Regional Transit: Where Do We Begin Filling the Gaps and Addressing the Needs?

This month, GO Transit started running more trains between Guelph and Kitchener, which is billed as another small step forward in the increasingly decades long struggle to get two-way, all-day Go Train service between us and Union Station. It’s important. We need it. But what are the barriers that stand between us and expanded regional transit, and what are we not doing to improve the broader transit picture here in Southwestern Ontario?

The Problem

From the Government of Ontario, to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, to municipalities and advocacy groups, there has been a lot of talk about expanding regional transit. Most of this focus has been on the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), which extends from Durham County west along the Golden Horseshoe to Hamilton. Another area of focus is the so-called “Innovation Corridor,” the western portion of the Highway #401 that runs from Toronto to Windsor.

For the most part, the solution to moving a growing number of people in a growing region has been the expansion of rail service. The previous Liberal Ontario government proposed a high speed rail (HSR) line from Toronto to Windsor, with the Toronto to London portion coming online in 2025. The Liberals committed $11 billion to the project in their final budget, but the Progressive Conservative government put the project on hold earlier this year.

High speed rail, for all intents and purposes, is dead, at least for the time being, but the problem remains the same: more people, less roads, more transit needed.

The Greater Golden Horseshoe Transportation Plan prepared for the Ontario government in November 2017 painted a picture of how steep the problem is.

According to the 2011 Transport Tomorrow Survey that was cited in the report, 81 per cent of the trips in the province on your average weekday are made with an automobile, another 10 per cent is local transit, with the remaining nine being some mix of walking, biking, regional transit or another option.

By the numbers, there were nearly 14.5 million trips by car in 2011, which was up from 6.3 million in 1986. Compared to transit use, there were just over 1.8 million that took local transit in 2011, plus another 228,950 on the GO Train, which is in an increase, but not much of an increase, from 1986 when 1.3 million took their local transit service, and only 62,000 used the GO Train.

Demand has gone up, but the service hasn’t been able to keep pace, and it certainly hasn’t been able to keep pace with the growing  needs of the region, but it’s not just people that have to be moved around. A separate report from the Ontario Chamber of Commerce in 2018 says that 58 per cent of businesses rates the transportation infrastructure in their communities from fair to poor.

“Ontario suffers from disjointed transit governance, world-leading congestion, inadequate service options, and a lack of regulatory preparation for the future of transportation,” it reads.

“The challenge, I think historically, has been lack of Queens Park attention,” said Peter Miasek, of the transit advocacy group Transport Action Ontario. Miasek is cautiously optimistic that the time has come for this issue to get serious Queen’s Park attention.

“The budget did commit to a study on some sort of a regional rail and bus solution, a conventional rail and a conventional bus solution, so we’re optimistic about that,” he said. “That’s what we think needs to be the first step. High speed rail may be great in 20 years, but you need to walk before you run.”

The Bottleneck

Back in December, then-Minister of Transportation Jeff Yurek announced at the Kitchener GO station that Metrolinx and the Government of Ontario was adding two additional trains, one to Toronto in the morning, and one from Toronto in the evening.

“This is an important step in our plans to deliver two-way, all-day GO service between Kitchener and Toronto,” Yurek said. “This is just the first step we’re going to be taking to reach that milestone.”

Since that December announcement, three more trains have been added to and from Toronto. It’s another step closer to all-day GO Train service, which has been promised since the the middle of the last decade. GO Trains did run beyond Georgetown to Guelph for three years between October 1990 to July 1993, but it wasn’t extended to Kitchener until December 2011.

So what’s between the Kitchener line and getting more GO Trains? It’s the track. The track that runs between Brampton and Georgetown is owned by CN, which means they prioritize the freight. According to the site Transit Toronto, CN also leased the track west of Georgetown to Goderich and Exeter Railway, but Metrolinx made a deal to by the track between Georgetown and Kitchener for $76 million in 2014.

So Metrolinx presently owns 80 per cent of the track between Kitchener and Toronto, but there still exists “the bottleneck.” That track between Georgetown and Brampton is the last major hurdle between us and regular GO Trains, and for years, the Ontario government under the Liberals believed the solution was a freight bypass.

“By working with CN, we’re able to significantly accelerate our timetable and introduce new services to the Kitchener line,” Yurek explained back in December. “We’re doing this without building the costly freight rail bypass that would take years to complete, and that means we’re speeding up our negotiations to free up track time so that we can deliver two-way, all-day GO service as soon as possible.”

“They’ve done some tweaking, and I think that’s how they may have added one or two trips, but they’re never going to get to 15 or 20-minute service,” said Martin Collier, the director of Happy Transport Consulting. Collier’s Guelph-based company provides government, private sector and non-profit organizations with sustainable transportation policy, planning, research and project/event management services. He’s also the found of Transport Futures.

“There was a deal [to build a bypass] that I think the Liberals had basically in place, and then [Premier Doug] Ford came in and said, ‘We’re not going to do that, because it is going to be expensive,'” Collier explained.”That’s such an important line to goods, and I’m not sure how long the bypass is going to be, but we’re talking kilometres, and not just half-a-kilometre or something like that.”

In other words, two-way, all-day GO is a pipe dream until there’s a bypass unless CN wants to give up delivering freight on weekdays. “You can’t say you’re not going to have the bypass, and then also have all-day GO service, it’s impossible. It can’t happen without without that by bypass situation,” Collier added.

That hasn’t stopped the Provincial government from announcing an ambitious timeline for two-way, all-day GO.

“I’m hoping we’ll have an announcement within 12 to 18 months that will implement two-way, all-day [service],” Yurek said almost nine months ago.

 We Need Options

Outside of the GTHA, taking public transit between cities is even difficult. The Southwestern Ontario Transportation Alliance (SWOTA) scanned regional bus service as part of their Network Southwest proposal, and where as there were over 25 intercity bus routes servicing over 200 communities in 1982, those numbers fell to seven routes and 52 communities by 2015.

“There are a lot of towns and cities and communities that are really struggling, who don’t have the options of being able to travel from one place to another,” said Michelle German, senior lead at Evergreen, an  advocacy group to create more sustainable cities. German appeared on the Guelph Politicast last year to talk about regional transit.

“The other side of this is a conversation about what is the urban fabric that we’re supporting and building out because it’s not just rapid transit, that’s not necessarily the obvious solution for every community,” German said. “It might be a matter of the variety of shared pathways that includes good walking pathways, cycling pathways, or a dedicated bus lane.

“There are things that we could probably start doing tomorrow, but I think the challenge is that communities aren’t used to what these things are, and they might not know exactly how to ask for them,” she added.

According to Moving Forward, the Ontario Chamber’s report on transit and transportation, commuters in the GTHA use two or three local and regional transit systems to get to and from work, which suggests the multi-module model is a reality for many even of they don’t know what to call it.

Still, the Chamber’s report also notes that 60 per cent of GO Train users drive to the station to catch the train, and to the people for whom car ownership is not an option, there are significant “mobility gaps,” places without adequate transit service, or where walking and cycling may not be safe or convenient.

What the Government of Ontario has demonstrated, at least according to their own report, is that increases in GO Transit service are followed by increases in GO Transit use. Between 2006 and 2015. GO Train and GO Bus ridership increased 41 per and 57 per cent respectively as the government started making more and more investment in expanding the service.

Meanwhile, privately-owned transit services like Greyhound have been cutting back. Since 2010, according to a story in The Guardian, Greyhound ridership fell 41 per cent since 2010. In 2017, Greyhound cut the number of buses that run between Guelph and Kitchener, which hurt because Greyhound provides the only direct public transit line between the two cities.

“Workforce mobility plays an important role in the ability for a community to remain competitive and ensure sustained robust growth,” then-President and CEO of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce Kithio Mwanzia said in a statement. “Transit therefore is an important part of the eco-system of competitiveness and plays an important role when it comes to business and economic development decision-making.”

“It seems like this government is coming in and saying we’re going to have more trains, but then all of a sudden other choices disappear,” said Collier. “I think they should work together, and there’s a lot of things that can be done on that level.”

“Buses are a very, very practical way to integrate, and if you go with the U.S. model or the model that GO Transit itself uses combined ticketing and schedule integration, it’s seamless,” said Miasek, whose group lists main transit integration one of their priorities.

According to transit advocate Jarrett Walker, transit “integration” or “seamlessness” has struggled because each city controls its own local transit system even as more people move regularly over bigger geographical areas. This can have benefits like being able to more deftly respond to local concerns, but there are things like integrating fares and scheduling that would make regional transit easier. Think air travel instead of bus travel.

“It’s like planes: it’s a drag to change planes, and especially to change between airlines, but it’s kind of cool, while you are changing planes, to look at the departure planes and think about all the other places you could also get to via this connection,” Walker wrote. “What’s more, all those connections are crucial to making your flights viable for the airline, even if you don’t use them.”

The Gaps

But who’s going to fill the gaps? The obvious choice is Metrolinx and GO Transit, but despite additional bus service along the Highway #7 route from Guelph, and new direct buses to Mississauga and other points in the GTHA, there has been no proposed bus service through GO that would directly connect Guelph to either Toronto, or K-W.

Now, most people put the blame for that on a kind of “urban legend” in town that says Greyhound has an exclusivity contract to run those direct buses, but Metrolinx denies there is such an agreement.

“There is no formal agreement; however, GO Transit does not seek to duplicate services already provided by private inter-city bus carriers,” said Fannie Sunshine, Media Relations and Issues Specialist for Metrolinx in a statement to Guelph Politico. “GO Transit bus services complement inter-city bus services by providing connections to a wide variety of destinations across the GO Transit service area.”

On top of that, there must also be the political will, and back in December, Yurek was less than certain about where the priority lies with bus service.

“We’re reviewing our GO Transit opportunities,” he said. “We are looking at bus service and what makes sense and what works, but at the end of the day it’s about getting people moving, and about making sure we have a regional transportation system that’s integrated.”

In the 2019 Provincial Budget, the government said that they were looking at transit options for southwestern Ontario in a report that will “examine options for improved connections between London, Kitchener and Toronto to spur economic activity in the region by improving mobility and increasing travel reliability.”

“The budget said we’re going to pause high speed rail, and instead, we’re going to develop a rail and bus transportation plan for Southwestern Ontario on existing corridors, which is exactly what we want. That’s the study we’re waiting for,” said Miasek.

This transportation plan is expected to be received sometime this fall, but what will it tell us about getting more transit in service?

“I think the government has to work with the private sector because they’re ready to fill that need,” said Collier.

So what are they waiting for?

“They need financial subsidies, or financial sweeteners,” explained Miasek. “We think there needs to be financial incentives, either sales tax or fuel tax waivers, or discounts for accelerated capital allowance because it doesn’t seem to be a very attractive business right now.”

Collier suggests rising money by making it financially unappealing to use one’s private automobile all the time. “If we can increase some of the user fees, I think more people would actually consider transit,” he said. “The 400 series highways should all be toll roads, and I think that would start getting people to change their ways, plus generate the money to invest in transit, and maybe subsidise the private sector.”

But even when the money comes, there’s still difficulty in getting service going. In Owen Sound, the City received $1.45 million over five years from the Ministry of Transportation’s Community Transportation Grant Program to run a bus between Owen Sound and Guelph twice-a-day. As of the end of August, no carrier has been found to pick up the contract.

“We’re very passionate about this and we thought we might be able to get up and running by the fall of this year, and I think there is a pent up demand for that service,” Dennis Kefalas, director of public works and engineering, told the Own Sound Sun Times optimistically.

“Maybe they’re just saying this isn’t going to work, even if there is money available. Maybe it’s not enough, maybe they’re waiting for more,” said Collier about the difficulties in Owen Sound. “To get into more areas, or add a new line, that means adding more employees, that means all sorts of things. It’s not just an easy thing to do just because the money is floated in front of your face.”

Meanwhile here in Guelph, a private commuter service called Wroute, which offered regular trips back and forth from Guelph to Kitchener in a fleet of electric Tesla vehicles, closed after eight months despite attempting to expand service to more regional locations underserved by transit. Many blamed the price tag of nearly $20 for a one-way trip.

So the situation is complex, the need is great, and it seems like something that no one government can do alone. Seems like an ideal place to have a discussion around in this Federal election.

Transport Futures will be hosting a debate on transit and transportation Tuesday night at Innis Town Hall on the University of Toronto campus in downtown Toronto starting at 7 pm. Liberal MP Adam Vaughan, NDP candidate Diana Yoon, Green Party candidate Tim Grant and People’s Party candidate Renata Ford will be taking part.

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