With university and college campuses reopening for in-class instruction, white-collar workers slowly returning to the office, and pandemic restrictions receding, there are more intercity transport options in Ontario than at any time prior to March 2020.
New operators, including Germany’s Flixbus, have arrived in Ontario (with routes between Toronto, Guelph/Kitchener, Niagara, and Ottawa), while Greyhound, which pulled out of Canada two years ago, restarted cross-border runs from Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. In Southern Ontario, intercommunity bus and van operations continued through the pandemic, with notable service improvements in Simcoe and Grey Counties, new routes in Eastern Ontario, as well as the expansion of “on-demand” services in rural communities and smaller urban centres, including parts of Niagara Region, as the regional government there slowly assumes responsibility for all municipal transit services.
Despite these advances, there are still many gaps in Ontario that need to be filled. The deregulation of Ontario’s motor coach industry has opened the highways up to more operators, but they are all chasing the same customers, rather than attracting new riders.
For getting between Toronto and Ottawa, passengers have a plethora of choices. They may fly — the fastest, but most expensive option — on Air Canada, WestJet or Porter. They may choose VIA Rail, which is comfortable, but slower. Or they may choose to book a ticket on a Megabus, Rider Express, or Flixbus coach, the slowest, cheapest, and least frequent option. (As of May 2022, only Megabus will begin operating daily buses between Toronto and Ottawa.)
Between London and Toronto, passengers can choose between a four-hour GO Transit train ride that departs at 5:33 AM, one of several daily VIA trains (approximately 2 hours), one of three daily Onex buses (2 hours, 35 minutes) or one of three daily non-stop Megabus trips (2 hours, 10 minutes).
Not all bus operators serve the same locations, either, creating new disconnections. In Toronto, GO Transit, Megabus, Rider Express TOK Coach, and Greyhound USA use the new Union Station Bus Terminal, which is directly connected to VIA and GO trains at Union Station and the TTC subway and streetcar system.
To save on terminal fees, Onex stops beside the Royal York Hotel on York Street, across the street from Union Station, sharing the layby with the Toronto Island Airport shuttle. Flixbus uses a different coach bus layby on York Street south of the Gardiner Expressway, in the Harbourfront area. Neither curbside stop is marked for either company. Though Ontario Northland still sends some buses downtown to Union Station, some of its buses to and from Sudbury and North Bay now terminate at the Yorkdale Bus Terminal in North York.
In Ottawa, Ontario Northland and Orleans Express use the VIA Rail station (which is on the O-Train LRT system), while Megabus terminates at the St. Laurent O-Train station. Autobus Maheux and Flixbus use curbside stops in Downtown Ottawa. The London-Toronto Megabus route bypasses Downtown London on its route from Western University, while Onex Bus and VIA Rail stop right downtown, along with Strathroy-Caradoc’s intercommunity route.
Another issue is that apart from the Toronto-Kitchener-London, Toronto-Niagara, Toronto-Kingston-Ottawa, Toronto-Kingston-Montreal and Ottawa-Montreal corridors, there is still little choice in price, operator, or schedule.
Rider Express suspended service to Windsor last year, so that the three or four VIA rail trains to London and Toronto (or a flight from Windsor airport) are the only option available for anyone travelling without a car. (Transit Windsor’s Tunnel Bus to Detroit remains suspended, despite the continued loosening of border crossing restrictions.) Peterborough, once a major destination for Greyhound Canada on its Toronto-Ottawa corridor, now only has a nearly two-hour-long GO bus connection to Oshawa GO Station.
Gaps that I wrote about several years ago still remain on the map, which are only more evident as new intercommunity services start up and new carriers emerge. The City of St. Thomas and Elgin County remain the most visible of these gaps; St. Thomas is the only urban transit system in Ontario completely disconnected to any other community, despite its short distance to London. Haldimand County, despite its proximity to Brantford and Hamilton has also chosen to remain off the map. While neighbouring Perth, Lambton, Middlesex, and Grey Counties have developed useful transit connections, Huron and Bruce Counties have very limited links to the rest of the province.
Finally, the gaps between Hamilton and Brantford to the south and Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo to the north remain to be filled despite the growing population and multiple post-secondary institutions in each urban area. Though the Hamilton-Guelph-Kitchener triangle should be a natural expansion for GO Transit, it has yet to announce its intentions. Meanwhile, no private coach operator has filled this obvious need.
The labour-backed Link the Watershed proposal would connect Guelph, Kitchener, Cambridge, and Brantford, but that plan requires the support of local government, but it still leaves the Hamilton corridor wide open.
As more students return to school full time, and more workers return to the office, the need for reliable and attractive transportation options across Ontario will only continue to grow. As housing prices to continue to increase higher than the already-high inflation rate, intercity transport will be one way to ensure students can stay at home while going to school, and workers don’t have to move or endure long and expensive highway commuting.
Hopefully by autumn, these gaps will finally close for good.