The Golden Horseshoe’s missing links

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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.


Related:

The lost corridors

GO Rail - GapsThe 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.

GO Rail - MiltonMap 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.

Conclusions

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.

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6 Responses to The Golden Horseshoe’s missing links

  1. Victoria Kaye says:

    Chris Drew told me to share a comment I made on a FB group on his share of this article in order to keep dialogue going. I’m just copy and pasting my ramble – look forward to your comments.

    “The problem with these towns isn’t the transit being offered, it’s people using it. Bolton got service, and built a car terminal at Mayfield and 50. When they built it, I think 2007ish, there would be 20 cars parked; not even. About 2 years ago, I drove through there, and still, only 20 cars parked. A few months ago, was driven through, and again, 20 cars parked. Explains why from a 15 year developing plan, it was bumped to a 25 year.

    I lived in Brant County and Brantford for a bit. Their transit goes in a complete circle – so though it took you 5 minutes to get to where you were going, it would take you 45 minutes to get home. Again… used, but not really used. And I’ve driven the corridor from Guelph down to, shit, forgot what it was called – #6????

    In these areas, you have to and want to drive with a car. That is why I loved coming back to an urban city so I have choices – to drive or transit.

    Caledon never will welcome daily service transit. They like the GO bus, for its a premium service and all they will accept. The population has to accept transit as a mode of luxury transportation, affording more quality and stress free commute from Point A to B. And with older siblings Brampton and Mississauga having their own systems, and now, when they could have shared their first regional transit, well, we know how THAT has evolved… why would they want to give up their revenues? Look at Toronto; I am still amazed how they get away with being so selfish and hoarding monies to themselves.

    I would love to see one report written from the user and non-user POV. It’s time to change perception of transit and emphasis it’s importance. Now, more than ever.”

    • Thanks for the comment.

      I think the problem with the parking lot at Highway 50 and Mayfield in Bolton is that only a few peak-direction buses serve it a day, and those buses only go to the Malton GO Station. If you have a car, why bother driving to a bus stop and transfer to a train, when you can park your car for free at the GO Station?

      There are several towns in Ontario with better bus service than Bolton or Georgetown – Cobourg, Collingwood, even Lindsay. And they’re either the same size, or smaller than either of those two communities.

      • Moaz Ahmad says:

        Sean, I’m glad to see you commenting on the need for more.investment in GO Bus services. I find it sad that, while we focus our attention on spending billions (without much question) for GO Rail and RER, the bus network is facing service cutbacks…and just a time when private companies are cutting back services too.

        What also matters in this discussion is the impact of ridesharing … not just for local transit or transit alternatives … Uber and quasi-official microtransit like RideCo…but also for intercity trips.

        Cheers, moaz

  2. Shaun says:

    Thanks for bringing attention to these issues – as someone from Niagara Falls now living in Toronto who does not drive, I think about this stuff often, usually figuring that I’m the only one… That fact makes it hard for me to be succinct in comment. That being the case I’ll abandon all pretenses to try and hope that at least someone else can relate.

    The underlying catch-22 behind all of this is that these challenges happen in areas that are automobile-dominated in built form and social/political mindset. Increased funding->service would improve transit accessibility for many, but to be honest, not that many will use it. The result is low ridership, poor farebox recovery and service that requires a subsidy that “the public” is often not willing to bear. It is difficult to break that cycle.

    I agree that the (relatively modest) fixes here need to be attended to. At the same time, we’re in a political environment where 1) some transit has (bizarre) widespread appeal 2) while funding remains relatively constrained leading to “this or that” choices in situations where the answer should likely be “both.”

    On point 1: if you ever read the Niagara Falls Review’s stance on transit, you would be under the impression that Niagara will wither and disappear without daily peak hour “GO service to Toronto” (meaning in a train). This despite already having the existing useful, but admittedly awkward, bus-to-train service offering connections (with parking lots) on the way. That and over a dozen Coach Canada buses/day that already run with very good ridership. Given the different geographies of road and rail, Coach Canada usually has a faster travel time from Niagara->Toronto than GO’s summer excursion trains (with only very limited stops en route), and yet the local perception is that it does not exist. When I talk to family members about this the next point is “yeah, but there’s nowhere to park at the station” showing the widespread indifference to 100 years of local transit in Niagara Falls. For *most* of the people I talk to in Niagara, transit only exists in the form of park-and-ride to a real urban centre, and in the absence of such a thing there’s no sense of how transit could be useful to them today. Likely even more so than the coveted option, which will only be used sparingly when implemented anyways: it is only then that people will do the calculation of 70 minutes drive time vs 130 minutes train time.

    (I know that this thinking ignores those of us who use transit today – but that’s the point, we’re too few to provide the ridership numbers or political weight to support a robust system, and thus it languishes as a substandard coverage network.)

    On point 2: In the environment of “this or that” we are forced to make choices, and it strikes me that given the steep hill transit needs to climb in most of Ontario to be relevant for the general population, the main priorities should be those that bring ridership: dealing with the issues of crowding we face in some parts of the system and gradually bumping up service so that an increasing number of areas are really transit-oriented, or at least transit-passable. I think that with that priority there will be knock-on benefits for areas that are currently transit-absent or transit-sad: as the number of people who can live car-free increases, there will be an overall higher number of people who want to be able to get to New Tecumseh, and will either make use of the currently substandard ways to get there (ridership) or demand that there be decent ways to get there (political support).

    As it is now, so much of our limited service (I’m talking about specifically about Niagara Falls now, but suspect that this applies to much of the Province) is geared towards going everywhere, such that it goes nowhere. Take the Niagara Region Transit connection between the two largest cities (https://www.niagararegion.ca/transit/pdf/all-nrt-routes.pdf): the route is designed as a series of “T’s,” frequently tracking and backtracking, such that it takes 51 minutes to cover a distance that takes 20 minutes in a car – despite a near lack of dwell time at stops. The result is terrible service between two transit hubs punctuated by terrible service to places not really in-between, and the result of that is that almost nobody rides to everywhere-nowhere. Meanwhile, if things were redesigned to at least connect the transit hubs well, the result would be a network that was on the whole much more effective. That, and the Region transit seems to be designed without much consideration for the ways that it could be optimized with travel outside of Niagara.

    So on the face of things, I agree with the problems you mention. I can even add to them: travel between Niagara and Hamilton. I know about Coach Canada cutting the route, but even when it was there it was a slow frustrating trip – on par with the current best option of GO bus to Stoney Creek and then HSR into town. Hopefully those problems will be addressed – after all, the supposed imperative for improvements costing billions of dollars to steal resources from those that cost tens of thousands is ridiculous.

    What I want to know, however, is how to tip the scales towards transit becoming useful more broadly. I suspect that the best way is to gradually gain “market share” – or maybe market retention – with different profiles of riders to focus on ridership and the associated political capital. In some places this will mean some new corridors and quick fixes (somebody PLEASE do something about Niagara Region transit!!!). On the whole, however, I think that the focus should be game-changing service in areas likely to succeed. GO’s antipathy towards all of Toronto except as a small collection of central hubs for 905 travel is a problem, that if resolved, would help turn the tide. Among the masses, in Niagara Falls at least, GO is ‘a train going to Union Station,’ an option to be considered only for meetings or Jays’ games. I think that there is potential for a fundamental shift by moving people to a mentality where transit can get you to “the big Toronto” (most of the urban/central GTA) as opposed to the current “downtown Toronto” (places near Union Station; most generously considered to be places near subway stations). The way to do this? Improve transit in Toronto.

    You’ve recognized the disincentivizing GO fare structure on your blog, and it’s telling that the bus replacements for train travel don’t make any stops until they leave the 416 border (not that I’m advocating for them – just saying that it’s indicative of a “we don’t worry about that” philosophy). Both of these impede GO travel within the city – and have a knock-on effect for people coming from outside: the system is not designed “to do that” (move people around the 416) so people abandon attempts to travel destinations outside the downtown by any means beside private auto.

    I know that GO is conscious of its ridership, so their leadership would likely support my comments above that are more supportive of “efficient transit.” I hope that efficient transit thinking is not used as a weapon to fight more widespread meaningful transit, especially since GO’s loyalty is towards Park-and-Ride 905ers, such that I think concern for this group undermines their commitment for ridership. Most importantly, though, I hope that those of us that use what’s in place today can leverage our ridership and experiences towards contributing to something more useful.

  3. Rishi says:

    Great article! I totally agree that there should be some bus routes between KW, Guelph & Hamilton. I also agree with Shaun’s comment around the GO network being really focused around getting people in and out of Union. Hopefully using our collective ideas, we can make change happen!

  4. stephen saines says:

    [The Hamilton-Guelph corridor, connecting major cities and post-secondary institutions, should probably be the next GO bus route.]
    Agreed with the author and as echoed by some commenters. GO could be a bit more creative with the routing of such a service, using Hwy 7 to continue from Guelph to K/W at the north end, and from Hamilton through to Brantford at the south end, such that it become and extension of the present new route from Brantford to Hamilton/Aldershot and possibly including the loop through Waterdown in doing so.

    I can see the reluctance of GO to put on a bus with proven low ridership numbers as per the previous AboutTown service, but the success will be in doing more with the same bus, perhaps on a bi-hourly schedule off of peak. It can serve as a general collector for the region not presently served by GO as well as tying into Aberfoyle for interchange with many other bus routes.

    Ridership on a stand-alone basis won’t justify a bus, especially a double-decker, but the rationalizing of connections will. I suspect the universities of Guelph and McMaster would also be able to petition for an operating subsidy from the MoE if they ran co-courses.

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