Observations from GO Niagara

Robert Wightman rode the GO service to and from Niagara Falls today (July 1), and sends the following comments.

I rode the second GO train to Niagara today — 650 passengers.  The third train ran with 270.  GO is running ten car trains so that they do not need to make and break train sets but they are only using the eight cars closest to the locomotive because St. Catharines appears to only have an eight car platform while Niagara only has a five car platform; they stop the train twice.

GO has put in proper platforms including handicap mini platform at St. Catharines and Niagara.  There is room to lengthen the Niagara platform but there is some construction going on there. It appears that they are putting in a wayside power connection at Niagara, probably for VIA.

GO has not done a Mickey Mouse job at these two stations as they have put in new platform lighting and a proper and permanent mini platform.  It appears as if GO wants to make this a permanent run.  They were running a buy-one-get-one-free promotion today so you could buy a one way ticket and use it as a return ticket.  Toronto to Niagara and return cost $15.90 instead of $35.80 on VIA.

GO pulled out all the stops as they had a GO crew and a CN crew in the engine because GO crews are not current on the Grimsby Sub.  They also had two CSA’s (Customer Service Agents or door operators,) and two or three Special Constables to make sure everything ran smoothly.  They did not check tickets in either direction on my two trains.

I was surprised at the number of people who got on both ways at St. Catharines.  Considering the amount of money that GO has put into platforms and lighting at these two stations, I bet that they will start running two trains in from Niagara in the morning and out in the afternoon sometime this fall.  The trains are in the new Lakeshore West timetable and will run on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays until Oct. 12.  It would not cost them any new equipment but they would probably need to put in a yard at Niagara to store the trains overnight.

Number 98 the 17:25 Amtrak/VIA train to Toronto was 1h45 minutes late as US homeland security decided to check what every one on the train was exporting from the US.  It was probably a not so subtle hint to keep your vacation money in the US.  This caused a 1h05 delay to the GO train into Niagara at 18:15 as it had to wait for the Amtrack train to clear Canadian Border Security Agency check.  Amtrak/VIA did not pull into the second track even though one Niagara person who was apparently instrumental in setting up the GO excursion train said they were supposed to as part of the contingency set up for this scenario. The VIA agent said the Customs people had refused in the past to check trains on this track as they thought that it was dangerous to cross track one to get to track two even if the passengers had to do it.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people were riding the train. Once GO gets its operation down pat to the point where they can run three man crews this should be a money maker as well as a boon to tourism in Niagara and Toronto.  Perhaps they could consider doing this for Stratford to improve tourism there as well as getting nameless transit commentators to their hotel before they go to the theatre.

Running this type of service has a low cost to GO as the equipment is sitting around all weekend doing nothing so they do not need a large passenger volume to cover their costs.  With eight cars to carry 650 passengers the train was not crowded but it still carried enough to cover its marginal costs.

It was educational to compare the GO and the VIA Amtrak service as they loaded at Niagara.  The VIA Amtrak trains loaded about 25 people through one narrow door for about 7 minutes.  GO loaded close to 500 passenger through 10 double width doors, including a number of bicycles, in about two minutes and these were mainly people who do not ride any train normally.  VIA and Amtrak should scrap their existing equipment and replace it with something like the Bombardier bi-levels that can load and unload so much faster with their low level double width doors.

If the US security folks want to see people spending money south of the border, they should be happy to see all sorts of US goodies in travellers’ arms going back across the border to Canada.  Of course how much of that stuff was actually made in the USA and how much elsewhere is another problem.  Conflicts in operations like this need to be worked out.

It’s good to hear that the train did well on its first day although the effect of full fares needs to be seen.

As for cultural events, it’s still a pain in the butt to get to Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Stratford, for me, is a weekday jaunt.  The city would love to see GO run service there regularly and has proposed the largely vacant yard at Stratford as a GO facility, but it’s quite a jaunt west of Kitchener.

The problem on that line is that the arrival time of the morning train is now just late enough that catching a matinee isn’t a sure thing.  I doubt GO will be running midday trains that far from Toronto any day soon.