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.

50 thoughts on “Observations from GO Niagara

  1. Interesting. The GO website throws up a fare of $15.05 from Long Branch to Niagara Falls. Of course, the Niagara Falls train doesn’t stop at Long Branch!

    How does GO deal with this? Am I supposed to take a local train to some station where the Niagara train does stop?

    I note that Mimico and Long Branch are both in their own fare zone for Niagara Falls, but the closest stop is either Union (more expensive) or Port Credit (cheaper).


  2. It seems clear that GO intends for this trial route to become at least semi-permanent. I wonder what kind of demand there might be on weekdays to Niagara Falls, especially outside of summer tourist seasons. Is there enough to fill redundant VIA and GO service?

    If not, might it be possible to send trains south after passing St. Catharines along the canal sub (on the west side of the canal) to stop in Thorold and Welland? It seems to me like that would be a more useful daily service for actual residents of Niagara Region.


  3. Travelling at 30 mph on the Grimsby sub in Hamilton causes the GO consist to sway so it appears a lot of rail maintenance is required on that section of line before track speeds can be raised. I saw a diamond shaped black 30 on yellow background track side which indicates that the speed limit is 30 mph regardless of rail maintenance crews in progress in the area.

    There are more factors on the Grimsby sub that lengthen the trip time aside from previous comments such as the 15 mph restriction in Niagara Falls yard. These factors are other rail traffic such as freight trains, a 65 mph limit along the sub (it’s 80 to 95 mph for passenger trains in most sections of the Oakville sub but maximum speed for GO trains is 83 mph) and the line is single track between Grimsby east and Jordan.

    It’s conceivable that without these limitating factors, the trip time between Union and Niagara Falls can be made around 90 minutes. Alas, the delays will be inevitable.


  4. Steve jumps in: “Actually, on the timetable, it says that it’s 42 km from Kitchener to Stratford.”

    The employee timetable has Kitchener at mile 62.7 and Stratford at mile 88.5 which gives a distance 25.8 miles or about 42 km. Sorry I did that calculation too late in the day. The Oakville Sub is 39.3 miles to Hamilton and the Grimsby Sub is 43.7 miles further to Niagara Falls for a total of 84 miles, not much different than 88.5 to Stratford. I think that if it works for Niagara Falls the it could also work for Stratford.

    Like some other have said I too believe that GO should operate over larger regions of southern Ontario, anything within two hours of Toronto. A two car GO trains of DEMU`s could carry 300 people and be worked with a two man crew. Compare this with VIA’s two car plus locomotive train that runs London to Toronto via Stratford, Toronto to Sarnia via Stratford and London then the reverse with a three man crew. It carries about 50 to 60 passenger on a normal day. The early train from Sarnia has 4 cars but its capacity is also about 300 passengers and it has a 4 man crew.

    Steve: This train does fairly good business between stops along the line. The total passenger count is higher than the peak point load.

    The biggest problem with VIA and Amtrak is their idiotic idea of have one tiny door at the end of the car with 5 steps up for passengers to get on and off. They waste more time in stations than they need to. It was amazing watching GO load 600 passenger in two minutes including numerous bicycles and strollers. GO type service would cut the costs in half and speed up the ervice. This would increase the ridership enough so that the total subsidy per train would be less than than for VIA’s crummy service.

    I picked up the GO west Lakeshore timetable and it had the weekend Niagaras trains in it.The old VIA station at Hamilton is in poor shape and all of the passenger tracks and platforms have been removed but it would be nice to put in a platform on the mainline as nothing is going to turn back from there. It would not be convenient to Hunter St., but it is closer than Aldershot to most of Hamilton.

    Toronto Streetcars Says:
    July 5th, 2009 at 12:07 am

    “Thanks the small yard at the Niagara Falls station being removed, it would be somewhat costly for GO to add tracks at Niagara Falls. However, if the capital costs are set aside, tracks (and platforms) could be added at Niagara Falls that are dead end….”

    “The other issues with having a couple trakcs for GO would be access to the station should another train be in the way – an underground tunnel may have to be built for practical purposes, which would also add to the capital costs. However, if GO were truly sincere about adding service to Niagara Falls, this might occur.”

    This is not as hard as it may seem and there are only two trains that I know of that cross that Bridge, the two Amtrak trains to New York. I believe that all the Freights, CN and CP cross at Black Rock between Fort Erie and Buffalo. You would not need a Tunnel, just put in paved walkways across the tracks to get to the station. GO does this at Lincolnville and at Georgetown for all except the south track which has a tunnel under the CN main line but many people walk across the CN tracks at the west end to get to their cars and have avoided being killed.

    Tom West Says:
    July 3rd, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    “Calvin Henry-Cotnam Says: [VIA] had a 40% discount on fares purchased 5 days in advance. If I recall correctly, that made an adult return fare $30. While this would bring their fare in line with GO’s, all of GO’s tickets can be bought on the day, as close to the departure time as you can run to the train.”

    I think that the one way fare is $35.90 for a round trip fare of $71.80. A 40% reduction would save about $29.00 for a cost of just over $40.00 versus GO`s fare of about $32.00 and you don`t need to plan ahead.


  5. Calvin Henry-Cotnam says: “[VIA] had a 40% discount on fares purchased 5 days in advance.”

    That was a while ago. The details of VIA’s fare discounts change from time to time.

    Robert Wightman says: “I think that the one way fare is $35.90 for a round trip fare of $71.80.”

    The full Toronto-Niagara Falls fare on VIA is $37.80 (GST included) one way, or $75.60 round-trip.

    A $21 Toronto-Niagara fare (one-way, tax included) is available with 4 days advance purchase. Quantities are limited, so this fare can sell out more than 4 days in advance, but it’s usually pretty easy to obtain. If that’s sold out, the next fare level is $25.20 (3 days advance purchase), then $31.50 (1 day advance purachse), then the full fare of $37.80.
    GO is cheaper in any case, as Robert observes.

    Oddly, the lowest fare category is not available for Toronto-St. Catharines. The cheapest VIA ticket is $22.05. There’s nothing stopping you from buying a $21 Toronto-Niagara ticket, and just getting off the train one stop early.


  6. Unlikely as it is that third rail technology will be used for GO, it would open the interesting possibility of the Amtrak’s using it (as I believe they use a 3rd rail/diesel hybrid GE Genesis P32AC-DM on the route).


  7. Hey everyone i was running this through my head and thought many of you might agree….

    The CN Grimsby Sub which the GO runs on right now is double track BUT merges into 1 track further out in the Grimsby area and splits again to double track further down toward St. kitts. Right now because of the economy there are only about 5-7 CN freight trains a day which will greatly increase to 10-13 a day once it picks up again, also with 2 VIA’S and 2 Amtrak’s a day. Now that GO is here on weekends this creates a lot of traffic on the Grimsby and I don’t think its really ready for. I think a third track needs to be installed and install a double track in the area of the single track. The Third line would be great for CN freights so they can use it strictly for that because currently many trains need to stop and wait for each other to pass at the merge which causes great delay. This must be difficult for business since CN own the line because after all they need to get there stuff across the border and back efficiently as well.

    So does anyone know if another track may be considered?? or does anyone else think it would be a good idea???


  8. Ed Says: The GO website throws up a fare of $15.05 from Long Branch to Niagara Falls. Of course, the Niagara Falls train doesn’t stop at Long Branch! How does GO deal with this? Am I supposed to take a local train to some station where the Niagara train does stop?

    Umm… yes. Just like if you are travelling between two stations on different lines you have to change at Union.

    That said, GO really should have a proper journey planner, where you enter your start and end point and get the results. Google Transit would be ideal, because it can cope with multiple transit agencies.


  9. Any idea how much a one way GO train ticket from Union to Kitchener would cost? and how long such a trip would take?

    Steve: GO already runs buses to Kitchener, and the fares are available on their website. A single ticket is $14.60, and a monthly pass is $482, equivalent to about $12 a trip for 20 days’ travel. VIA makes the trip today in 1hr35. GO might be slightly longer as it has more stops, assuming the KW service runs as a local train. By comparison, the Barrie train takes about the same time, and the distance is roughly equal.


  10. Hopefully GO will be FASTER than the current VIA to Kitchener – there are many speed and capacity restrictions on the current route. Unfortunately the GEXR is playing hardball and the wheels of the Canadian Transportation Agency grind slowly…


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