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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.