What's the future of the Agawa Canyon Tour Train?

Date01 May 2019

With the looming expiration of an operating agreement to run the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation (SSMEDC) wants to shake the bushes to maximize the tourism potential of the world-famous wilderness excursion.

The corporation posted a request for proposals (RFP) on March 5 for a consultant to map out a new and expanded business case and operating model for the city's signature tourism attraction.

A 10-year agreement between CN Rail, the economic development corporation, and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund expires after the 2020 tourism season.

"With the agreement coming to an end, we want to look at opportunities on what new markets, demographics, and what new experiences can be had with upgrades in the canyon to provide a better visitor experience," said SSMEDC executive director Dan Hollingsworth.

The study will be the cornerstone document behind a new 10-year business plan for the tour train to identify new tourism products and experiences geared to attracting wilderness enthusiasts. The ultimate aim is to boost ridership and revenue in the summer and fall months.

CN Rail owns the 295-mile track between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, formerly known as the Algoma Central Railway. The rail carrier picked up the line when it acquired the Wisconsin Central in 2001.

The track was laid at the beginning of the early 1900s as part of the industrial empire built by American entrepreneur Francis Clergue in Sault Ste. Marie. The Algoma Central Railway was created to haul iron ore from the mines at Wawa to feed the furnaces at Algoma Steel.

Mining operations shut down in 1998, but the line gained greater international attention for the Agawa Canyon train, considered the "heart" of the city's tourism industry.

It's a one-day return trip through the Canadian Shield from downtown Sault Ste. Marie, 114 miles north, to the Agawa Canyon Park, roughly a nine-hour trip. The rugged and picturesque canyon gained notoriety as a painting location for the Group of Seven artists.

In a typical year, Hollingsworth said the tour train draws more than 30,000 riders, a far cry from the excursion's heyday in the 1980s when it would annually attract more than 100,000 international visitors in running from late June to early October.

Over the years, the railway, the city, and the province funded $11.2 million in improvements to upgrade the train's rolling stock and the onboard audio-visual presentation.

But the attraction...

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