GO expands its empire as coach operators retreat

Yesterday, Tuesday, October 20 2009, the last Coach Canada bus departed the Guelph bus terminal for its run down Highway 6 to Waterdown, McMaster University, and Downtown Hamilton. The service, which Coach Canada claimed was a money loser, was reduced in August from four or five trips a day to one round trip a week.

On October 31, GO Transit will begin a new daily bus service between Square One in Mississauga and the University of Waterloo, making stops at Wilfred Laurier University, Downtown Kitchener, Highway 24 in Cambridge, and Milton (with two weekday round trips connecting to GO trains there).

These two pieces of news are more related than one may think.

This is the third time this year GO Transit has expanded its bus service well outside its traditional territory of Greater Toronto and Hamilton. In September, GO launched two new bus services connecting to the Lakeshore GO train; a route from Oshawa GO to Downtown Peterborough and Trent University, and from Burlington GO Station to Grimsby, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls. In addition, it has grand plans to extend GO train service to the VIA Station in Kitchener. One might be inclined to see these moves as empire-building.

GO Transit has provided service outside its area for many years, with some routes transferred from the TTC-owned Grey Coach Lines. These include: a local bus from Toronto through Brampton to Guelph; a bus extension from the Bradford GO Station (itself in Simcoe County) to Barrie; and a weekday bus connection to Orangeville via Brampton GO Station.

With this, we are seeing GO Transit transform even more from a commuter system to a regional transit provider. But as one can see from a geographic map I created (below) of GO’s network as of today (click to see a larger image), the Toronto-centric radial pattern is clearly visible, with Union Station and York University acting as the two main hubs.

Coach Canada and Greyhound (both owned by Scottish multinationals First Group and Stagecoach) have both been cutting service to smaller centres, while competing for the profitable long-distance routes through subsidiaries like MegaBus.  Greyhound announced last month that it is canceling all services in Manitoba (soon after building a new Winnipeg terminal) and services in Ontario northwest of Sault Ste. Marie, stranding people in towns like Marathon, Dryden and Kenora. On many routes, even in Ontario, bus service is intermittent — between St. Thomas and London, about 25 kilometres downtown-to-downtown, service is once a week on the Highway 3 route from Niagara Falls.

go-bus-peterborough1
GO bus in Peterborough, September 2009

The Peterborough GO route does not directly compete with Greyhound’s service, which provides a one-seat ride to downtown Toronto, and services downtown Oshawa and Scarborough Town Centre, which the “Train-Meet”  bus does not. In the same vein, the Waterloo bus goes only as far as Square One, allowing for the first time, direct travel between Mississauga and Waterloo, or a connection to Milton GO trains. The difference is that GO is subsidized (albeit at a low operating subsidy of less than 20%), which the two private carriers are not, directly.

When I took the Coach Canada bus on September 29 (the 4th last trip) from Guelph to Hamilton, there were nine passengers. One was heading to one of the teaching hospitals in Hamilton to visit a family member (and fortunate to get a ride back), several were students heading to Hamilton from the University of Guelph, and one was picked up en route off Highway 6. A more convenient schedule would serve all these markets, particularly students, whom GO has been courting with service to three new universities this year (Brock University in St. Catharines and Georgian College in Barrie are now the largest institutions without direct GO service).

The Ontario government currently owns two large bus and rail carriers — GO and Ontario Northland. Northeastern Ontario, served by Northland, is in no danger of losing its bus service, and could be expanded to serve other areas of the province underserved by private carriers, or subsidize the operations of money-losing bus routes. GO, given its expanded empire, should step in and operate intra-GTHA services such as Guelph-Hamilton, or forget the GTHA, and declare itself as a system connecting the entire Greater Golden Horseshoe (which includes Niagara, Lindsay, Waterloo and Peterborough) to each other and take the responsibility of doing so.

18 comments

  1. Does anybody spell my name correctly? I should just change it.

    Sincerely Ghost of Wilfrid Laurier.

  2. Why oh why doesn’t the new GO service run from Waterloo to Guelph?

    jason.

  3. Your last sentence describes how I have felt for years – GO needs to recognize the changing dynamic of the GGH, where travel is no longer to and from Toronto.

    For four months last winter I took Coach Canada every morning at 6:30am between Kitchener and Hamilton. The next bus doesn’t leave until 8:30am. It is a long 1.5 hour ride, while a good speed on the 401 could get you there in almost half the time. It was only a short co-op term, so I was able to bear it.

    GO should recognize these opportunities to connect major urban centres with faster commuter service, expanding employment options for everyone in the GGH. The fact that the Region of Waterloo (400,000+ people) and the City of Hamilton (500,000+ people) are connected merely by a single, slow bus route is laughable.

  4. The Scottish firm Stagecoach bought Grey Coach Lines in the early 90s and asset-stripped it.
    Now they’re doing the same thing.

    Isn’t there some regulatory body with
    “teeth” to make these sudden closures
    impossible?

  5. Regardless of the provider, isn’t it generally good news when a bus service is being provided to fill a gap or, even if slightly, correcting a declining service level.

    I think GO is assisting in implementing the Growth Plan for the GGH under the Places to Grow Act, which includes improvements to moving people from as far away as Kitchener, Brantford, Cambridge, etc.

    Let’s see if GO can improve on this.

  6. GO needs to extend its reach further into Niagara. Anyone familiar with the politics of the region knows that an intercity bus service has been squawked about for years (decades?) with nothing to show for it. The debate is really over who will pay for it since St Catharines, Niagara Falls and to a lesser extent Welland don’t want to subsidize the system so it can service the other towns and cities in the region.

    Maybe the only possible solution is for GO to come in and take charge and provide intercity service and have it connect to the greater system via Niagara Falls and St Catharines. Considering Niagara’s population is nearly 500k and only half live in Niagara Falls and St Catharines, it only makes sense considering many of the places GO services north of Toronto. Also, the fact that a region of 500k people doesn’t have intercity service is pitiful. Most places of that size have a commercial airport, never mind something small like intercity bus service.

  7. It’s called anti-trust, but the current neocon morons don’t give a flying $#@$ about enforcing it.

  8. This is excellent news for Waterloo Region and Mississauga, between which a fair number of people (including students) commute and travel. Considering the number of good connections from Square One, I think GO will be quickly ramping up service.

    I’d also like to see GO provide bus service between Guelph and Kitchener in advance of the GO train. This is a busy commuter corridor, and there is a $400 million plan to build a new highway between the two — which may well be obviated by a good bus link with trains on the horizon.

    Hopefully GO does get into more intercity connections outside of the GTA, for the sake of decreasing those cities’ traffic and sprawl. For instance, I would like to see bus routes like: Waterloo => Kitchener => Cambridge => Hamilton, Cambridge => Guelph.

  9. VIA is part of this equation too (given GO’s expansion into Niagara). GO is much cheaper than VIA and I would argue it would also be a better fit for VIA to leave that route and its stations to GO.

    Where the author of this piece got the idea Northland is not under threat puzzles me – look at this from last year:
    http://www.gillesbisson.com/newsitem.php?id=601

  10. I agree with James about Niagara: Inter-city transit is desperately needed. Niagara area cities feel so isolated, both from themselves and from the rest of Canada. (I would know, I’m from Port Colborne.)

    Thank goodness there is finally GO service to Peterborough. The Greyhound service used to be the only public mode of transportation out of that city, and they sure let their patrons know it. I have many Greyhound horror stories from my Trent University years.

    Coach Canada was never too bad: they are marginally more reliable and their customer service is never negectful. (Like the Greyhound commonly was.)

    A lack of viable compettition is what has lead to the demise of short trip Coach services. They charge too much, are unreliable, and take advantage of their status as a sole area service provider.

    This made them weak to the encroaches of the GO system, which is notably cheaper, more reliable, cleaner and kinder.

    I forsee the same thing happening to GO if its competitors eliminate themselves.

  11. Glad to see GO taking on all of the QEW, but I’d love to see them make it all the way to Brock University.

    What the Niagara Region really needs is a daily train link into Union Station. Go ran one on the weekends in the summer, but it will never be more than that. As long as the tracks have to go through Hamilton and the QEW gets the advantage of the sky-way a rail link will never be viable.

  12. Matt: It wouldn’t be hard for GO to operate into Brock University, and then to Niagara Falls. GO currently uses Fairview Mall (which doesn’t have space specifically for GO commuters).

    If it used the downtown terminal, it would at least connect to all the St. Catharines Transit buses, and from there, head south on the 406 to Brock, and then east to downtown Niagara Falls via Highway 58 (the Thorold Tunnel) and Thorold Stone Road, losing perhaps 5-10 minutes versus the QEW Skyway route.

    I have really wondered why there isn’t a regionalized transit system in Niagara, like what Waterloo, York and Durham Regions have accomplished. There should be at the very least an hourly bus service from St. Catharines to Port Colborne via Pen Centre and Brock; and an hourly bus from St. Catharines to Niagara Falls whether or not Brock and Niagara College are in session (the only times it is possible to change between Welland, Niagara and St. Kitts’ transit systems).

    I also found Niagara Transit to be the worst bus system for an Ontario city over 50,000. At least Belleville, North Bay and other cities smaller than Niagara Falls have half-hourly service and Sunday service. Niagara’s system hasn’t changed much in 25 years.

  13. “What the Niagara Region really needs is a daily train link into Union Station.”

    VIA provides daily train service to Niagara Region with a schedule designed for commuters.

    “At least Belleville, North Bay and other cities smaller than Niagara Falls have half-hourly service and Sunday service.”

    I’ve used Niagara Falls transit from time to time when we visit. Some areas do get half-hourly where routes overlap. There is reduced Sunday service, as well. I don’t know how it compares to other small cities.

  14. Hi Darwin,

    The ticket prices of over $30 each way and the two trips a day each way doesn’t really make what VIA offers a commuter train.

    A 7-day car rental at around $200 would be cheaper than the $346.50 you’d pay for 5 days of VIA round trips (all before tax). If gas for a week cost 46.50 that leaves $100 to park before the VIA gets an advantage.

    Via’s web site is also very slow (that’s not relevant, it just made verifying my comments difficult).

    Sean, I agree on all counts. I grew-up in York and I’m amazed how far they’ve come.

    Everything in Niagara is parochial, and resources are so scarce, that I doubt there will ever be a meaningful regional transit initiative.

    I was part of the committee that got Brock students bus passes in 2003 (for the 2004 school year). GO arriving in the region seems like the best stimulus the region has had since.

  15. @Darwin – The VIA service from Niagara is abysmal. In the evening, you’re lucky if your train is better than an hour late as the train comes from NYC and has to clear customs. It’s even worse in the winter where I’ve been told by the VIA attendant in St Catharines to just take the bus because the train hadn’t even reached the border yet at the time it was supposed to arrive in St Catharines. Apparently this is a very common occurrence. Until VIA provides service to the region that isn’t a small part of the run to NYC, it’s not going to be a great option.

    @Sean Marshall – I agree completely. Hourly service between St Catharines and Port Colborne is entirely necessary. Stops at Brock and Niagara College (Welland) would be perfect. I’d also like to see north-south service on the east side of the penn too with a Fort Erie, NF, NOTL route and maybe a circle route between NF, STC and Welland.

    People from Niagara can attest that the region is in its own little world down there. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who themselves worked or whose parents worked outside the region. It is probably one of the most insular parts of Southern Ontario. Maybe it’s changed slightly because of all of the manufacturing job losses, but I’d wager that it still sees a small percent of the number of commuters that a Durham or Halton region sees.

  16. If GO took over stopping service in Niagara then the VIA-Amtrak could run express as the Vancouver-US border service does.

    One thought I’ve had is that GO buses heading in from Niagara to connect with GO trains should connect at Hamilton and proceed onwards to Guelph and Kitchener to offer cross-radial service. This probably can’t happen until track construction allows more trains to start from Hamilton instead of Aldershot.

  17. @matt clare – while a commuter pass from Niagara Falls-Toronto is $775 ($714 from St Catharines), I would agree that time keeping would be a bigger concern – although with the canal bridge GO is likely to face delays too.

  18. The Via train that comes over the border is in reality an Amtrak train, with lousy Amtrak equipment, lousy Amtrak crews and lousy Amtrak scheduling. It is a complete disgrace in terms of how it is run, but no one on the American side cares. This is why the bus services have been thriving recently on the NYC-Toronto route. I agree that it would be much better if Niagara service was handled by GO. New York’s commuter trains travel up to 2.5 hours from the city — would not be a big deal for GO to serve Niagara.

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