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.
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.