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
Infrastructure Ontario Transit

Ontario’s new ride: ION LRT opens in Kitchener-Waterloo

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On June 21, 2019, Ontario’s first modern light rail transit (LRT) system opened to the public. The launch of ION in Kitchener-Waterloo represents an important milestone for both the region and for the province as a whole: additional light rail systems in Ottawa and Toronto will open in the next few years, while other systems are planned for Hamilton and Mississauga-Brampton.

There are several things that make ION particularly remarkable.

Kitchener-Waterloo’s population is much smaller than other cities that have adopted rail transit in Canada and the United States. In 2016, the combined population of the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo was less than 350,000, making Kitchener-Waterloo the smallest urban area in North America to boast such a system (Waterloo Region, which also includes the City of Cambridge and three rural townships, has a population of nearly 550,000). Kitchener and Waterloo were connected by streetcar until 1946, then by a trolley bus until 1973. Kitchener Transit, then Grand River Transit (GRT) continued to serve the two cities.

Despite the small population, LRT makes sense here, as many of the region’s trip generators line up along a single corridor, including Downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo, the University of Waterloo, several high schools, and the main hospital. It is also within walking distance of Wilfrid Laurier University. ION is also fully integrated with the connecting bus system, which was re-organized in conjunction with the opening of the new LRT to provide more direct routing and better connect with the rail service.

By operating on dedicated corridors and alongside regular traffic, the ION route also demonstrates the flexibility unique to light rail systems. Where it runs on private rights of way, crossings are protected by railway-style lights, bells, and gates. Where it operates in reserved lanes at street level, there are dedicated signals and transit priority at most intersections. This isn’t just a streetcar.

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ION LRT route map, from the GRT website

Torontonians may be forgiven for confusing LRT with traditional streetcars; ION uses Bombardier-built light rail vehicles similar to Toronto’s new low-floor streetcars, and the TTC has marketed streetcars on Spadina Avenue, Queen’s Quay, and St. Clair Avenue as “streetcar rapid transit” before. The difference, though, is that ION LRT stops are spaced further apart than local streetcar stops in Toronto, they take advantage of signal priority, and they partially run off-street.

LRT, of course, fills a wide spectrum. At its slowest and simplest is the typical streetcar, such as Toronto’s legacy street railway, or some of the new streetcars being built in the United States, such as Detroit’s QLine or the Atlanta Streetcar. Streetcars in private right-of-ways, such as on Spadina or St. Clair Avenues in Toronto, provide additional reliability and speed. On the other end are metro-style LRT systems completely separated from traffic, often featuring tunnels or elevated structures. Ottawa’s Confederation Line, once it finally opens, will be an example of LRT built to the highest standards. The Ctrain in Calgary comes close to this standard as well, though trains are forced to crawl through downtown on a congested Seventh Avenue transit mall.

I had the opportunity to ride ION twice in the opening week: the first time, on Monday June 24 (on the way home from a weekend in Stratford) and again with a few friends on Saturday June 29. Trains were consistently packed; GRT reported that over 73,000 passengers rode the LRT during opening weekend.

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ION train at Charles and Benson Streets, wrapping around Oktoberfest headquarters

Operations were not yet perfected. On Saturday June 29, there were noticeable gaps in service, with workers doing switch repairs at the northern terminal at Conestoga Mall. This caused long waits at the northern end of the line. The automatic train control system was disabled, reducing speeds along sections of track where operators had to operate by line-of-sight.

The schedules could also be a little faster, with reduced station dwell times. Trains must also crawl through tight corners in Downtown Kitchener, Uptown Waterloo, and at Haywood Avenue. But it was nice to see transit priority working: trains ran through many intersections without having to stop, and speeds were impressive (up to 70 kilometres per hour) on the off-road sections of track.

1-IMG_2199ION train on Duke Street in Downtown Kitchener

Along the entire corridor, travel times have improved only slightly over the old express bus, the Route 200 iXpress. Between Conestoga and Fairview Park terminals, the scheduled bus time ranged from 45 to 59 minutes, depending on the time of day. The LRT has a consistent 43-minute scheduled travel time between the two terminals. But it still promises to be more reliable.

The greatest improvements in travel time are between University of Waterloo and Conestoga Mall, Uptown Waterloo, and Downtown Kitchener, where travel times have been reduced by 5-7 minutes.

A promised second phase will extend ION LRT south to Cambridge. For now, an express bus serves the planned corridor.

There is certainly room for improvement,  though these at least can be made slowly and incrementally. Hopefully, as passengers and drivers get more used to LRT operations, travel times can be tightened up a bit. But the system will be successful if it attracts more riders (without turning away existing passengers with overcrowding or longer travel times due to transfers from buses), and encourages higher-density, transit-oriented development along the route.

I will return to Kitchener-Waterloo later this summer once ION is “broken in” and the novelty wears out. Offering free fares during the opening week was a nice way to encourage residents to check out the new service, but overcrowding and inexperience were problems.

I am hopeful that ION helps to change local attitudes towards light rail and encourages other mid-sized cities and suburban municipalities to follow Waterloo Region’s example.

1-IMG_2391-001ION train approaching Fairway Terminal. The speed limit on this section of track is 70 km/h.

Categories
Ontario Transit

Mind the gap: as Waterloo’s light rail line opens, other connections close

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ION LRT service will finally commence Friday June 21

Early in 2019, I had the opportunity to take a trip on Wroute, a new service that connected Guelph, Kitchener, and Burlington. Wroute was an interesting concept, a privately-operated option with characteristics of a bus service, a taxi company, and ride-hailing app. With a fleet of Tesla Model X electric SUVs, Wroute tried to fill a gap left by GO Transit and other intercity transportation operators in the Guelph-Kitchener/Waterloo-Hamilton Triangle. Unfortunately, Wroute ended operations on Thursday May 2.

As I wrote in my article for TVO, fares were too high for a regular commuter, costing $20 for a single ride between Guelph and Kitchener, and $28 between Guelph and Aldershot, more than double the equivalent GO Transit fares.

IMG_8407-001Wroute Testla at Guelph Central Station, January 2019

When Waterloo Region celebrates the opening of the ION LRT on June 21, the bus system in Kitchener-Waterloo will be restructured to better connect with the corridor. Despite the improvements within Waterloo Region, links are still needed to surrounding communities. Hamilton and Guelph remain largely disconnected. With a growing employment base in Kitchener-Waterloo, as well large university and college campuses in all four city-regions, filling the gap is more important than ever.

Hopefully this will come done soon.

 

 

Categories
History Toronto Transit

The story of Toronto’s streetcar “bull’s eyes”

7566316174_524a59174e_o.jpgReplica of Toronto Railway Company streetcar #327 operates at the Halton County Radial Railway museum, with the unique glass bulbs visible below the metal “Belt Line” sign. Photo taken June 2012

In 1891, the Toronto Railway Company (TRC) was created, taking over the city’s streetcar system from its predecessor, the Toronto Street Railway. The TRC quickly began electrifying Toronto’s transit network, operating fifteen routes across the city. Electric streetcars were faster than horse-drawn trams, and passengers had difficulties figuring out which streetcar was theirs at night.

This was a problem as many streetcar routes overlapped. For example, Dupont and Avenue Road streetcars operated on Yonge Street south of Bloor, and Belt Line and Yonge streetcars both ran on Front Street. While the TRC had metal signs on the top and sides of each streetcar to denote the route, they weren’t illuminated. With electric light still in its infancy — arc lamps were too intense while early incandescent lamps were too dull to adequately illuminate route signs — the TRC developed an ingenious solution: uniquely coloured glass bulbs mounted on the roof, lit by interior lights. These lights became known as “bull’s eyes.”

Under this scheme, the Yonge Streetcar could be identified by one blue light, while the Broadview Streetcar could be identified with red and green lights. This system required passengers to memorize their route’s colours, and as new routes were introduced, changed, or withdrawn, it became cumbersome. Eventually, lighting technology caught up: while back-lit destination signs were possible by 1910, the TRC became hesitant to spend any capital funds to modernize its fleet or expand the streetcar railway network. The City of Toronto was forced to start its own streetcar system, the Toronto Civic Railway, to serve outlying neighbourhoods.

Though the Ontario Railway Board (predecessor to the Ontario Municipal Board) refused to force the TRC to expand the street railway network beyond the 1891 boundaries, it ordered the TRC to install backlit route signs. These new signs were introduced in February 1913, and those unique coloured bulbs disappeared by 1915. Six years later, the TRC’s franchise was up, and the city-owned Toronto Transportation Commission came into being.

In 1935, the TTC re-introduced “bull’s eyes” to its streetcar fleet. Officially known as an advance light, a single roof-mounted light, which gave off a blue-green hue, was designed to let waiting passengers know a streetcar was on its way. At the same time, the TTC installed dash lights, which both illuminated advertising cards and provided additional lighting, a useful safety feature.

IMG_7929-001.JPGTTC PCC Streetcar #4549 on Queen Street West in September 2018

New PCC streetcars, which began arriving in 1938, were built with the advance lights already installed. By 1940, all streetcars, including the remaining wooden cars acquired from the Toronto Railway Company, were equipped with advance lights. After the Second World War, PCC streetcars purchased from cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Kansas City, were similarly fitted with the roof-mounted lamps.

IMG_8717-001.JPGCLRV streetcar on Queen Street East, with two blue-green advance lights above the back-lit destination sign. 

By the 1970s, the TTC decided to maintain its street railway fleet after planning for their eventual replacement with buses and subways, and sought a replacement fleet for its ageing PCCs. The new Canadian Light Rail Vehicles (CLRVs) and Articulated Light Rail Vehicles (ALRVs) were designed with dual advance lamps, mounted within the streetcar body, immediately above the destination sign.

Advance lights were introduced to TTC buses starting in the mid-1990s, as new wheelchair-accessible vehicles were added to the fleet, starting with high-floor Orion V and Nova RTS buses, and continuing with newer low-floor vehicles. Blue lights indicated that the bus was accessible. As a bonus, when combined with new digital orange LED destination signs, the bus advance lights served to further improve the visibility of approaching transit vehicles.

11041809023_47fc64e5e7_o.jpgNova articulated bus with orange LED destination sign and blue LED advance lights indicating it is an accessible vehicle

The new Bombardier Flexity streetcars are similarly equipped with new blue LED lights, as they too are fully accessible vehicles. While blue advance lights are unique to TTC buses, the new light rail vehicles for Waterloo Region’s ION LRT, also built by Bombardier, sport similar blue lights.

IMG_8421-002.JPGION LRT vehicle undergoing testing in Kitchener, February 2019

Sources:
John F. Bromley and Jack May: Fifty Years of Progressive Transit (Electric Railroaders’ Association, 1973)
Mike Filey: Not a One-Horse Town: 125 years of Toronto and its Streetcars (Firefly Press, 1990)

Categories
Development History Ontario Urban Planning

Ontario’s failed downtown malls

IMG_0392.JPGBayside Mall, formerly the Sarnia Eaton Centre, on a Saturday morning in 2013. Most stores are vacant or occupied by non-profits or independent businesses.

The Toronto Eaton Centre, large, famous, and vital, is only one of many malls built in the downtown cores of Ontario cities between the 1960s and 1990s. From Thunder Bay to Cornwall, the construction of new enclosed shopping centres were seen as a necessary tool to keep the old city centres vibrant and relevant in the face of competition from new suburban malls. But only in the province’s two largest cities did the concept work. Elsewhere, these urban shopping complexes were left largely vacant within ten years of opening, when leases expired. When the Eaton’s department chain went bankrupt in 1997, huge voids were left behind that developers and municipalities struggled to fill.

The Toronto Eaton Centre was opened in two phases between 1977 and 1979. It added hundreds of shops and new office space to Downtown Toronto, anchored by a new Eaton’s flagship and was connected to the Simpson’s store across Queen Street. Today, the Eaton Centre is Canada’s second largest mall (including the Hudson’s Bay/Saks Fifth Avenue building) and the Toronto region’s second most productive shopping centre in terms of sales per square metre. In Ottawa, the downtown Rideau Centre, opened in 1983, is the busiest and most productive mall in that region (Retail Council of Canada, 2016).

But elsewhere in Ontario, downtown malls — mostly built with municipal and/or provincial government support — have been, without exception, commercial and urban development failures. Not only did they suffer from high vacancy rates, they helped to wreck the downtown cores they are located in rather than foster the economic revitalization they once promised.

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.


Related:

Categories
Cycling Travels

A ride through Midwestern Ontario, Part I

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Just prior to Labour Day weekend, I went on a two-day bike excursion west of Toronto, starting in Guelph, staying in Downtown Kitchener, and finishing my ride in Downtown Hamilton. [Part II, Kitchener to Hamilton is here.]

I find that cycling long distances, especially in the countryside, is valuable “me” time. I go at my own place, which is great, because I do not have the stamina nor the build for keeping up with seasoned road cyclists. In my opinion, well-maintained rail trails are excellent — there are no hills to climb, no traffic to deal with (except where the trail crosses busy country roads), and there is much peace and quiet. Fellow trail users are friendly, a nod, a hello, or a wave are normally exchanged by passing cyclists or pedestrians.

On the first day of this 160-kilometre ride, I rode from Guelph, through West Montrose, Elmira, and St. Jacobs to Downtown Kitchener. I stopped at a covered bridge, rode through several charming small towns, sampled the beers of a craft brewery celebrating its second anniversary, and checked out some interesting cycling infrastructure shared by a very different form of muscle-powered transport.

I don’t have a car, so planning rural rides are little bit more challenging. Happily, for most out-of-town ride I rely on GO Transit’s trains and buses, which provide an opportunity for one-way or “open-jaw” trips without worrying about the logistics of organizing shuttle rides. In the last few years, I’ve used GO Transit to get to/from Uxbridge, Lindsay and Peterborough, Hamilton (and on to Port Dover by bike), Niagara Region, Georgetown and Newmarket, and Barrie (and on to Orillia and Midland), these cities served by GO are all great places to start or finish a ride.

IMG_4943-002Downtown Guelph. The Basilica Church of Our Lady Immaculate dominates McConnell Street (photo taken earlier this year)

On a pleasant Saturday, I loaded my bike on the rack took a GO bus from the Union Station Bus Terminal to Guelph, a long bus ride that took nearly two hours. GO Transit’s buses are quite comfortable; if you’re planning to bring a bike along, just be sure to arrive early to make sure you get one of the two bike rack spots.