Passenger Operations

Regular Service

Regular passenger service on the ACR was provided by train nos. 1 and 2 from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst (and vice versa).

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Northbound no. 1 at the north end of Steelton yard, departing for Hearst with GP38-2 201 in the lead, Sept. 7, 1983. Francis J. Wiener photo in my collection.

In the 1980 timetable, no. 1 was scheduled to depart Sault Ste. Marie at 9:30 am daily except Mondays (with no. 2 therefore running daily except Tuesdays) in the summer timetable, and only Fridays through Sundays (Saturday to Monday for no. 2) an hour earlier at 8:30 am in the fall/winter timetable.

If you turn back the clock a bit to the 1950s-1960s, passenger service was also included on the Michipicoten subdivision, and nos. 1 and 2 were actually daily excluding Sundays between Sault Ste. Marie and Michipicoten, connecting with trains 3 and 4 to/from Hearst at Hawk Junction. (Although in the late 1940s to early 1950s, three days a week this ran instead as Mixed (freight and passenger) trains 5 and 6. If you go far enough back in history, all passenger service was in mixed trains.) Passenger service on the branch was discontinued in the mid 1960s when Trans-Canada Highway 17 was completed through the area.

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The last northbound passenger train to leave Hawk Junction prepares for departure. July 13, 2015. My photo.

In more current times, CN continued to operate the regular passenger service (as trains P631 and P632) until early 2015, when for funding and political reasons the service was undertaken by a new operator (Railmark) which unfortunately – again, due to financial and political complications – was not successful and passenger service was terminated in July of 2015. As of this writing, local stakeholder groups are searching for and negotiating with potential new operators to try to save the service.

Tour Trains

In the 1950s, recognizing the scenic beauty of the Canyon and the tourist potential, the Algoma Central Railway established the privately owned Agawa Canyon Park and developed the location as a destination for a day trip tour out of Sault Ste. Marie on the “Agawa Canyon Tour Train”.

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Tour train coaches dropped off by no. 1 at Canyon, July 3, 1972. R.J. Schwenk photo in my collection.

Some of the older coaches were upgraded with modified steps for easy de-training of passengers at the siding and service started out with regular train no. 1 dropping off a dining car and a coach or two in the siding to be picked up later by the southbound no. 2. This service grew in popularity throughout the 1960s with more and more cars being regularly set off in the siding at Canyon. By the early 1970s so many cars were being used in the Agawa Canyon Tour Train service that an extra train was run to exclusively handle the tour cars for Canyon. By the mid 1970s, it was permanently added as a regular daily train (nos. 3 and 4) in the summer timetable. Also from 1969 to 1974 “new” passenger cars were acquired to expand and replace the existing fleet, with coaches, baggage cars and dining cars acquired secondhand from such roads as Canadian Pacific, Central of Georgia, Southern Pacific, Santa Fe, Illinois Central, Union Pacific, and Denver & Rio Grande Western.

Equipment for the tour train service was upgraded again in the early 1990s with cars acquired from VIA Rail, and most recently in 2009 with the purchase of the Rio Grande Ski Train from Denver, Colorado. The Agawa Canyon Tour train still operates on a daily basis during the summer as CN P633 (for the entire round trip).

The long term future of the train is however uncertain as CN has been indicating they are not interesting in being in the passenger business. The original plan when Railmark assumed operation of the regular passenger service was for them to eventually operate the tour train as well; with the new search for another replacement operator, the idea as I understand it would again be to have that operator take control of all passenger service.

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Modern Agawa Canyon Tour Train at Canyon. July 2014. My photo.

Somewhere around the late 1970s the railway also began running a weekend-only fall/winter version of the tour train service, with tour coaches being exchanged by regular trains no. 1 and 2 at Eton, without the stopover at Canyon park. In the 1990s and early 2000s the “Snow Train” ran as a separate train in its own right, still running through the entirety of the canyon and turning at Eton. This train has not run in several years now.

Here we go again – proposals received for ACR passenger service

The deadline for new proposals for operating the Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst passenger service has arrived and the local Sault Star newspaper is reporting on their web site that three proposals have been submitted, with a possible fourth to come from a late arrival to the process:

RFP results in proposals to run train service

After the first attempt at finding an operator which led to the selection of RailMark Inc., which for several complicated reasons did not end well, it appears that this time the working group will have all proposals reviewed by a third party consultant to compare the submitted proposals to the information contained in the RFP (Request for Proposals) and also do additional background checking of each company.

Once the proposals have been compared, they will then be reviewed by the stakeholder group and CN. Obviously CN, as the owner of the tracks, will have to provide their approval of the operator, and the group hopes to have the city’s nod as well, as the administrator of the federal funding, before a selected proposal is submitted to Transport Canada for approval. With a federal election and possible changes in the government just weeks away, it’s expected that such a submission will occur after the October election.

The article notes that some of the pre-conditions for approval (which RailMark notably failed to meet) will be the same this time around.

It’s also noted that the proposals at this time are strictly for the regular passenger service, not the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, which CN has continued to operate this season, but is entertaining offers/proposals for that service as well. The article mentions that it is unknown whether CN has received any interest for the tour train, but the benefits of the same operator running both the regular train and tour train are obvious, as the two services can share equipment and connect the services in other ways as well. (Until last year CN offered a combo package with the Tour of the Line where you could ride the Agawa Canyon Tour Train to Canyon park, enjoy the park for a while and get picked up by the northbound regular train to continue the Tour of the Line experience. When I rode the train to Hearst in 2013, I just rode the regular train as the Canyon train was sold out, but my friend that I travelled with, having booked earlier, was able to take advantage of this deal.)

Anyway, we’ll see what develops out of the proposals. Hopefully for all concerned it works out this time. While communities, private cottage and camp owners and tourist outfitters and resort/lodge owners have certainly hurt from the cessation of service, it’s worth remembering that whatever issues there were, RailMark also lost huge when they got forced out due to the lack of financing after operating for several months at a total loss. I think it’s in everyone’s best interest to have *all* the ducks in a row on this.

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.