“Last train [from] London, just leaving town”… at 5:20 in the morning? Metrolinx, the crown corporation in charge of intercity public transportation in and around the GTA, launched GO Train service between extended service from Kitchener to London (Ontario) on October 18th. The move is part of a pilot project to deliver rapid intercity transit to southwestern Ontario, which has been in various forms of development for years. Is this the right move at the right time? Will it accomplish its goals? What even are its goals?
The service was started to provide additional transportation options to the residents of Southwestern Ontario (a somewhat nebulously defined region). So if you’re a University of Waterloo student who has family in London, you can now make the weekend trip without booking a bus service or hitching a ride with a stranger. If you live in London, St. Mary’s, or Stratford and work in Downton Kitchener, you could use the train as a commuter service. Or if you wanted to catch a Stratford Festival performance and don’t want to worry about driving, you now have an option. The CEO of Metrolinx himself sees this as an opportunity to gather data about commuting patterns and demands at the three new stops. The service seems poorly suited to meet any of these goals.
First the schedule: One train leaves London every weekday at 5:20, stopping at Kitchener at 7:32 to arrive at Toronto’s Union Station for 9:13. It returns in the opposite direction starting at 16:19 passing by Kitchener at 18:06 and arriving back at London at 20:17. That’s right, only one train at a one inconvenient time. Are you that Waterloo student heading back to London, well you better hope you like travelling on your already busy weekdays because there are no weekend trips. Are you that commuter heading into Kitchener, better hope you’re an early bird to catch that 5:20 train out of London. Don’t even dream of using the service for a day trip to Stratford, since that four hour ride will only get you there at night, forcing you to rent a hotel until you’re force to take the 7 o’clock train as your only escape. That could work for the party city of Las Vegas, not quaint little Stratford, Ontario.
The travel time is no solace. Their four-hour train service has to compete with a two-hour drive at off peak times. VIA Rail, not a service renowned for its efficiency, actually competes with a two-hour train ride from London to Union Station via the CN mainline through Hamilton. Metrolinx has elected to use to the derelict, presumably cheaper, branch line that goes from London to Kitchener, where trains are forced to a crawl due to poor track conditions. Why on earth would they choose the route that takes twice as long if the ostensible goal was to connect London and Toronto.
In addition to choosing the worst (and cheapest) route, many problems seem to have sprung from a zealousness to reduce the overhead cost to zero: No new trains were purchased and no new stations were built or even modified, leading to some rather awkward arrangements. The trains need to run early in the morning, because during rush hour in the morning, as the trains already has work scheduled to do during rush hour. Most of the doors won’t even open since the VIA Rail stations used from Stratford to London don’t have platforms large enough to accommodate GO Trains. Only a paltry 2.5 million annually was set aside to pilot 97 kilometres. For context, Bloomington GO, a one-station extension on the Richmond Hill line of just over three kilometres cost 82 million.
Apparently, the budget wasn’t big enough for ticket machines or ticket scanners. You can’t use a Presto Card, or even buy a ticket, you have to download an e-pass onto your phone, even if for the Kitchener-Union station leg of the journey, where you can normally use Presto. Tough luck if you don’t have a phone or have poor connection to Wi-Fi and data, since the e-passes aren’t even printable. This flies in the face of one of public transit’s main principles: equity. Some of the elderly, disabled, poor or otherwise marginalized people do not have reliable access to these phones and Wi-Fi, so why should they be prevented from taking one of the only accessible forms of transit?
In order to justify the 2.5 million spent per year, assuming about 520 weekdays over the two years and that every passenger pays the full $30 price from London to Toronto, which will not be the case, we need 160 passengers on each trip. This doesn’t appear unreasonable, as the Kitchener station itself has about 330 boardings per day. However, Kitchener has nine trains leaving a day as opposed to one. In fact, the first day (higher than normal due to transit and train enthusiasts), posted only 30 passengers in one direction, most of whom are probably not making the four-hour journey to Toronto. Even with a modest uptick of ridership overtime, which already seems stunted already because of the poor offerings, ridership will still be far south of 160.
It ultimately seems like the pilot was strangled before it was even placed into the cradle. Who is able to use a service that comes once a day at inconvenient times, doesn’t attempt to integrate with existing payments systems, and is twice as slow as even competing services? Nobody who values reliability and predictability, that’s who’s able to use it. It seems like they’re trying to fulfill a promise by piloting a program with almost no investment, only to turn around shocked when it fails to live up to any metric of success.
And why pilot a service with a train line? A bus would be far better suited for this task. This is used for the other outlying satellites of the GTA like Brantford and Peterborough, even if rail lines exist to connect with the towns with the rail network. A GO bus scoops up the passengers and brings them to the nearest train stop at the right time to catch a train into Union Station. No new stations would be necessary, so the 2.5 million could go towards buying a new bus, installing three new fare machines and the annual salary of a bus driver who could make more than one trip per direction per day.
A frequent bus service might make for a compelling business case. Maybe a more frequent or faster train service might be the most sustainable. However, for political reasons unknown, there has been no business case to speak of, even if this so standard for all of Metrolinx’s other projects. So maybe there is a compelling reason why this service should be delivered by train one a day, but we the public have no justification.
Metrolinx has said that they will upgrade the train lines if the pilot goes successfully. Perhaps the political reasons for launching this service are compelling enough to it along until it gets enough investment to become viable. the (Greater) Greater Toronto Area desperately needs faster, more frequent and more robust public transportation if it wants to ease congestion, connect its residents and mobilize its least privileged. So perhaps a step forward is better than a step back, even if that step lands in a gopher hole.