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Intercity Rail Ontario Transit Travels

A transit tour of central Ontario

A round trip from Toronto via Guelph, Owen Sound, and Barrie is the longest trip one can take using only local and regional transit services. Despite these new links, there is room for improvement.

On the morning of Thursday, August 19, I departed Toronto’s Union Station. My destination: Union Station. I set out to travel the longest distance possible by local and regional transportation services, taking advantage of several new routes set up by local and county governments to fill the gaps left by traditional intercity coach operators.

The round trip from Union Station required two trains and seven buses, operating on five separate transportation agencies. In some cases, the transfers were smooth and reliable; in Owen Sound, I waited several hours between connecting trips. For a casual traveler like myself, this was not a problem, but for more frequent commuters, the patchwork of various schedules and fares is not ideal.

I left Union Station on a westbound Kitchener Line train at 7:34 AM on Thursday, August 19. I returned to Union Station at 9:34 PM Friday evening, staying in Meaford overnight. I made time for short visits to Owen Sound, Meaford, Collingwood, and Barrie, with short stopovers in Guelph and at the Blue Mountain resort.

The following is a travelogue of sorts, concluding with a few conclusions on how parts of this trip can be made better for future passengers.

Thursday: Toronto to Owen Sound and Meaford

Intending to catch the morning GOST (Guelph-Owen Sound Transportation) minibus from downtown Guelph, I boarded the first westbound Kitchener Line train at Union Station at 7:34 AM. The train only goes as far as Bramalea Station, requiring a transfer to a bus to continue westward. Happily, the train arrived at Bramalea on time, so there was no problem taking the connecting bus that departs at 8:18 AM. (I had bad luck on a previous trip through Bramalea.)

The connecting bus from Bramalea to Guelph is a slow, local service, winding its way through Brampton, Georgetown, Acton, and rural Wellington County before arriving at Downtown Guelph at 10:13. Through GO Transit’s buses are comfortable, they lack lavatories, so a two-hour trip may be difficult on some passengers’ bladders. Though the 7:34 train to Bramalea connects to an express bus via Highways 407 and 401 to Kitchener, anyone headed to Guelph gets to ride the scenic route.

Though an express bus would be welcome, I noted the importance of the local GO bus for workers living in Brampton getting to jobs in Halton Hills, and residents in Acton and Rockwood commuting to Guelph. There is a need for both services.

At least I got a spot at the front of the double decker bus and was able to enjoy the ride.

This first leg on GO Transit between Toronto and Guelph cost $14.06, deducted from my Presto card.

Brampton Transit used to operate a double-decker bus. GO Transit has brought them back to the Flower City.
Due to a construction project on Highway 7 in Rockwood, the double-decker bus took a scenic, yet unexpected detour on country roads. This must have turned some heads.

At Downtown Guelph, I had just under 20 minutes to use a washroom and have a quick coffee before switching to the GOST minibus. GOST serves the Guelph Central Station bus terminal, with easy connections to GO buses and trains and most Guelph Transit services.

A GOST minibus waiting for departure at Guelph Central Station

The GOST minibus service operates two round trips, seven days a week, between Guelph and Owen Sound, with stops in Elora, Fergus, Arthur, Mount Forest, Durham, Williamsford, and Chatsworth. Except for Fergus, all stops are located in or near each town’s commercial centre. The service is funded by Owen Sound and a provincial grant, and operated by London-based Voyago (which operates several other rural services in Western Ontario).

Until the mid 2000s, Greyhound ran buses six days a week between Toronto and Owen Sound via Highway 10 through Brampton and Orangeville or via Highway 6 through Guelph and Mount Forest, each route on alternating days. Gray Coach, the TTC-owned predecessor to Greyhound, ran several daily trips. The twice-daily GOST bus is a significant improvement over Greyhound’s schedule in its waning years.

On this Thursday midday northbound trip, there were two passengers going all the way up to Owen Sound, one getting off in Elora, one disembarking at Mount Forest, and one passenger who boarded at Williamsford for Owen Sound. The fare from Guelph to Owen Sound is $20 cash, with cheaper fares to ride shorter distances.

I arrived in Owen Sound a few minutes before 1:00 PM, with several hours to spend before my next ride to Meaford. Owen Sound, population 26,000, has an interesting history as a Great Lakes port and railhead for both the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk/Canadian National Railways. The maritime traffic and local industry gave Owen Sound a reputation as a hard drinking town; it became one of the first municipalities in Ontario to go “dry” in 1906. It remained that way until 1973.

With the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the decline of branch lines across Ontario, the city declined as a port and both railways were torn up in the late 1990s. However, both stations remain standing – the Grand Trunk Station on the west side of the harbour is now a local museum, while the modernist CP station, built after the Second World War, is now a brewpub.

With a lovely downtown, harbour, parks, and heritage neighbourhoods to wander through, Owen Sound was worth a three-and-a-half stopover.

Owen Sound Marine and Rail Museum, the former Grand Trunk/CN Station
Mudtown Station, the old CP Station in Owen Sound
Plaque commemorating “Damnation Corners” where taverns once stood on all four corners. One block to the east was “Salvation Corners” where four Protestant churches still stand.

I decided to stay in Meaford overnight. Though I could get as far east as Wasaga Beach via Grey Transit Route, Colltrans, and Simcoe County Linx, I would not have been able to continue my trip back to Toronto that night, missing the last Linx bus from Wasaga Beach to Barrie by one hour.

Meaford had cheaper accommodations than Owen Sound or Collingwood, and by staying there overnight, it gave me plenty of time in Meaford and Collingwood the next day. Before Greyhound Canada suspended operations in April 2020, there was one daily bus between Toronto, Barrie, Collingwood, and Owen Sound. PMCL, which Greyhound purchased in the 1990s, used to run several buses a day on that route.

I departed Owen Sound on a pre-booked GTR minibus at 4:30 PM, which cost $5 for the trip into Meaford. As I was the only one on that departure, the driver was kind enough to drop me off right by my motel. There are six daily trips between Owen Sound and Meaford, with four of those trips offering a timed connection or direct run to Blue Mountain Resort, GTR’s eastern terminus.

GTR minibus at Owen Sound Terminal (October 2020)

Meaford itself is a charming little town, with several good restaurants, and a lovely harbour. Meaford is the western terminus of the Georgian Trail to Collingwood, one of Ontario’s first rail trails. As GTR minivans and Simcoe Linx and Colltrans buses all have bike racks, Meaford would make for a nice cycling trip.

Meaford Hall, with the old fire station behind
Terminus of the Georgian Trail, which continues to Collingwood, with connections beyond

Friday: Meaford to Collingwood and Toronto

The next morning, I departed Meaford on GTR Route 4 at 8:46AM, and arrived at Blue Mountain Village just after 9:30, another $5 pre-booked trip. The popular resort is also served by Colltrans’ Blue Mountain Link route to Downtown Collingwood, with connections to local buses and the Simcoe County Linx Route 4 to Wasaga Beach.

Approaching Blue Mountain, the driver helpfully asked me if I needed to catch the bus to Collingwood. Though the timetables between GTR Route 4 and Colltrans’ bus don’t permit an easy connection, if I got off at Craigleith, at the bottom of the escarpment, I would be sure to get the onward bus. I declined the offer, because I was curious to see Blue Mountain Village itself, and I needed a coffee.

The Disneyland-like urbanity of Blue Mountain Village

Blue Mountain Village, the heart of the sprawling Blue Mountain resort, contains many shops, restaurants and bars, along with three hotels and timeshare apartment complexes with the architecture and walkways meant to invoke a European ski resort. Cars are not permitted in the internal streets, which gives it a somewhat surreal atmosphere. In the summer, tourists and vacationers are attracted by several golf courses, downhill mountain biking trails, rope courses, spas, nearby beaches, and, of course, the shops.

Having gotten my coffee and my morning walk, I paid my $2 fare and got on the 10:20 bus to Downtown Collingwood.

Colltrans and Simcoe County Linx buses at Downtown Collingwood

Like Owen Sound, Collingwood has a lovely and vibrant downtown core, with its own proud marine and railway history. Collingwood was the terminus of the Ontario Simcoe & Huron Railway, the province’s first rail connection, built in 1853-1854. The OS&H was built as a shortcut between the Upper Great Lakes and Toronto and prospered before merging with several other railways to become part of the massive Grand Trunk system. Sadly, passenger service to Collingwood ended in 1960, and the railway itself is abandoned and partially removed.

Collingwood Town Hall

After a hearty lunch in Downtown Collingwood and walk through the area, I paid another toonie and boarded Simcoe Linx Route 4 to Wasaga Beach.

In the back parking lot of a Loblaws Superstore in the west end of Wasaga Beach, two Simcoe County Linx buses, a Wasaga Beach Transit bus, and a Clearview Transit minibus meet to exchange passengers. The grocery store is distant from the main tourist area and the downtown commercial centre, but at least transfers between buses are easy. The Wasaga Beach Transit bus does pass by most motels, tourist traps, and beach areas. I changed to another Simcoe County Linx bus (Route 2) that passes through Stayner and Angus for Allandale Waterfront GO Station south of Downtown Barrie. The fare between Wasaga Beach and Allandale was $6.00 cash.

At a grocery store parking lot, Simcoe County Linx, Wasaga Beach Transit, and Clearview Township buses meet
Arrival at Allandale Waterfront GO Station

Allandale Waterfront GO Station, which hosts GO trains and buses and several Barrie Transit routes, is one of two Barrie terminal points for Simcoe County Linx’s buses. Buses to Orillia and Midland terminate at Georgian College and Royal Victoria Hospital in the northeastern corner of Barrie, with a Barrie Transit fare and a 30-minute local bus ride to get from one Linx route to another.

Kempenfelt Bay, Barrie

The ride back to Union Station, which included a bus to Aurora GO and a change to a train the rest of the way. That final trip cost me $13.76 on my Presto card.

In total, I paid $39.06 on Thursday and $28.76 on Friday to complete the round trip between Toronto and Georgian Bay.

Analysis and Conclusions

It is good to see Owen Sound, Grey County, and Simcoe County develop local solutions to replace and improve upon vanished coach services that ran on Highways 6, 10, and 26, better schedules and improved connections will only make their services better.

With limited schedules, particularly on Grey Transit Route and Simcoe County Linx, I could only do this exact trip by leaving Toronto on a Wednesday or Thursday. GTR’s Routes 3 and 4 between Owen Sound, Meaford, and Blue Mountain operates Wednesdays through Sundays. Though transit between Blue Mountain Village and Wasaga Beach runs 7 days a week, the Simcoe Linx bus between Wasaga Beach and Barrie only runs weekdays, with the last buses leaving Allandale GO and Wasaga Beach Superstore at 6:30 PM.

Later service hours and weekend service between Barrie and Wasaga Beach would allow GTHA residents to get to one of the Great Lakes’ great beaches without a car for a weekend getaway, without more congestion on Highways 400 and 26.

Grey County at least gets this, with its council committed to additional funding for GTR, allowing for daily service on most routes in 2022.

In addition, it would be good to see Simcoe County and municipal systems in Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, Barrie, Orillia, and Midland/Penetanguishene develop a coordinated fare structure, as transfers or fare discounts are not provided between each service, except between Linx and Midland/Penetanguishene. Simcoe County Linx already has its own farecard; if that were upgraded it would at least allow frequent riders to benefit from easy fare payments and transfer discounts.

These are relatively simple changes that can further drive ridership growth and improve mobility throughout fast-growing Simcoe County as well as attract more visitors from Toronto and beyond.

The Toronto-Guelph leg of my trip was unnecessarily slow, and will continue to be so until all-day, two way GO service is introduced on the entire Kitchener Corridor, or if express buses are added to the schedule. While all-day GO train service will take several years with several construction projects underway or necessary in Toronto, Brampton, and Guelph to provide the necessary capacity, improved bus service can provide a stopgap for the time being.

Without an express GO bus or competing services such as Greyhound (which used to operate multiple buses between Guelph and Toronto) or a morning VIA Rail train, it can take nearly three hours to get from Toronto to Guelph without a car.

Though GO Transit will introduce significant service improvements starting Labour Day, including new peak-direction express trains on the Kitchener Corridor. Unfortunately, there are no travel time improvements for getting between Toronto and Guelph weekday mornings. Given that there is currently no alternative access between the two cities, there’s a market that GO Transit is clearly missing right now.

3 replies on “A transit tour of central Ontario”

This is a very timely blog, for a number of reasons.

I live steps from Bloor Station, and taking the train west is a huge convenience, even if only to connect to GO buses along the way. Unfortunately, since the timetables changed due to Covid cutbacks, meshing connections to get to Square One and points farther west from there has become problematic, with rare exceptions at certain times of the day to connect at Bramalea. Mostly now it involves lengthy waits at Bramalea and Square One. If the GO #25 and #29 were terminating at Kipling Station, as planned pre-Covic, hopping on the subway with bikes to connect there would be straightforward. Often the stress of making connections with no time to spare ruins the zen of the escape. One misses connections as often as making them, and the waiting another hour can be brutal. (Hour and half for the #33 bus to Guelph)

I’ve yet to check the new GO timetable that started yesterday, but did take the train and then the #33 to Guelph on Friday, last day of the ‘old’ schedule.

lol…It did avoid the stress of making connections (overlap at Mt Pleasant is 17 minutes), but as Sean points out…the #33 (and attendant variations) moves like molasses, plus the detours, and then Guelph’s core was blockaded for the UofG students moving in.

Intention was to cycle from Aberfoyle south the Hamilton via backroads, but by the time we arrived in Guelph, the bus was fifteen minutes late, and the thought of taking a connecting bus down to Aberfoyle became surreal. We just wanted to pedal while the Sun was shining, so made our way over to Hanlon Rd and Crawley Rd (not the Parkway!) and cycled south to eventually gain Valens Rd, a superb route to cycle, very good paving very little traffic, maximum fun. Just made the train leaving east from West Harbour. A delightful medium distance trip.

Now the Summer is waning, I and partner(s) have to look for more medium or short trips, and I hadn’t realized the ‘county’ buses were running again. Many thanks for this article!

I did the Cataract to Elora Trail two weeks back, still one of the best for medium distance and changing views. Section around Orton is rutted in spots, even with larger tires, speed has to be reduced so front wheel doesn’t jam in the rut. That’s only for a half kilometer or so, rest of the trail is in good condition, some very good.

A note on the Cottontail Trail coming south from Elora: It used to be large gravel, impossible to cycle on five or more years back. It’s now been topped with a much finer grade, quite good with even road tires.

I’d like to proffer some advice on getting into Guelph proper. Almost all roads are dangerous. Guelph remains a ‘last missing link’. There are reasonably safer roads to bypass Guelph to get back on GO. Consider avoiding going in from the north, do some extra distance, and do it comfortably and safely.

I’m now planning an outing on the GOST bus!

Many thanks for this!

A quick update to above comment:

Of course, getting into Guelph *safely* from Elora and/or Fergus if on the Cataract to Elora Trail can be done by using GOST!

Timetable is here:
https://www.owensound.ca/en/living/guelph-owen-sound-transportation.aspx

I presume this is the most up-to-date information. Contact phone and email details at site. Best to check before planning a trip.

These times lend themselves to cycling east on the Elora-Catarct, then cycling south from Cataract to reach the Caledon Trailway (it’s almost all downhill, use the backroads) and then go SW on the Trailway, down through Glen Williams to Georgetown, and catch the GO #33 (or variations) to Mt Pleasant to catch the train.

Since posting this, I have had email communications with the gracious Supervisor of Environmental Services for Owen Sound.

At last communication, the leaving time for the morning GOST from Guelph will be held back a few minutes to overlap the scheduled arrival of the #29 bus, which runs from Kipling Subway Station/GO Station. As to if and when that is implemented I don’t have confirmation.

Travel time between those points is just under two hours, a huge improvement over prior bus runs with connections from Toronto. Waiting at Square One in itself is punishment for trying to escape.

At this time, GOST doesn’t have bike racks fitted according to my last communication with Owen Sound Super, but they are looking at ‘four-bike racks’…which is an astute move if they wish to attract cycle groups.

If possible, they might wish to consider more if imposition on the vehicle is minimal, just my opinion.

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