Planes, trains, and automobiles (sort of): Getting to and around northern Ontario without a car

On a 58-hour trip by bus, train, and mini-bus from Toronto to Thunder Bay, you’ll get a close look at the countryside — and at the challenges of intercity travel
By Sean Marshall - Published on Sep 10, 2019
mini bus
Kasper began offering scheduled bus services in March 2014 from Sioux Lookout and now operates five routes in Northwestern Ontario. (Sean Marshall)

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Before this summer, I’d been to Sarnia, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins — almost all the major Ontario cities, in fact. But I’d never been to Thunder Bay. This summer, I decided to change that. There was only one problem: I don’t have a car. And, as experts and locals can attest, navigating the north without one can be tricky. In my case, it involved a three-day journey from Toronto to Thunder Bay by bus and rail — and some unexpected snags.

According to local transportation advocate Lucille Frith, it can be “quite an adventure to get around Northern Ontario without a car.” The region has a total population of less than 800,000, but it encompasses an area the size of France. While airports in Timmins, Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, and Thunder Bay offer multiple flights daily to Toronto, it can be difficult and expensive to travel between the cities themselves. Other towns along highways 11 and 17 may have only infrequent bus service, and in the far north, dozens of First Nations communities are accessible only by air and/or winter road.

I started out from the Toronto Coach Terminal on the Friday before July long weekend. Taking the train wasn’t an option. Over the past 30 years, rail options to and in the north have disappeared: in 1990, the federal government slashed subsidies to VIA Rail, eliminating the daily rail service along the Canadian Pacific mainline that connected Winnipeg, Thunder Bay, Sudbury, Ottawa, and Toronto with dozens of towns in between, as well as direct train service between Timmins and Kapuskasing. In 2012, Ontario Northland’s train between Toronto and Cochrane was also discontinued, and, in 2014, the Algoma Central Railway’s passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst ran for the last time.

Advocates such as Frith, co-chair of the Northeastern Ontario Rail Network, would like to see the return of daily passenger rail services, and Ontario Northland and Metrolinx are currently collaborating on the development of a new detailed business case. But, for now, northerners who are unable to drive between towns and cities — and southerners who want to get there in the first place — must either find a ride, take a bus, or fly.

Greyhound wasn’t an option, either: the company has been cutting back and cancelling routes — in October 2018, the company abandoned all service west of Sudbury, including the daily coach on the Trans-Canada Highway.

I was, though, able to get a seat on one of two sold-out Ontario Northland Transportation Commission coaches departing at 11 a.m. for Sudbury: a six-hour trip. From there, I’d be able to take a train to White River and then another bus to Thunder Bay. (If I’d left Toronto at 12:30 a.m., I could have cut the travel time to just under 21 hours by connecting via North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, and White River— but I wanted to visit with family in Sudbury that evening.)

Ontario Northland bus
Last year, Ontario Northland introduced new services to Manitoulin Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Wawa, White River, and Hornepayne. (Sean Marshall)

Unlike other operators, Ontario Northland has been expanding its services. Traditionally, its buses operated north-south on the Highway 11 and 69 corridors, connecting Toronto with North Bay, Sudbury, Timmins, and Cochrane. In 2016, though, it began operating a bus three days a week on Highway 17 from Sudbury to Ottawa, supplementing Greyhound’s daily run. A year later, the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (which has jurisdiction over Ontario Northland) and the Ministry of Transportation announced new funding to support expansion of Ontario Northland and private coach services in Northern Ontario — Ontario Northland’s Ottawa service became daily, and more buses were added between Kapuskasing and Hearst. Last year, Ontario Northland introduced new services to Manitoulin Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Wawa, White River, and Hornepayne. The company has managed to buck the trend of declining intercity-coach operations, carrying more than 300,000 passengers in 2018.

By the time my coach arrived at the third stop, Orillia, we were already two hours behind schedule: traffic was backed up on Highway 400 and in Orillia because of a major collision in town. We didn’t make it to Sudbury until 7:15 p.m.

The next morning, I took the 9 a.m. train to White River. VIA Rail Canada still operates a two-car train on the Canadian Pacific mainline through the forests and lakes northwest of Sudbury to the small community of 600 people. Services are minimal on the thrice-weekly remote service — only water, coffee, and light snacks are offered on board — but the train will stop anywhere along the route if staff are given enough notice, and the baggage car can take fishing and camping gear, kayaks, and canoes. Most passengers on the train boarded or disembarked at remote stops with limited or no road access. The train is usually late (CP’s transcontinental freight trains take precedence at all passing sidings), but we pulled into the White River terminal just five minutes after the scheduled 5 p.m. arrival.

White River doesn’t have much to offer a car-less city dweller, though the fishing in the area is said to be excellent. There are two motels on the highway, a small co-operative grocery store, two gas stations, an A&W fast food outlet, one bar, and a food truck. A statue of Winnie-the-Pooh and a picnic area with a large playground attract long-distance travellers off the highway. But I didn’t have much time to take in the sights, because I had booked a ride early the next morning on the Kasper bus bound for Thunder Bay.

Via Rail train
VIA Rail Canada operates a two-car train on the Canadian Pacific mainline through the forests and lakes northwest of Sudbury to White River. (Sean Marshall)

Kasper began offering scheduled bus services in March 2014 from Sioux Lookout. It now operates five routes in Northwestern Ontario, connecting Thunder Bay with Sioux Lookout, Fort Frances, White River, and Longlac, and Sioux Lookout with Winnipeg. The company uses a fleet of smaller buses and vans, matching demand with capacity, and so is able to somewhat mitigate the higher costs of operating scheduled services in Northern Ontario.

“Business can respond quicker and more effectively then government to social needs like bus transportation,” says company president Kasper Wabinski. But operating in Northern Ontario, he notes, does pose certain specific challenges: as well as the fuel, maintenance and insurance costs, there are also the delays caused by weather and collisions on remote two-lane highways. Wabinski has “big plans… to grow and expand our service” and says he’d like to see “government to continue focusing on creating a positive healthy business environment for companies to thrive, create, jobs, and grow.”

In April 2019, the federal government offered to share the cost of funding intercity bus service with the provinces in the wake of Greyhound’s departure from Northern Ontario and Western Canada, but, at the time, only British Columbia had accepted the offer. Wabinski says that the provincial PC government has promised to match federal funding that could help northern operators such as Kasper, but no official announcement has yet been made. (The Ministry of Transportation did not respond to a request for comment from TVO.org.)

Thanks to my Kasper booking, I got to experience first-hand some of the region-specific challenges Wabinski referred to. Less than two weeks before, I’d been informed of a change in plans: a boom in local gold mining has created a housing shortage in White River, and the two motels are often completely full, meaning there’s no room to put up a driver. So, instead of leaving for Thunder Bay at 7:10 a.m., as originally scheduled, the bus arrived from Thunder Bay in the mid-afternoon and then left White River at 3:40 p.m. Luckily, I was able to negotiate a late checkout and took the additional time to catch up on some reading at the roadside park.

After the mini-bus finally pulled of town, I quickly found I was in for a comfortable — and scenic — ride. We made stops at towns and First Nations communities between White River and Thunder Bay, along the north shore of Lake Superior (there are no washroom facilities on Kasper vehicles, so those stops gave us the opportunity for bathroom and refreshment breaks). Fellow passengers included a couple who had been stranded when their RV broke down near Marathon, a Newfoundland expatriate travelling between fishing camps, and a Marathon resident headed to Thunder Bay International Airport. 

I ended up arriving in Thunder Bay at 9:15 p.m., more than 58 hours after I’d left downtown Toronto. All told, the Ontario/VIA/Kasper rides cost me $331.79. Many passengers would probably prefer to fly from Toronto to Thunder Bay — my Porter Airlines flight back to Toronto was less than half the cost of the bus and rail tickets — but not everyone wants or is able to fly. And some people, like me, welcome the chance (and have the freedom) to get a better sense of the culture and landscape on the way to their destination. Yes, a long train ride will always be more comfortable, accessible, and enjoyable than a long-distance bus trip —but, unless and until northern rail service is restored, buses will have to do.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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