As GO Transit celebrates its 40th anniversary, looking ahead seems more important than ever.
GO’s role in addressing current issues relating to traffic gridlock, air quality, land-use planning and quality of life, is critical to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Estimates of annual congestion costs on GTA roads are in the $2 billion range, and significant population growth is forecasted for the GTA. The future looks challenging, but GO has proven that it can do the job.
GO Transit started in 1967 as the Province of Ontario’s alternative to building highways. Originally, the modest experiment was restricted to the Canadian National Railway’s (CNR) Lakeshore line between Oakville in the west and Pickering in the east, feeding commuter trains into historic Union Station in downtown Toronto. It quickly became a “hub-andspoke” network of seven rail corridors into Toronto.
The development of new rail lines was generally led by commuter GO bus services that established the markets, eventually replaced by trains. Cost efficiencies and quick implementation of the GO rail network were made possible by capitalizing on existing rail corridors, still owned and operated by privately owned national railway companies. The companies continue to operate the trains and charge fees to GO for train crews, operations, maintenance and rail access.
GO bus service has grown quickly along with commuter markets outside of the downtown core. Highway-style GO buses cruise across highways, from east to west, in rapidly developing areas of north Toronto. In the off-peak, GO buses serve the train stations when it is not economical to run trains.
Today, GO buses and trains carry close to 49 million people a year, each trip averaging 32 kilometres. GO Transit replaces the equivalent of a 48-lane expressway in rush-hour serving the downtown core.
During the critical rush-hour periods, trains and buses are full and often over-crowded. Both modes encounter gridlock. The trains that share the rights-of-way with freight and intercity trains require more tracks, and switching and signal systems require upgrading or modernization. Buses, like automobiles, are faced with traffic on the roads.
GO’s top priorities are maintaining the high level of service customers have come to expect, and increasing service levels on the existing corridors. More trains, buses, infrastructure (tracks, signals, etc.), service hours and parking are needed to accomplish these goals. Much of these needs are addressed in GO’s 10-year Plan. Partial funding of the plan has been committed by GO’s funding partners, the Province of Ontario, Federal Government and the GTA municipalities. Work has begun as GO grows within its current boundaries. Much of this work will allow GO to increase rush-hour train service and add off-peak train trips. Even greater opportunities are still awaiting funds as GO intensifies its service offerings in the most congested and highest populated part of the GTA, within 50 kilometres from the core.
The second challenge that is critical to GO’s success is maintaining current service while undertaking improvements to modernize the 1920 vintage Union Station, which is the hub of GO service.
The third challenge is to grow beyond current service boundaries into new corridors and beyond current ones. There are great expectations that GO can play an even larger role as a transportation and environmental solution.
GO buses attract significant markets if travel speeds and access (parking) are in place. Like the rail corridors, capitalizing on existing freeways with bus lanes, HOV lanes, queue-jump lanes and bus-only shoulders, has strong potential. If nodes of employment can be developed in appropriate locations, buses can tackle the difficult, suburb-to-suburb market. Often called bus rapid transit or BRT, GO is forging ahead with an incremental approach.
On the rail side, two existing corridors radiating from the core are unserved by GO Trains. The first passes through the bustling Bolton area, northwest of Toronto, and the second heads northeast through the soon-to-be settled area known as Seaton. The northwest corridor has strong market potential today and GO buses are already paving the way for eventual train service.
Much of the GTA and surrounding communities are already served by GO buses. In-filling those services with trains is the next logical step. One project, implementing train service to Barrie, is already underway. The Guelph area and points east of Oshawa, already served by buses, are calling for train service.
Beyond that, new GO services to communities such as Kitchener, Cambridge, Brantford, Niagara, Port Hope and Peterborough, await.
GO service has proven invaluable to the Greater Toronto Area. Where investment has been made in GO service, success has followed.
William Jenkins is GO Transit’s director of customer services.