Intercity Rail Ontario Transit Travels

The long way to London

New transit options make it easier to get around Southwestern Ontario. But as new carriers enter the market, it is wise to expect the unexpected.

On Friday, May 13, I embarked on a day trip through Southwestern Ontario from Downtown Toronto. I wanted to ride more of Ontario’s new intercommunity transit services and try one of the new intercity bus operators that’s filling the vacuum left by Greyhound’s departure. I started my trip at Union Station, spent some time in Kitchener-Waterloo, then continued on to London, returning home that evening.

Between Toronto and Kitchener, there are several options. VIA Rail is the fastest and most comfortable ride, but it now only operates one train a day between Toronto and Kitchener.

GO Transit is the most frequent option, with several weekday trains between Toronto, Brampton, Guelph, and Kitchener, and connecting buses at Bramalea GO Station for Downtown Kitchener and Waterloo. The train and bus trip via Bramalea is just under 2 hours, costing $19.40. (Weekend GO service is much slower, requiring a change of bus at Square One, with a 2 hour, 33 minute ride.)

The traveler might also choose one of the new private carriers. FlixBus has one daily departure at 7:45 AM from Downtown Toronto (on York Street, south of Union Station), with a second 2:15 PM trip departing Thursdays through Sundays. Though FlixBus is the cheapest option — only $14.24 with tax — it is slightly slower than GO Transit’s direct train or its Bramalea bus connection, as it deals with Downtown Toronto traffic and serves Guelph on its way to Kitchener. Onex Bus also stops at Kitchener on its Toronto-London route, but it stops at the Sportsworld Terminal near Highway 401, requiring a change to Grand River Transit’s buses.

Because of the flexibility and convenience, I choose GO Transit, switching from train to bus at Bramalea. Because of continuing construction at Bramalea Station, I had trouble finding the bus stop for the Route 30 to Kitchener and University of Waterloo, but once work is complete on the bus loop, the transfer between modes will be quite easy.

Route 30 is a fast bus route, stopping only at the Meadowvale Business Park in Mississauga, where connections can be made to several other GO Transit bus routes as well as Miway and Brampton Transit. In Kitchener-Waterloo, the GO bus stops at Downtown Kitchener, at Wilfrid Laurier University, and at a new terminal at University of Waterloo. This is in contrast to Route 25 between Square One and University of Waterloo, which exits the highway multiple times to make local stops, and is the only weekend GO service.

The new bus terminal at University of Waterloo, serving local GRT routes, GO Transit, and the ION LRT.

Between Kitchener and London, however, options are much more limited. Though the GO Transit Kitchener Line was recently extended to London, this is limited to one weekday train leaving London at 5:30 AM and returning to London at 8:37 PM. There is just one VIA train between the two cities as well. Onex Bus offers up to five trips daily between Sportsworld and Downtown London.

The other option is PC Connect, a provincially-funded intercommunity service connecting Stratford and St. Marys with Kitchener-Waterloo and London, as well as towns within Perth County with each other. From Conestoga Mall in Waterloo, I took the 2:50 PC Connect trip to Stratford and St. Marys. At St. Marys, I changed to a connecting bus for Masonville Place Mall in London. Each ride cost $12 cash. Service was friendly and on-time.

PC Connect Bus in St. Marys

At London, PC Connect stops on Fanshawe Park Road, adjacent to Masonville Place Mall, but a ten-minute walk from the main LTC bus terminal where connections can be made to Western University and Downtown London. (Huron Shores Area Transit, with service to Exeter and Grand Bend, stops on the north side of Fanshawe Park Road).

With VIA Rail’s service reduced between Windsor, London, and Toronto, the only trip back to Toronto after 5PM (on a Friday, a traditionally busy travel day) was an Onex Bus departure from the downtown VIA Rail station’s parking lot at 9:15 PM to Pearson Airport (the last trip of the evening continues to Bramalea City Centre, rather than Downtown Toronto). The VIA station at least is still open at that hour, with washrooms and an indoor waiting area.

I expected a coach bus, but instead, the 13 people waiting were greeted with a 15-seater van. Though the seats were relatively comfortable given the size of the van, passengers had to sit in tight spaces and there was no on-board lavatory like those on Greyhound or Coach Canada coaches. The one-way fare was $38.

The 15-seat van from London to Pearson Airport

Though the van arrived late in London (helpfully, a text was sent out to passengers), the trip to Pearson was uneventful, though it arrived about 30 minutes later than scheduled. I still had an hour’s TTC ride home to look forward to, instead of a 20 minute walk from Union Station or the old Toronto Coach Terminal.

As a private company operating in the newly deregulated intercity coach market, it made sense for OnexBus to utilize a smaller vehicle to minimize costs (the requirement for online advance booking makes this easier). But it was not up to the standards of legacy carriers such as Ontario Northland or Greyhound.

As more Ontarians travel and as post-secondary institutions return to full on-site learning in September 2022, it will be interesting to see how intercity transit providers and customers adapt to the new normal. I certainly would look forward to taking the train again once VIA returns to its full schedule.

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