On December 7, I took a trip out to Kingston to ride the newest coach operator to arrive in Ontario: Red Arrow. A division of Pacific Western, Red Arrow is the latest carrier to stake a claim to the busy Toronto-Kingston-Ottawa route, which is now served by five private companies.
Between Toronto and Ottawa, five intercity coach carriers–Megabus, Rider Express, Flixbus, Book-A-Ride, and Red Arrow–compete for the same passengers, along with VIA Rail and three airlines (Air Canada, WestJet, and Porter).
There is also fierce competition for the Toronto-London route. Passengers have the choice of taking Megabus, Rider Express, Onex, Flixbus, Book-A-Ride, VIA Rail, or a very slow weekday-only GO train. Along with VIA, Flixbus also continues west, to Windsor (where the Tunnel Bus connection to Detroit has finally been restored). The Toronto-St. Catharines-Niagara route is also served by multiple bus and rail services.
Despite new intercity coach players like Red Arrow (which provides a high-end coach service, with comfortable seating in a 2+1 arrangement, along with complimentary soft drinks and light snacks) and Book-A-Ride (which operates like a charter airline, with schedules that change frequently based on demand), many other routes still have limited or no service. Flixbus quietly dropped its Kitchener-Hamilton-Niagara route earlier this year, eliminating service on a corridor that once had frequent Canada Coach Lines buses; that route had been sold in 1990 to Trentway-Wagar/Coach Canada. Flixbus also ended service to Guelph, instead concentrating on its other corridors. Early next year, Megabus will end its route between Toronto, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.
The deregulation of motor coach services within the Province of Ontario may have made some sense. The old bargain of providing exclusive franchises for busy, profitable routes made sense when operators would use those cash cows to help subsidize less-trafficked rural services. But as Greyhound, Stagecoach, and other large companies bought up smaller carriers (such as Gray Coach, Canada Coach Lines, and PMCL) in the 1980s and 1990s, they were allowed to slowly abandon the smaller routes. Greyhound itself divested most of its network before disappearing altogether. As the franchising scheme didn’t work, there was no point keeping it.
But now, there’s the absurd situation where there are up to 25 daily buses and trains between Toronto and Ottawa (see table below). In contrast, there is not a single daily bus service connecting Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo–two urban centres of over 500,000 people each, just an hour apart, with three large universities (Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier, and McMaster) and two major colleges (Conestoga and Mohawk) between them.
Elsewhere, where GO Transit and government-subsidized regional connections have filled gaps, the services are often slower and less direct than the old coach bus service. PMCL used to operate daily bus service between Owen Sound and Toronto via Collingwood and Barrie. Today, the same trip is possible via Grey Transit Route, Colltrans, Simcoe County Linx, and GO Transit, but the trip will take the better part of a day. Meanwhile, other gaps remain. Elgin County (Aylmer and St. Thomas) and Haldimand County (Caledonia, Dunnville, Hagersville, and Jarvis) are left without any outside connections.
Such is the state of the intercity transportation network (if you can call it that) in Ontario.
Though I enjoyed the trip on Red Arrow to Kingston (especially as I took advantage of a special $25 fare), I wondered how well the service will do here in Ontario. Its base price is over $100 one-way to Ottawa, more expensive than other coach operators and priced more like VIA Rail, which itself is slightly faster (as long as CN freight trains do not get in the way). Red Arrow uses the same locations in Ottawa (the VIA Rail Station itself) and Toronto (Union Station Bus Terminal) as the train. Red Arrow does well in Alberta, where there is no useful passenger rail service (Pacific Western also offers a no-frills coach bus service on the same Calgary-Edmonton route).
The latest version of my interactive intercity transit map is below: