. About a week before, CN had terminated their relationship with RailMark effective July 15, and accordingly, on Monday July 13 the last northbound run departed Hawk Junction, with the equipment later moved to Sault Ste. Marie on July 14.

I already had vacation booked and had been planning a railfan tour of the former ACR and the Ontario Northland when this news broke. As it turned out, the day I had already planned to be in Wawa ended up being the day of the last northbound departure out of Hawk Junction, so I was able to catch the last departure. I didn’t end up scheduling in a ride, but I was at least able to photograph and see it off.
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As an earlier post on this blog noted, for the last few weeks of service, the train was operating north of Hawk Junction only, with no service provided south of Hawk Junction, and occasionally erratic north of there.

The last run north on July 13 accordingly originated out of Hawk Junction yard where it had parked the night before. The engine uncoupled and ran around in order to be on the head end facing north and moved the train from its overnight storage location in one of the yard tracks over to the station platform to load passengers (3 or 4 people riding on a one-way ticket to Errington’s Wilderness Island Resort at Wabatong – planning to fly out later via float plane as there would be no more train service).

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The last run would depart Hawk Junction, run as far as Oba only, runaround and return to Hawk that evening. The next day, the equipment was scheduled to head to Sault Ste. Marie, officially ending service.

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In the wake of the service’s termination, everything just continues to give the impression of a huge mess. The EDC and passenger working group have indicating that they are trying to investigate other options to get the service running again. As RailMark was CN’s choice (from which the working group has tried to distance themselves), the city and working group publicly suggested that CN should step in to “clean up its mess” and operate the passenger service in the interim. CN for its part, has said they are not in a position to do so. Meanwhile, RailMark suggested a willingness to keep things going on a month-to-month agreement, even if another operator is ultimately chosen. The EDC rejected this proposal as unrealistic.

The impacts of the lost service and the finger-pointing and recriminations continue. Many blame RailMark of course, for not being able to prove they can run a proper service. Some blame CN for their choice of RailMark and question the due diligence , Some of the more conspiratorily-minded suggest it was CN’s plan all along to get rid of the passenger service without being the villain. Just today, RailMark fired back with a scathing missive against the city and the EDC, while admitting some mistakes on both sides, placing most of the blame squarely on bureaucratic rigidity and lambasting a “lack of leadership”, indicating that the line of credit which was a pre-condition of the agreement was difficult to obtain without the signed agreement, and suggesting that RailMark has become a convenient political scapegoat.

Here’s a few links to recent articles in the local media covering the ongoing situation:

Passenger Service to Hearst ending on July 15

Well, that’s it. Thanks to the lack of financing obtained by RailMark, it seems the passenger service will make its last run next week:

Sault-Hearst rail service to cease July 15

RailMark’s financing, in the form of a line of credit, was the Economic Development Corporation’s primary pre-condition for RailMark to prove their financial health and stability prior to having the city sign the agreement to transfer funding from the federal government and while at last report RailMark was still attempting to obtain sources of financing, it appears this is no longer forthcoming.

Passenger Service Still Limited on the ACR

It appears the difficulties with the Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst passenger service on the former ACR continue, at least south of Hawk Junction.

According to an article in the Sault Star, since June 25 the service has only been operating between Hawk Junction and Hearst, with travellers from Sault Ste. Marie being shuttled up the road from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa, but otherwise providing no service to points south of Hawk Junction.

Since RailMark has fully taken over operation of the passenger service, they only have a single crew available for running the train, and with several slow orders on the line, it can take over the 12 hours allowed for a crew to be on duty to make the entire trip from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst or vice versa. CN would make the run using two crews, but RailMark only has one crew. This is the same reason that caused the earlier service disruption that stranded people: when allegations of a violation were brought against the train crew (which they were later cleared), they could not legally operate a train while under investigation and RailMark had no other crews.

My question that comes to mind: with this crew situation, what happens if an employee gets sick or ever wants to have their own vacation? ‘Sorry, your train didn’t run today because the engineer got a cold’? I understand that at this point, the funding is a sticking point with RailMark being able to provide more crews, but now we have only half an operation running, and certain camp and lodge operators are starting to become quite vocal about their disappointment and continuing to express concern about the overall uncertainty of the whole operation, which this is not continuing to mitigate.

This leaves a whole section of the line unserved, and while there aren’t really communities along the line, the heaviest concentration of private camps and cabins on the ACR is in the first hundred miles north of Sault Ste. Marie, and there is currently absolutely no access to them and this still puts a damper on the ‘Tour of the Line’ experience and also cancels the Canyon Combo that CN used to operate, wherein you could ride the Agawa Canyon Tour Train to Canyon, experience the park and then be picked up by the regular train to continue your journey. (And we’re just finishing up the Canada Day-Independence Day combo long weekend, a typically heavy tourist weekend.)

So the struggle continues; and I guess I should only expect to catch the Agawa Canyon Tour Train through the Sault Ste. Marie-Searchmont area when I’m up there on vacation soon and not try to wait for and catch the regular train, which won’t be coming.

Interesting travelogue and a bit more on that service disruption

Over on the Trains magazine site, this interesting two-part travelogue has been posted under one of the editorial sections. The writer traveled from Sudbury to White River on VIA Rail’s RDC (self-propelled Budd Rail Diesel Cars) train service and then intending to ride from White River to Franz and catch the southbound ACR service to Sault Ste. Marie. Unfortunately this happened to be on the day that the passenger train got held up, and he wound up waiting at Franz for no train. Fortunately there was a CN employee that was able to give him a ride out to Hawk Junction in a hi-rail truck. Check out both links, it’s an interesting re-cap:

In the second link, he includes this paragraph, which clears up a few other details about the situation that caused the cancellation:

A half hour later (around 1:20 PM), I called again, and the agent made it clear, without divulging details, that she felt it highly unlikely that the ACR train would complete its run that day. I later discovered that a formal complaint was filed with Transport Canada around 10:30 that morning against the crew of the ACR train, alleging that a violation of operating rules had occurred the previous day (the ACR crew was later cleared of any wrongdoing). Once such a complaint is filed, neither crew involved can legally operate a train during a mandatory 48-hour investigation period. That day was only the day after a new operator, Railmark Canada Ltd., had formally taken over the passenger train’s operating contract (replacing CN crews with its own). Since Railmark had not been able to hire any additional crew, it had no way of operating the train until the investigation was complete.

That’s a bit clearer than just “unspecified infraction” that showed up in the media articles which didn’t really have any more information, and I think wraps that all up rather nicely.

Results from Today’s Sault City Council Meeting

I was able to watch the portion of the city council meeting (via live-streaming online) where the passenger working group’s motion (to not, at this time, sign the funding agreement with RailMark Canada) was presented and discussed.

Tom Dodds, on behalf of the local Economic Development Corporation (EDC) and the passenger train working group, and Allen Brown, president of RailMark, were both able to address the council and respond to questions before the motion was called and voted on.

Some highlights:

  • Dodds’ presentation reiterated the interest of various local groups in the health of not just the passenger service, but the rail network around the Sault in general, the economic benefit to the area of the various rail connections and services, and the working group’s strong support of the service. The working group feels that in addition to providing actual access to the country north of Sault Ste. Marie, due to the low levels of freight traffic on the ACR line, the revenues from the passenger train’s use of CN’s tracks, while a fraction of the maintenance costs of the line, would not be insignificant to the continued health of the overall line.
  • Dodds tried to make it clear that the working group is not trying to say “no” to anyone, but reiterated that the EDC’s precondition to recommending the city sign the funding agreement was that the operator (RailMark) have suitable financing (in the form of a line of credit of up to three months operating costs) to prove the financial ability to maintain the service. So far, no documentation to demonstrate this has been provided, and this is why they recommend the city not sign the agreement at this time.
  • It was suggested that other options may be and should be explored with CN, the working group, RailMark and Transport Canada. This may be towards the end of exploring other operators, but not necessarily ruling out RailMark if they can still make this work. Above all else, they want confidence and stability in the operation, and the current state of the funding agreement is definitely creating some uncertainty.
  • It was acknowledged that from April 1 to May 1, CN had continued to operate the passenger service, being subsidized directly from the federal government under an extension of the previous agreement. Since May 1, RailMark has been operating the service entirely at their own cost. During the initial period, crews were provided by CN, but paid for by RailMark as RailMark gradually took over, but apparently as of last Thursday, it’s a fully RailMark operation.
  • The passenger service and the Agawa Canyon Tour Train should be considered separate operations, and at this point the discussion is entirely about the funding and operating of the regular service, but ideally both will fall under the same operator, as the two services would naturally work well together and could share some resources. Due to the time frames involved with the current season, CN and RailMark have agreed that CN will continue to operate the Canyon tour train for at least this season.
  • Brown’s address to council acknowledged the difficulty in obtaining the aforementioned line of credit, but mentioned that it would have been much easier if there had at least been a conditional agreement subject to the desired financing. However, due to the preconditions, there is currently *no* signed agreement at all, and his US bankers who would have otherwise been ready to provide the required line of credit are hesitant. Since then, says Brown, he has been mainly trying to work with Canadian sources of financing, and suggested he may actually be close to an agreement; he hoped to have something in hand at today’s meeting but will have to return to Michigan to have his accountant prepare some required financial information records.
  • Brown also stated that as an American company trying to take over a Canadian railway operation there has also been a lot of work and a learning curve to climb. But RailMark did indeed obtain their certificate of fitness from Transport Canada, and that was the first such certificate under new tightened regulations (although I’m not real conversant in railway fitness requirements to know much about what the newer requirements are).
  • Little mention was made of the service disruption last week other than by a councillor who made a comment about doing business with a company that create a couple of “uncomfortable situations” including the recent stranding of travellers during a follow up question to something in Mr. Dodds’ address. But then I guess when VIA Rail has service disruptions due to “Operational Issues” not much is publicly stated either, just there’s so many railfans and watchers in southern Ontario that everyone seems to know the whole story within about an hour. And VIA passengers usually at least have other options.
  • One councillor asked Brown if he could comment on the state of the unresolved issues with the Columbia Star Dinner train in Missouri. Brown indicated that this train basically got caught up in complications regarding the failed sale or merger of one of his divisions to TBG Group, and he really should have resolved that by now but has been so focused on the Algoma Central deal, but suggested that a legal action from his company would likely be forthcoming but that his lawyer (for obvious reasons) said he shouldn’t mention anything about that (to which the mayor commented “You might want to listen to your lawyer”, with what seemed to be just a trace of snark).
  • The final word seemed to be given by the city’s mayor who took a slight issue with something Brown said about various actions to comply with the city’s requests and the mayor wished to clarify that Brown and/or RailMark was not acting on the request of the city and that “any actions you take going forward are of your own volition” before dismissing Brown and calling the vote. This delivery came across rather like a verbal body slam against Brown, and he seemed visibly frustrated on being dismissed, and I can’t say I blame him. It’s been a bumpy road so far and multiple parties are understandable concerned, but from Brown’s perspective, working with multiple stakeholder groups, corporations and levels of government bureaucracy can’t be easy either.

Ultimately the vote was called (to not sign the agreement at this time) and passed. The vote was asked to be recorded, and it was unanimous in favour of the motion.

So at this time, the agreement goes unsigned. I guess it’s up to the working group, RailMark and CN what happens next. If Brown does have a suitable source of financing lined up, maybe this whole thing can still come together soon and find some stability.

[Edit: here’s an article from the Sault Star covering today’s meeting.]