Five years into her grassroots battle to improve public transportation in and out of Sarnia, Mabel Higgins is discouraged and doesn’t hold back.
“We’re prisoners in Sarnia,” she says. “We can’t count on the train to run efficiently and we don’t have enough options.”
If you live in Sarnia and don’t do highway driving, there are indeed very few choices.
Robert Q bus service runs four times a day to London and is the most frequent option, but it’s expensive. A one-way ticket is $42.40.
Otherwise, there’s VIA Rail where service cuts in 2012 left Sarnia with only one train in at 10:20 p.m. and one train out at 6:10 a.m. every day.
Higgins’ group (Rail Advocates In Lambton) formed shortly afterward and made some headway.
Robert Q bus service now picks up passengers at Sarnia’s VIA Rail station for transport to London’s VIA Rail station, which in turn gets them to Toronto and beyond. And the Sarnia station is now open at the time of those pickups so passengers are sheltered.
But no trains have been added. That’s despite a grand gesture in 2015 by VIA Rail’s CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano who came to Sarnia to say he would negotiate with the freight side of the business and try to get more track time so passenger service could increase to four trains a day. That’s gone nowhere.
Yet R.A.I.L. is not defeated, says Higgins.
“We’re still hopeful that the new government understands what’s happening in rural communities of Ontario,” she said.
Recent news that Doug Ford’s PCs have expanded a study of a high speed corridor to include Windsor buoyed Higgins’ spirits.
“We continue to meet with VIA. In fact we have a meeting with them next week. We’re still talking and we’re still hoping to combine efforts with Windsor,” she said.
“Our biggest problem in Sarnia is that we are a spur.”
Another challenge is that freight always takes priority over passenger rail in Canada, Higgins added.
“That’s why we need collaboration between the provincial and federal governments to change that and create something that works for passengers.”
Apart from a single train daily, Sarnians looking to get home or to London have only Robert Q bus service to turn to.
Passenger counts are up very slightly with the busy holiday season nearly here, says Robert Q Executive Vice President Brad Rice.
But it’s not nearly enough to justify a decrease in price or additional vehicles on the road, he said. Robert Q’s passenger load is generally only 50%.
At $84.80 for a round trip to London, many have a hard time affording Robert Q bus travel, said Higgins. And Greyhound doesn’t service Sarnia.
Sarnians were offered a small ray of hope last summer when the former Liberal government approved a $1.45 million grant to boost bus service between London, Strathroy and Sarnia.
Once the grant was approved, the City of Sarnia did a survey to see what citizens want, but nothing has moved ahead since the Ford government took office.
That’s because of the PC government’s freeze on discretionary spending, says Mayor Mike Bradley.
However, an economic statement issued by the province in early November suggested the PC’s may be backing away from high-speed rail and considering improved bus and VIA Rail service instead, Bradley said.
“(But it was) very vague,” he added.