TIMMINS -- Ontario Northland is temporarily suspending its Polar Bear Express passenger train, starting April 7, following conversations with First Nations chiefs, health officials and the town of Moosonee.

This comes after the company initially reduced its service from four days a week to two and implemented stricter screening measures for COVID-19.

Ontario Northland President and CEO, Corina Moore, said as circumstances have changed, so too does the company's level of response.

"We came together over the last number of days to talk about all of the options and made a decision collaboratively ... that the right step at this point was to pause service," said Moore in a Zoom interview. "This situation, as everybody knows, is evolving very quickly and we must support the needs of these vulnerable communities."


Ontario Northland 1 April 2020

(The Polar Bear Express is the only land-link to Moosonee. April 2/20. Sergio Arangio/CTV News Northern Ontario)

The suspension is currently planned to last two weeks, with Ontario Northland and community leaders having weekly teleconferences revisiting the situation as the pandemic progresses.

The company has stated that those with bookings after April 7 will be reimbursed.

Freight services will continue to run as usual to deliver supplies and flights to Moosonee are running at a reduced service.

Protecting a remote community

First Nations leaders previously sent letters to the company and the Town of Moosonee requesting suspended train service.

Air and rail travel are the only means of accessing the area and the town’s mayor, Wayne Taipale, said many rely on the train as an affordable way to seek medical services than are otherwise not available.


Ontario Northland Train
(Though air travel is available to and from Moosonee, health officials discourage non-essential trips. April 2/20. Sergio Arangio/CTV News Northern Ontario)

That made it a conflicting decision, Taipale said, but it came down to the overall health of the community.

"We are all in a learning curve on this," said Taipale in a phone interview.

"Everything came to us at once and we had to figure out a solution."

'We have to look at the whole picture'

The town will be working with its local health authority to arrange chartered flights to Kingston, Ontario for people to access medical treatment, Taipale said.

He wishes the town had more time to discuss the situation with First Nations communities, but with a major decision made, Taipale said everyone can still come together and talk next steps.

Ontario Northland 3 April 2020
(Ontario Northland freight trains will still be delivering food and supplies. April 2/20. Sergio Arangion/CTV News Northern Ontario)

"We all have to really look at the whole picture," Taipale said. "Each community — whether it’s Moosonee, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Attawapiskat, Peawanuck, Moose Cree or Mo(hawk) Quebec — we’re all unique. We all have to be sitting at the table and trying to find a solution to this that fits everybody."