How far should GO go?

May 25, 2017   ·   0 Comments

ON THE HEELS of the Ontario Government announcing long-range plans for a high-speed rail service between Toronto and Windsor, GO Transit published a six-page newspaper insert marking its 50th anniversary.

The publication, On the GO, said it was on  May 23, 1967, “a month after the Leafs won their 13th Stanley Cup,” that the government of the day announced plans for “a three-year  experiment” to be called the Government of Ontario Transit.

The “experiment” involved provision of commuter train service along the Lake Ontario lakeshore between Oakville and Pickering, with trains operating every 20 minutes in the morning and evening rush hours and hourly service at other times.

It was indeed an experiment, since neither  Canadian Pacific or Canadian National had ever tried operating the sort of commuter service long found in Montreal, and no one knew how many commuters would agree to leave their cars at home or in a parking lot at a GO station.

Initially, the trains had ordinary passenger coaches, and it wasn’t until 1978 that bi-level coaches were introduced to boost seating capacity on each unit a full 70 per cent. And it was another 30 years before GO had its first double-decker buses running along Highway 407.

GO bus service dates from 1970, with the first routes designed mainly to take pressure off the parking lots along the Lakeshore line,  and it wasn’t until about 1998 that Orangeville got its first rush-hour GO buses.

As for GO train service, it now exists as far west as Kitchener and as far north as Barrie, with other lines going to Milton on the west, Uxbridge to the northeast and Oshawa, but Orangeville isn’t the only community with a railway line but no GO trains, Peterborough and Alliston being left similarly situated.

As we see it, a big part of the problem is that successive provincial governments have never come up with a long-term plan for GO beyond dealing with existing and predicted riderships in areas already served.

Missing entirely from GO’s current mandate is recognition of the fact that many communities that once had both rail passenger service and inter-city bus services.

In 1967, Shelburne, a village with a population of 1,200, had excellent rail passenger service, with self-propelled “Dayliners” making the trip from Owen Sound to Union Station in three hours and Gray Coach Lines (a subsidiary of the Toronto Transit Commission) providing service through town seven days a week.

Today, as a town with a population likely to tip 8,000 before long, Shelburne has no public transit whatsoever, Greyhound having long since abandoned most of the lines it purchased from Gray Coach.

Perhaps instead of just boasting about how much it has grown in half a century, GO Transit and/or Metrolinx, its current owner, should seek permission from the government to launch two new types of service – self-propelled GO railcars on existing railbeds that now carry only freight or tourist trains, and GO bus service on lines abandoned by Greyhound and other private carriers.

In our view, a modern version of the Budd railcars that used to run on both CPR and CNR branch lines would be attractive to both commuters and other Ontarians wanting to visit Toronto without having to deal with gridlock.

And introducing GO service of any sort to places like Shelburne and Alliston would also help take pressure off the Toronto-area housing market.

After all, what newly retired Torontonian wouldn’t find life outside the GTA a lot more attractive if it included the option of easy access to downtown Toronto by GO bus or train?

Maybe it’s something our politicians at Queen’s Park should start thinking about.

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