In response to the steep decline in demand on their rail services, Metrolinx announced substantial changes to off-peak services on January 14.
Service now begins at 4:55 am every day and continues until 1:00 am every half-hour. This will change:
- On weekends, the first train will leave Union at 6:00 am.
- The last train will leave Union at 10:00 pm every day.
- Half-hourly service will be provided only during these periods:
- Weekdays 5:30 to 9:00 am, and 3:00 to 8:00 pm
- Weekends 9:00 am to 7:00 pm
- Hourly service will operate at other times.
All weekend and evening train service on the Kitchener, Barrie and Stouffville corridors will be replaced by buses operating from the new Union Station bus terminal. The changeover will begin on Friday, January 22 for Stouffville trains in the evening due to planned construction on the line that weekend.
The Effect of Covid-19 on GO/UPX Ridership
In recent years, Metrolinx has been proud to show strong growth on its network, and was starting to think in terms beyond peak-period, peak-direction commuting to downtown Toronto. With the work-from-home shift in the business core, this demand has collapsed.
The map below shows the growth in ridership for the period April-December 2019 compared with the 2018 figures. The size of the dot at each station is scaled to the change in demand. (Click on the images below for larger versions.)
Covid-19 changed everything, and ridership in April-September 2020 is only a fraction of former levels.
PDF versions of these files are available here:
The decline in demand has been severe, and no corridor is carrying even 10 per cent of its former demand. This is much worse than the situation on the TTC network where demand, although down from 2019, ranges up to 50 per cent of former levels thanks to continued strong ridership by essential workers and by those for whom car travel is not an option.
At a corridor level, the best performance is on Lakeshore East at 9.4 per cent of former demand, while Richmond Hill brings up the rear at 1.5 per cent, or 87 riders per day.
At a station level, the best performance is at Oshawa at 11.6 per cent of former demand, or 418 riders per day. Some stations are below 10 per day.
A tabular version of the station-by-station values is available here:
Weekday train service to Niagara Falls was suspended earlier in GO Transit’s covid-era schedules, and the weekend service was dropped on Saturday, January 9. GO hopes to resume weekend service in spring 2021.
Longer term, the challenge for Metrolinx will be the pace of demand recovery on its network given its strong commuter orientation. The program to expand GO capacity and, eventually, to electrify parts of the network now depends on assumptions about future levels of service and demand including when or if these will be achieved.
As on the TTC, it would be easy for budget hawks to claim that big spending on transit is a waste, but this is entirely the wrong time to make such a call. We do not know what the situation will be even a year from now, let alone further out, and what course the pandemic era will follow. This is not the moment to give up on transit much as road-building advocates might prefer to kick the competition while it is down.
There is a more subtle, but important point about GO Transit’s situation. If their service and policy focus shifted away from downtown commuting to all-day, everywhere service, this could bring a truly “regional” outlook.
Governments of both the Conservative and Liberal stripe at Queen’s Park have no interest in “local” transit service beyond funding provided to municipalities via the gas tax. The tax amounts just announced are for the fiscal year 2020-21 and are already baked into local budgets, and are separate from any covid-specific relief. They are not “new money”.
Ontario suffers from a combination of limited local transit and even less intercity service thanks to the disappearance of private sector carriers. A few new services have appeared, but there is no sense of a network approach let alone provincial funding to build ridership. With the core GO Transit network at historically low ridership, an expanded role for GO buses is the last thing on anyone’s mind. The problem is compounded by a political orthodoxy that somehow the private sector will fill the gap, ideally without any public funding.
Metrolinx and Queen’s Park are happy to focus on transit megaprojects, but the benefits are confined to specific corridors, some at great cost, and are years in the future. Meanwhile, we wait and hope for transit demand to recover and restore GO Transit’s relevance.
The investment in the Big Move is based on math that assumes “work from home” rises from 5.3% to 8% in 2031. That math was done in 2008.
It’s here – page 8.
All the math that attempts to determine the benefits of The Big Move are now wrong. The numbers need to be run again to include new assumptions given the capabilities of Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Meet etc. Put all the capital expenditure on hold until a clear picture emerges in about a year. The one thing we know is that commuting is not the same as it was in 2008 but what – who knows?
Steve: Another problem with the Big Move is that its demand modelling is based on a network and service plan that might no longer match Metrolinx’ actual intent. It also dates from an era when the overwhelming focus was on core-oriented demand, and without a network that could support other periods and directions of travel.
In 2019, nearly all the 416 stations experienced ridership growth of 10-30%. Would this be a result of the increased subsidy? When did it start and end?
Although it’s not the first time I’ve seen these charts, each time I’m surprised anew at the relative ridership (or lack thereof) among stations.
York University station should have been closed when Downsview Park opened. It’s ludicrous that so many diesel trains stop for such low ridership.
Steve: The 416 growth was due to the TTC/GO co-fare (since killed off by Ford). Because of Covid, we really don’t have good before and after numbers for the effect of that decision. As for York U Station, this is also bound up with the co-fare issue because students didn’t want to be forced to pay a TTC fare to ride from Downsview Station back up to York U.
Barrie GO trains haven’t stopped at “York University” GO station for most of 2020 and still don’t, which, taken together with lack of service by GO buses there, could go some way to explain the low ridership at York University GO station 😉
In the January 2020 schedules, York University GO had 8 weekday trains (in peak direction/times) stopping there, with 10 weekday trains passing through without stopping. No trains stopped on weekends.
Steve: Thanks for the update. With university campuses effectively closed for much of the year, certainly after April 1 which those stats cover, the need to stop at York U Station evaporated. It will be interesting to see if this is a permanent closure or if there will be pressure to reactivate the station when in-person courses resume. I will update the text in the article.
Interestingly, GO’s potential as regional transit is visible in St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, where passenger numbers as ratio of pre-pandemic are the highest across the train network (although low to begin with). Better pandemic ridership than most of Richmond Hill line – and that’s without including the summer promos sold as e-tickets. (Pre-pandemic there was one VIA train a day – the NYC one – but that’s been suspended.)
Steve: In all of the hoopla about the service extension to Niagara Falls, I always felt that this betrayed GO/Metrolinx’ focus on downtown Toronto. The idea that there could be demand to Hamilton or St. Catharines in their own right was never mentioned, not even by the area politicians. While the decline on that extension in percentage terms is not as bad as other parts of the system, the numbers start from a very low base thanks to the hours at which trains operate. They are well outside the hours when they would be of any use for “local” travel in the region.
Speaking of: my favourite GO thing about the Niagara services is the schedules called the Toronto-bound trains “eastbound” and the Niagara-bound trains “westbound”. Yeah it’s an extension of Lakeshore West… but when you go eastbound from Niagara Falls you get to New York, not to Toronto.
I wonder if a part of this sort of came from Metrolinx spin. Metrolinx spent forever building the track east of West Harbour to allow trains from St. Catharines to stop at West Harbour without backing up (it still isn’t done last I checked, the weekend trains didn’t stop in Hamilton) and wanted the Confederation train stop built by Valued Private Partners or whatever. Without these, the GO train service between St. Catharines/Niagara Falls and Hamilton isn’t good, so maybe they didn’t want to draw attention to the fact it’s not good. Though I’m sure the cultural blindspots of an organization focused on getting people to Union at 9am don’t help.
I always thought it likely the weekend Niagara service had way more ridership than the weekday. 3-4 trains a day at reasonable times in 2019 vs one 5:09 am trip for hypercommuters. I don’t understand this focus on the weekday train either – even if people don’t take local non-car travel seriously, the tourism potential to and from GTA should have been an easy sell in Niagara.
Hamilton has two railway stations: Hamilton GO Centre and West Harbour GO. However, GO Transit has only rush-hour, peak-direction train service between Hamilton and Toronto. Before the pandemic: Why had all-day, every-day train service never been extended to Hamilton? Why had West Harbour GO station not been converted from a stub terminal to a through-station for Via Rail trains? Are there still plans to eliminate the train-to-bus transfer at Aldershot? Just curious.
Steve: In looking at GO expansion over the years, you have to consider the main railways, over whose track GO operates in outer parts of the GTHA. Bayview Junction is a very busy place with both CN and CP coming through there, and the last thing they wanted was more GO service. GO has ponied up for more track to reduce the bottleneck, but that is recent work.
On the topic of West Harbour, as someone who was regularly commuting from there for the last 2 months of 2020, I can indeed confirm that the track connection from WH to the CN mainline to on the east (Niagara-bound side) still does not exist. This is with the idea that trains will be stopping at WH before going to Confederation GO (which at last check is still slated to be finished this year). More than anything, the big benefit of the track work around WH was to open the Lewis Road layover, so that the last and first few trains on Lakeshore West didn’t have to deadhead or run super-express to get between Burlington and Etobicoke.
As for West Harbour as a whole? I loved using the station, but if I’m being honest, it really didn’t seem like it has been thought through. The trains from Hamilton GO Centre leave about 15 minutes earlier, yet substantially more people would take the train from Hamilton GO, even during COVID-19 times. Lack of connecting bus service, poor highway access, and low demand from within the neighbourhood make it desolate so often. Even the parking lot (or what’s left, given GO “match[ing] customer demand and us[ing] resources efficiently” by closing off 80% of it) was always empty.
My hope is that, if all-day service is indeed extended to Confederation GO, that the existing GO bus service is extended to loop there, along with improved HSR service from the Mountain. Until then, what a (pretty) white elephant.