GO Transit bus at Uxbridge
Over the last 15 years, GO Transit has done well expanding its bus and rail operations. It opened up new stations, such as Mount Pleasant, Lincolnville, Barrie South, Allandale Waterfront, and West Harbour. It introduced the Highway 407 service, finally making York University accessible to thousands of suburban students. And it extended its reach to Waterloo and Peterborough, not only serving post-secondary institutions and residents in those cities, but also making it easier for cyclists like myself to explore new trails and destinations.
But as GO Transit expands, there are many gaps, large and small, that should be closed. Coinciding with GO Transit’s expansion, intercity bus operators have been cutting back; dozens of Ontario towns and cities no longer have any coach service, and many more have saw their service cut back. Several municipalities in GO’s service area have resisted operating local transit systems, and GO’s use of park-and-ride lots has made their bus services difficult to reach without a car. In this post, I discuss some of these challenges.
The lost corridors
The Kitchener-Waterloo-Hamilton-Guelph triangle is the most important gap in the longer-distance transportation network in the Greater Golden Horseshoe
For many decades, both the Toronto Transit Commission and the Hamilton Street Railway owned subsidiary companies that operated intercity coaches. The TTC owned Grey Coach Lines; the HSR owned Canada Coach Lines. As early as 1940, Grey Coach served dozens of cities and towns, its buses radiating out of the Toronto Coach Terminal on Bay Street. CCL operated buses from Hamilton to Guelph, Kitchener, Niagara Falls, Port Colborne, Caledonia, Port Dover, and elsewhere. In 1989, the TTC sold Grey Coach to Greyhound, while the HSR sold CCL to Trentway-Wagar in 1993. (Trentway-Wagar was later purchased by Scotland-based Stagecoach; it now operates as Coach Canada and Megabus.)
In the 1990s and 2000s, both Greyhound (itself purchased by another Scotland-based company, FirstGroup) and Coach Canada cut back their routes. Cities and towns such as Midland, Penetanguishine, Tillsonburg, St. Thomas, Stratford, Sarnia, and Cobourg were abandoned by Greyhound, and other cities, like Owen Sound, Collingwood, and Belleville, saw their bus services reduced.
In 2009, Coach Canada terminated its Guelph-Hamilton service. In Spacing, I argued that this was a corridor that GO Transit should expand to. AboutTown, an operator based out of London, tried to revive the bus service (along with a connection between London and St. Thomas, as well as between London and Kitchener via Stratford), but the company went into receivership in 2013.
Today, the Hamilton-Guelph-Kitchener triangle, home to over a million people and tens of thousands of university and college students, has unacceptably lousy service. Between Hamilton and Kitchener, there are only 3 to 5 buses a day, operated by Megabus (a subsidiary of Coach Canada). Between Hamilton and Guelph, there are none.
Commuters travelling between Kitchener and Guelph are somewhat more fortunate; they have the choice of choice of 2 GO trains (weekdays only), 2 VIA trains, and 7 or 8 Greyhound buses. But I also believe that better transit options are necessary between Guelph and Waterloo Region; GO Transit, or a partnership between Grand River Transit and Guelph Transit, would be appropriate.
In order to travel between Hamilton and Guelph, one must take a GO bus (Route 46) from Downtown Hamilton or McMaster University) to Square One, and transfer to GO Route 29, a 2 hour and 20 minute trip. Downtown Guelph and Downtown Hamilton are about 45 kilometres away by car, or 45 minutes driving time.
While private operators have twice abandoned the Guelph-Hamilton corridor, GO Transit has been quite successful expanding to Kitchener/Waterloo, Niagara, and Peterborough; I feel that it is time for GO Transit to give it a shot. After all, the Province of Ontario will be spending over $300 million to build a new four-lane freeway between Guelph and Kitchener. In my opinion, an improved highway link is necessary; the existing Highway 7 between the two cities is severely congested. But the province should be also spending money on intercity transit corridors, not just roads.
Other towns in which GO should consider expanding bus service include New Tecumseh, where PMCL (a local operator swallowed by Greyhound) used to offer a commuter bus, serving the communities of Alliston and Tottenham, as well as “train-meet” buses to Oshawa GO Station from Cobourg and Port Hope, recently abandoned by Greyhound, and possibly Lindsay.
Where local transit isn’t useful, or simply doesn’t exist
In the last 15 years, there has been a trend towards regionalising local transit systems in the Greater Golden Horseshoe. Waterloo, York, and Durham Regions fully amalgamated their local transit agencies, while Niagara Region introduced several bus routes connecting St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Welland/Port Colborne, and Fort Erie in 2011, but did not go as far as amalgamate the local systems together.
Regionalisation has had many benefits. In Waterloo Region, Kitchener Transit and Cambridge Transit were merged into Grand River Transit. GRT integrated the separate systems (despite having a common border, Kitchener’s and Cambridge’s buses didn’t even connect), introduced new routes, and improved schedules. Waterloo Region is now building a light rail system, called ION, which will open in 2017. In 2001, York Region amalgamated five separate local transit systems, extended bus service into towns such as Stouffville and King City, and later introduced Viva, a network of separately-branded limited stop bus routes. Durham Region followed suit in 2006.
However, Halton and Peel Regions have resisted. In Peel Region, both local systems are quite large; Mississauga Transit (Miway) is the fourth largest transit system in Ontario (after the TTC, OC Transpo, and GO Transit), and Brampton Transit the
seventh eighth (after Hamilton Street Railway, Grand River Transit, and York Region Transit). Halton has three separate systems, in Oakville, Burlington, and Milton.
But Caledon, with a population of over 60,000, has no local transit, despite having two suburban growth centres adjacent to Brampton and York Region. Similarly, Halton Hills, with a population size similar to Caledon’s, has no bus service either, even though Georgetown, the municipality’s largest community, has an urban population of over 30,000. Neither municipality is eager to start up a bus service, or even contract a neighbouring service, like Brampton Transit, to operate within their boundaries.
Bradford-West Gwillimbury recently introduced a local transit service, serving the community of Bradford. It connects the big box shopping districts in the west with residential areas and the downtown core, as well as the Bradford GO Station. But service only operates weekdays, between 7AM and 5PM, not early enough to meet most southbound GO trains, and service wraps up too soon to meet even the first northbound train from Union Station.
Grimsby, population 25,000, is another municipality without local transit service. Coach Canada used to operate several buses a day between Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Grimsby and Hamilton via Old Highway 8, but it terminated that service in 2014, partly blaming GO Transit’s QEW bus service. But while Coach Canada’s bus service ran through each downtown area, GO Route 12 doesn’t stop in Beamsville, and in Grimsby, it stops at a park-and-ride lot at the QEW and Casablanca Blvd., over three kilometres from the town centre, and a $15 taxi ride for some Grimsby residents. The VIA station, just north of Grimsby’s downtown, now only sees one train a day, the Maple Leaf between Toronto and New York City.
In Caledon, Halton Hills, Grimsby, and other smaller communities in the GGH, the only transit available is the GO bus (which charges exorbitant fares for short distances), or paratransit, which is only available for persons with disabilities. In Bradford, or in Port Perry and Uxbridge (where Durham Region Transit offers minimal transit services), the transit service is so infrequent that it might as well not exist for most customers.
Happily, in the larger suburban municipalities, GO Transit and local transit systems connect quite well. In Oakville, Burlington, Milton, Pickering, and Ajax, the local GO stations are the main transfer hubs. Mississauga, Brampton, and in York Region, many routes serve bus loops at the GO stations, or serve adjacent terminals, such as in Downtown Brampton and at Richmond Hill Centre.
Milton: Where small gaps add up
There are a number of much smaller gaps in the not-quite-a-transit-network that is Greater Golden Horseshoe’s transit. The Town of Milton is just one example.
GO Transit serves two separate facilities in the Town of Milton. The Milton GO Station, just to the east of Downtown Milton, is the terminus of GO’s Milton Corridor commuter trains to Toronto. Route 21, the “Train Bus” service to Union Station, and Route 27, the weekday express bus to Meadowvale and North York, also terminate here, but both routes make local stops along Derry Road. From Milton Station, there’s also Route 20, a peak-period bus connecting Milton to Sheridan College and Oakville GO Station. Milton Transit, the local bus service, logically uses the GO station as its hub.
The Milton Carpool Lot, at the interchange of Highways 401 and 25, is located in an industrial area, and is adjacent to the Maplehurst Correctional Centre, affectionately known as “The Milton Hilton.” The carpool lot, while convenient for buses coming on and off the highway, is approximately a 20 minute walk to the nearest residential area. GO Routes 25 and 29 stop at the Milton Carpool lot at Highway 25; these routes serve Kitchener, the two universities in Waterloo, as well as Aberfoyle and the University of Guelph. Route 48, which links Guelph with York University, passes by Milton, but doesn’t stop here. (Milton passengers heading to York U can connect in Meadowvale.) Two buses from Waterloo connect to rush hour GO Trains at Milton Station, this is the Route 25A service.
The map below illustrates how GO and Milton Transit buses operate.
Map of Milton Transit and GO Transit bus routes
Until September 2014, GO Transit buses on Route 21 and 27 continued west past the GO station to as far as Martin Street in Downtown Milton. When cutting this bus service back, GO Transit directed passengers to transfer at Milton GO Station to Milton Transit routes 2 and 6, which serve the downtown core. But this cut-back forced customers headed westward to transfer and pay the additional Milton Transit co-fare. Since Milton Transit doesn’t operate on late evenings or Sundays, this was effectively a loss of service.
The Highway 25/401 carpool lot is served by Milton Transit, but only route 1A/1B, which serves the industrial areas, and only during weekday rush hours. All other routes, which operate mostly to the south of the GO station on Main Street, operate six days a week.
The gap between the GO Station and the GO carpool lot is actually quite easy to fix. Either Milton Transit’s route structure could be changed to provide full service to the carpool lot, or GO Transit could extend routes 21 and/or 27. This is just one example where improved connections could potentially serve many more riders.
GO Transit has come a long way in the last 15 years, improving service, adding new trains, and expanding its bus and rail network. With a new focus on regional rail, GO Transit is on the way from transforming from a commuter rail service to a full regional transit agency. But challenges ahead, besides building the Regional Express Rail system, include moving away from building and serving parking lots, revising its flawed fare system, and addressing the existing gaps in the network.
As the agency tasked with improving “the coordination and integration of all modes of transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area,” it should be up to Metrolinx, as well as the province of Ontario, to fill the gaps, large and small, in the regional transit network. In smaller urban centres, such as Bolton, Georgetown, or Bradford, it is hard to justify operating the same level of transit service as Toronto, Brampton, or Hamilton, but there needs to be a basic level of service region wide. It will also have to fill in the holes left by private bus operators, who are more and more focused on profitable line haul routes such as Toront0-Kingston-Montreal than shorter routes like those once operated by Grey Coach and Canada Coach Lines.
Connecting carpool lots together, as discussed with examples in Milton and Grimsby, does not make for a very effective transit service, especially if one needs a car (or has to take a taxi) to access those lots. Most people living in urbanized areas shouldn’t need a car in order to ride a GO bus or train. While it’s convenient and efficient for GO Transit to serve carpool lots adjacent to highways (minimizing travel time for through passengers), these bus stops should be served, and served well, by local transit where possible.
In Milton, either Milton Transit, or GO Transit (by way of extending routes 21/27) should be providing a proper connection for passengers headed to Waterloo or Guelph. In Grimsby, either GO Transit could re-locate its bus stop, or re-route the bus to serve Grimsby’s town centre as well as the parking lot (which would add 3-5 minutes to the overall trip time). Better yet, Grimsby and Niagara Region could step up and operate local transit, even perhaps contracting the service to GO or to the Hamilton Street Railway.
And finally, as intercity coach operators continue to cut back their operations, perhaps it should be up to the government to step in, either offering subsidies to coach operators to maintain essential links, or provide the service themselves. The Hamilton-Guelph corridor, connecting major cities and post-secondary institutions, should probably be the next GO bus route.