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.