Categories
Ontario Transit

A patchwork of new intercity connections in Ontario

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RideNorfolk buses at Norfolk County Hall, Simcoe

Over the last three years, I wrote about the gaps in intercity rail and coach services in Ontario, and how some companies were working to fill them.

In Northern Ontario, Ontario Northland and Kasper Transportation worked to fill the void left by Greyhound’s departure from Western Canada, with both companies offering new links to towns such as Hearst and Fort Francis.

Unfortunately, there have also been some setbacks. Wroute, a shared taxi service in the Kitchener-Guelph-Hamilton triangle, was operational for less than a year. Though GO Transit added new weekday trains between Guelph and Kitchener, none allow for Kitchener-bound commutes, and there has not been interest in serving those gaps identified by Wroute.

Outside of Northern Ontario and the Golden Horseshoe, many cities and towns remain disconnected from nearby communities and larger centres. Though every city and town in Ontario had daily bus and/or rail service in the 1980s, many communities are now completely inaccessible for anyone without access to a car. Though GO Transit expanded to Peterborough, Brantford, Niagara, and Kitchener in the last fifteen years, they are extensions of GO’s radial network from Toronto rather than a true intercity network.

St. Thomas, population 41,000, is the largest city in the province without any passenger links, despite being a short drive to London. Many other cities and towns — particularly in Midwestern and Eastern Ontario — find themselves in similar situations. A few other cities, such as Sarnia (which has just one train a day each way to London and Toronto), are grossly under-served.

But thanks to municipal innovation and a new provincial grant program, this is finally changing. Though several municipalities addressed this problem early on, three new inter-municipal bus systems began operations in 2019, with many more launching this year.

Categories
History Ontario Travels

The long way to Pembroke

IMG_4409-001Layover at Barry’s Bay

A few weeks ago, I went for another long-distance bus trip. I started my journey in Downtown Toronto, and continued on to Peterborough and Pembroke, before arriving in Ottawa late in the evening.  Apart from the Toronto-Peterborough leg aboard a packed, delayed bus, this was the most pleasant of all my long-distance bus trips.

Greyhound’s Peterborough-Pembroke route only operates a few days a week, on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It is one of the last rural bus routes operated by Greyhound Canada as most remaining routes operate on highways between large urban centres. The bus follows Highways 28, 62, and 60, stopping at small towns such as Bancroft, Maynooth and Barry’s Bay. North of Lakefield, the route passes through the Canadian Shield, with its lakes, rocks, and trees.

As I traveled on last Friday in September, the fall colours were almost at their peak in the Haliburton Highlands, making this an especially scenic ride. There was an informal fifteen-minute stop in Barry’s Bay, enough time to get a decent coffee and a snack.

IMG_4404-001The view from Highway 28 near Bancroft, September 27

At Bancroft, we passed by the old Central Ontario Railway Station. Passenger service ended in the 1950s, while the tracks were torn up in the 1980s. The station was preserved and is now a local museum. In front, a dozen citizens took part in a local climate strike that took place across Canada, part of the Global Week for Future. It was nice to see residents take part, even in small town Ontario.

IMG_4406-001.JPGClimate strikers in Bancroft. The former railway station stands behind

At Pembroke, I had several hours before the Ontario Northland bus departed for Ottawa. While Pembroke’s downtown core could use some TLC, it has great bones and a great collection of heritage buildings, including a late Victorian post office, its late Art Moderne replacement, the historic Renfrew County courthouse, solid commercial blocks, and a fascinating library.

IMG_4455-001Downtown Pembroke

IMG_4478-001.JPGIMG_4420-002.JPGPembroke’s post offices. The 1888 building, designed by Thomas Fuller, is now City Hall. The 1950s replacement, on the left, still houses Canada Post. 

Pembroke’s public library is especially unique, as it looks like it could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1914, it was designed by Francis Conroy Sullivan, a Canadian-born architect who studied under Wright in Chicago before establishing his firm in Ottawa. Expansions and renovations have remained faithful to the Prairie Style architecture.

IMG_4475-001Entrance to the Pembroke Public Library

IMG_4472-001.JPGLibrary interior

Though Pembroke was served by three different railways — the Canadian Pacific transcontinental mainline, a branch of the Canada Atlantic that operated between Montreal and Parry Sound, and the Canadian Northern — all tracks were removed by 2013, when Canadian National ripped up the Beachburg Subdivision. None of the station buildings survive, but the abandoned rights-of-way are still intact. At the west end of town, a long trestle now carries a snowmobile trail where the CN mainline once crossed the Indian River.

IMG_4437-002Former CN trestle, Pembroke

The removal of the CN and CP routes through the Ottawa Valley were especially unfortunate, as all through freight and passenger traffic across Canada must now pass through Greater Toronto. This was the result of cost-cutting and the loss of local rail customers, such as lumber and pulp industries. The Commonwealth Plywood plant in Pembroke still stands as a reminder of the industrial past of the Upper Ottawa Valley.

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Abandoned Commonwealth Plywood plant

The last passenger train, VIA’s Canadian, called at Pembroke in 1990. But there are two daily bus trips in each direction between Ottawa and North Bay/Sudbury, one operated by Greyhound, the other by Ontario Northland. From Pembroke, I was able to take a Northland bus that left at 9:00 PM, arriving in Ottawa by 11:00 PM. This gave me plenty of time for dinner after a long walk around town.

My trip to Pembroke made for a pleasant detour, giving me a chance to see another part of Ontario.

Categories
Ontario Transit

How intercity bus service is failing Ontarians

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Coach Canada bus at the Guelph Terminal, three weeks before it abandoned the Guelph-Hamilton service in 2009

The state of intercity bus travel in Ontario is bleak. While there are still many bus options if you’re travelling between large cities, since the 1980s, hundreds of weekly bus trips and dozens of routes have been cut in Ontario, leaving many small cities and towns with minimal or no intercity transportation options. St. Thomas, a city of 45,000 located a mere 25 kilometres south of London, once had daily buses going in every direction. Today, it has none. Although studies on the modernization of the province’s beleaguered, skeletal bus system got underway in 2016, bus travel remains an afterthought.

I wrote more about the sorry state of the intercity bus network in Ontario for TVO, my first contribution to the network’s great digital presence.

Categories
Transit Urban Planning Walking

They call this a “SmartCentre”

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The word “smart,” like many buzzwords, is thrown around a lot, to the point that it has lost meaning. SmartTrack, for instance, might have been a catchy name for a transit plan, but in the end, it didn’t turn out to be all that smart.

There’s also the case of SmartCentres, the retail arm of SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust. SmartCentres are ubiquitous in suburban Canada; the firm owns retail properties in all ten provinces and is Wal-Mart Canada’s largest landlord.

I was recently in St. Catharines, a mid-sized city of 125,000 on the Niagara Peninsula. I’ll have more to say about my visit there in a few upcoming posts.

I was walking from the VIA Rail station, on the west side of Twelve Mile Creek, opposite downtown, towards the new St. Catharines hospital on the city’s western outskirts. My route to the hospital (more on that later) took me through a SmartCentre big-box retail complex at Louth Street and Fourth Avenue. Tenants include Real Canadian Superstore (a large supermarket part of the Loblaws group), Wal-Mart Supercentre, Canadian Tire, Best Buy, and LCBO.


Google map of the big box complex in west St. Catharines

Like most big box centres, the stores are laid out surrounding a large parking lot. Pedestrians are an afterthought – there are few walkways or connections to surrounding sidewalks.

A token measure — a bus stop — is located within the property. The bus stop is on the main driveway, but a considerable distance from the front entrances of Wal-Mart or the supermarket, especially for anyone carrying groceries, using a mobility device and/or with young children. Shopping carts are left next to the bus shelters, and there are no other supermarkets in western St. Catharines. Anyone without a car must either visit Superstore, Walmart, or shop at higher-priced local convenience stores. The property owner is SmartREIT, a real estate investment trust with retail properties in all ten provinces.

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Excerpt from St. Catharines Transit daytime map. Only route 3 serves the big box centre from the south. 

Only one St. Catharines Transit bus route, 3 Pelham Road, serves the SmartCentre stop (evenings and weekends, route 115 replaces route 3), and only from the south. Traditional shopping areas, such as Downtown St. Catharines and the Pen Centre mall, are much better served by local transit. Route 1, which directly connects downtown and the new hospital and serves neighbourhoods to the north, runs nearby, but it doesn’t enter the property.

St. Catharines, once an industrial powerhouse, has struggled with de-industrialization and poverty. The census metropolitan area has the lowest median family income in Ontario; the city also has one of the highest obesity rates. Access to fresh, affordable food, especially for those without automobiles, should be a priority. It’s a shame that the built form isn’t smart enough to help.

Categories
Toronto Transit

The Golden Horseshoe’s missing links

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GO Transit bus at Uxbridge

Over the last 15 years, GO Transit has done well expanding its bus and rail operations. It opened up new stations, such as Mount Pleasant, Lincolnville, Barrie South, Allandale Waterfront, and West Harbour. It introduced the Highway 407 service, finally making York University accessible to thousands of suburban students. And it extended its reach to Waterloo and Peterborough, not only serving post-secondary institutions and residents in those cities, but also making it easier for cyclists like myself to explore new trails and destinations.

But as GO Transit expands, there are many gaps, large and small, that should be closed. Coinciding with GO Transit’s expansion, intercity bus operators have been cutting back; dozens of Ontario towns and cities no longer have any coach service, and many more have saw their service cut back. Several municipalities in GO’s service area have resisted operating local transit systems, and GO’s use of park-and-ride lots has made their bus services difficult to reach without a car. In this post, I discuss some of these challenges.


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