An extended thread of comments developed for the article about the Yonge Subway Extension and the Downtown Relief Line. Because this has now grown in the realm of major changes/additions to VIA’s service, I am moving all of these comments to their own thread.
Plans by Murray and Tory: Steve Visits Goldhawk
On June 2, 2014, I appeared on Dale Goldhawk’s radio show talking about both the Murray High Speed Rail plan and the Tory “SmartTrack” scheme. A podcast of the show is available on Goldhawk’s site (running time about 34 minutes).
Even with half an hour, we couldn’t talk about everything including those pesky details that make superficially attractive projects run aground.
[Photo by Zoomer Radio]
Just What Is The Liberal Platform on High Speed Rail?
When the Ontario Budget for 2014 was introduced, it included $29-billion for a variety of infrastructure projects including much transit in the GTHA. The list of projects did not include any mention of High Speed Rail service to London, although it did have a convenient trap door for scope expansion in the phrase:
Outside of the GTHA, priority projects could include …
That “could” can embrace many possibilities beyond the items in the budget paper.
This budget was not passed, but it has been substantially incorporated into the Liberal election platform. Oddly enough, if one visits their infrastructure page, there is still no mention of High Speed Rail. Only when we delve deeper by looking at the detailed plan linked from that page, do we see:
Investing in High-Speed Rail: We will invest in high-speed rail service between southwestern Ontario and Toronto, through London and Kitchener-Waterloo. We will move forward by finalizing the business cases and proceeding with environmental assessments on the line from Toronto to London and between London and Windsor. We will invite the private sector and Ontario-based pension plans to invest in this project.
Burying such an important project a few levels down in an election website is hardly the way to show off a signature plank, and with this as the only mention, there is certainly the feel that it was patched on at the last moment. Never mind that the line has already grown an extension to Windsor.
From the background material released to date, we know that even the most optimistic projections for this line will not be profitable. Where the interest will lie for investment without some form of subsidy is a mystery.
A basic fact bears repeating here: High Speed Rail was not part of the proposed budget, but was tacked on to the platform after the fact. Even now the only commitment is for further study including an environmental assessment.
When the budget was tabled, the HSR was not part of the $29-billion infrastructure fund. Was this a case of a project that didn’t pass muster for budget purposes, but could survive the lesser review needed for a campaign promise? Would the HSR scheme survive in a Ministry of Transportation without Glen Murray?
We are still waiting for the background consulting work done for Murray, but this will remain buried in his Ministry, unavailable for review, until after the election.
There is a case for better rail passenger service in Ontario outside of the GTHA, but this can come much more quickly and almost certainly at lower cost with a focus on less ambitious technology. Ontario may not like VIA’s lacklustre service levels, but building a parellel network and competing services is hardly the way to improve the situation.
Queen’s Park owes all of Ontario such a review, not just a bauble for one corridor.
The Minister Muses on High Speed Rail
Suddenly London Ontario is the place to be if you’re looking for a high speed rail line. Glen Murray, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation & Infrastructure, has announced plans to have a high speed connection between Toronto downtown, Pearson airport, Kitchener-Waterloo and London up and running in 10 years.
Not just that, but the trains will run half-hourly with 28 trips each way daily on the line carrying, eventually, 20,000 riders per day.
I am not making this up. You can read more details on the CBC’s Kitchener-Waterloo site.
An extremely superficial document titled “Moving Ontario Forward” came my way recently, and I could not help thinking back to the early days of “GO Urban”, the technology that eventually became ICTS and Skytrain, with similarly vacuous presentations for public consumption.
Liberals Plan Transit One Tweet At A Time
Premier Kathleen Wynne recently unveiled the Moving Ontario Forward plan which, at this point, consists of a website and a general idea of what level of spending we could see. The details won’t be released until the budget is tabled in early May.
Some ideas come out in comments by Transportation & Infrastructure Minister Glen Murray who is as active on Twitter at times as he is in press scrums. How much these comments are realistic, how much they reflect government policy or detailed study, is quite another matter.
From a funding point of view, there will be two pots of money – one for the GTHA and one for the Rest Of Ontario. When the Transit Panel released its Making The Move revenue tool proposal, misinformed media stoked the idea that rural gas taxes would go to pay for subways in Toronto even though this was explicitly rejected by the panel.
The solution is to fund the non-GTHA projects with non-GTHA money, in effect building a wall around whatever the “GTHA” means for planning purposes from day to day. This may quiet those who feel “Toronto” gets everything, but with the scale of transit operations in southern Ontario, “Toronto” grows every time the government announces a new GO service.
The political rhetoric takes the Scarborough-vs-Downtown battle over rapid transit spending to a province-wide scale. Perish the thought that Thunder Bay should pay one penny toward a rapid transit line in Toronto even though they will reap the benefit from cars manufactured to operate it. The Liberals bought into this divisive talk to win a by-election in Scarborough, ironically in a riding that won’t even see a subway line. The danger is that even within the GTHA, voters may well ask “why should I pay for a service I won’t use”.
According to the Premier’s announcement, “nearly $29 billion” will be split between the GTHA and non-GTHA funding pools over the coming decade with four sources of funding:
- “Repurposing” the sales tax (HST) now charged on gasoline and diesel fuel for on-road use;
- “Redirecting” 7.5 cents of the existing fuel tax;
- Sales of government assets, and
- Proceeds of a “Green Bonds” program.
Among the tactics proposed by the Transit Panel was the leveraging of any revenue stream through borrowing. A government that once was terrified of more public debt may now embrace it with the proviso that it can be retired with earmarked revenue.
The problem here is that new spending requires either new revenues, or cuts in expenses elsewhere. Shifting existing tax streams into a transit fund will leave a hole in general revenues that could be made up by other taxes on classic targets such as the well-to-do and the corporate sector. We must await for the budget for any details.
A backgrounder from the Ministry of Finance hints at some of the projects that might be funded:
Proceeds from the dedicated fund for the GTHA would help build the next set of priority projects included in Metrolinx’s regional transportation plan, The Big Move. Projects identified in The Big Move include: GO Rail Service Expansion (more two-way, all day and rush hour service) on key corridors, Brampton Queen Street Rapid Transit, Dundas Street Bus Rapid Transit, Durham-Scarborough Bus Rapid Transit, Hamilton Rapid Transit, Hurontario-Main LRT linking Mississauga and Brampton, a Relief Line, and Yonge North Subway Expansion to York Region. The fund could also support other transit infrastructure projects that stimulate economic development and improve mobility, such as the East Bayfront Light Rail Transit project.
This list sticks mainly to the established Metrolinx plans and implies that they still have some relevance in this very political setting. However, a backgrounder on GO Regional Express Rail ups the ante:
The new Moving Ontario Forward plan would work toward phasing in electric train service every 15 minutes on all GO lines.
This is a rather careful statement, and the words “work toward phasing in” have been the death knell of more than one project, most recently the Transit City LRT plan. The backgrounder talks of the benefits, oddly, of relieving subway congestion rather than of the much larger regional role GO could have.
It would also give commuters within Toronto another way to get downtown by increasing service between GO stations and Union Station. A commuter could get to Union Station from Danforth GO Station in just 9 minutes, or from Bloor GO Station in just 15 minutes.
This ignores the problem of transferring between routes and the substantial barrier now posed by GO’s separate and punitive fares for travel over short distances within the city. It also presumes there would be capacity available for such short-hop trips. Near-downtown trips were an odd choice to feature in such an important announcement.
Although the “Downtown Relief Line” is still mentioned as an important part of overall plans, work now underway by Metrolinx and comments by some politicians imply that they would love to put this project on a slow track with GO improvements taking up the role. If nothing else, this would free up money in the short-to-medium term for large pet projects elsewhere. Both GO and an expanded subway system have a role to play, but too much rhetoric has focused on single-line “solutions” rather than a network view.
All this begs the question of just how much of The Big Move will actually survive the Minister’s interventions.
In qualifying the electrification plans, both the Premier and the Minister talk of “lines that we own”, although the Minister is on record about acquiring more track for GO:
“We’re looking at higher speed connectivity, buying up rail lines more aggressively, improving service outcomes and more regular two-way GO service,” Murray said of the priorities that will be laid out in the budget.
… he said the province is actively buying up rail capacity so that GO Trains are no longer seen as “tenants” on other railroad’s lines.
“We now own 80 per cent of the track that we need to own, we will be buying up the remaining 20 per cent and a lot of that is on the lines that come to Kitchener,” Murray said.
[Kitchener-Waterloo Record March 31, 2014]
That will be a challenge considering that portions GO does not yet own are the main lines of CNR and CPR, not lightly used or abandoned branches.
GO has long had an aversion to electrification both because of objections from the railways whose lines would be affected, and from a chronic lack of strong, dedicated funding that could expand service and operations to a range where electrification made sense. Changing that outlook would be quite a coup, but this depends on continuity in the government and long-term commitment to transformation of the GO network. GO must have a publicly announced plan for expansion and improvement beyond whatever is needed to win the election of the day.
On the municipal front, things are not quite as clear. Although the Metrolinx Investment Strategy included 25% of new revenues for municipal projects (with 15% going to transit), municipal funding was completely absent in this announcement. Indeed, Murray has rather testily noted that Toronto, especially, already gets money from the gas tax and has revenue tools such as Vehicle Registration Tax that it chose not to use.
The gas tax revenue, of course, has been established for many years and is worked into the budgets of all local transit systems. It is not “new money”, and can hardly be cited in response to questions about the hoped-for Investment Strategy dollars. [Toronto splits its provincial gas tax between the operating and capital budgets. See 2012 financial statements at page 26 (operating, $91.6m) and page 28 (capital, $75.0m).]
Murray also spoke of “High Speed Rail” in the Toronto KW London corridor, an idea that has been floated before. Although this was unclear in the press statements, Murray’s Twitter exchanges claim that the corridor would see 320 km/h operation (see below). The problem with the Toronto-Kitchener-London corridor, however, is not simply getting from one and to the other, but to the many stations in between.
The line once had reasonably frequent VIA trains on rider-friendly schedules, but this service withered through years of cutbacks and, more recently, competition from GO expansion. The infrastructure needed for operation at this speed is substantial, and one must ask whether the corridor’s demand could be better served simply by more frequent service at typical (Canadian) rail passenger speeds up to 150 km/h. Better service for southwestern Ontario risks being highjacked as an HSR technology project rather than a service improvement that could be delivered faster at much less cost.
The operative phrase throughout the announcement was “wait for the budget”. A Liberal party website promotes the Moving Ontario Forward plan, but is short on details pending the budget announcements.
Meanwhile, Minister Murray, a prolific tweeter, adds his own spin to the debate. [The tweets have been edited to remove extraneous user ids and hastags. All of this can be retrieved by browsing Murray’s Twitter account @Glen4ONT.]
On April 17, an exchange about GO and Downtown Relief, Murray shows support for both regional and local relief.
Glen Murray: #RER15Min will build transit ridership on local transit routes. Need 2 plan GO-local transit connections together. Greater demand w/RER
Robert Zaichkowski: I wonder if #RER15Min will lead to GO stations being placed closer together? Could be a good #ReliefLine solution.
Glen Murray: Robert you are absolutely right. Downtown relief needs system wide relief & increased capacity downtown.
Also on April 17, an exchange about the Scarborough Subway.
Rob Salerno: So if Scarb has access to improved GO service, is there still ridership/need for a subway there?
Glen Murray: MLX will make that decision. We will meet our commitments.
Rob Salerno: erg, so now the Scarb subway may be cancelled if @Metrolinx says it’s not necessary?
Glen Murray: No. Let MLX do their job.
Rob Salerno: Huh? Those two sentences are contradictory.
Glen Murray: No. MLX has made a decision. I don’t imagine that will change, but it is their decision.
Oh come off it, Glen. The idea that Metrolinx makes any decision independently of the government is riotously laughable. The Liberals ran on a Scarborough Subway platform to win the Scarborough-Guildwood by-election, and Murray himself is pushing a subway from Kennedy Station to Scarborough Town Centre via the existing SRT alignment.
It’s amusing that in one line, Murray says that Metrolinx “will make” the decision, and later that they “have made” it. One of these statements cannot be true.
Is there now a recognition that the rationale for the subway may have been cooked to placate Scarborough voters (not to mention the Scarborough Liberal Caucus)? Might a proper analysis show that another option including GO improvements might be preferable? If Metrolinx made a decision, where was this analysis? Nobody has ever published a review including GO services, the subway option and the Scarborough LRT network proposals.
Even better, what would happen if an independent Metrolinx actually concluded that the Scarborough Subway was a waste of money? Would such a report ever see the light of day?
In a discussion with the Globe’s Oliver Moore, we hear about the benefits of more frequent off-peak service.
Oliver Moore: Increased GO service will lead to higher ridership and lower subsidy required, @Glen4ONT says. Could lead to more competitive fares.
@GTAMOVEnetwork: The big problem is spending the money required to take GO transit from “commuter” to “rapid transit” and in ensuring that the investment in GO Transit will not be pulled back in the first 3 years when ROI is not great.
Glen Murray: Not an issue at all.
@GTAMOVEnetwork: I very much hope so. This is going to be a huge investment and ROI won’t be seen for a long time.
Glen Murray: Not true. 1/2 hour Lakeshore service increased ridership & fare revenue by 30% in less than a yr.
This discussion dodges the basic point that capital costs have never been considered in evaluating GO’s business, only day-to-day operating costs. The situation is the same at the TTC. It is very unlikely that GO will make a profit from extra fares with expanded service. If anything, one could argue that service improvements should come as quickly as possible to maximize the ridership and convenience from the capital investment.
On service to Niagara Falls, London and “HSR”:
Glen Murray: Niagara will be getting 15min Regional Express Rail. See today’s announcement. Completed with in 10 yrs.
Tom W: Wynne said GO-owned tracks only – still valid? Or will GO be buying tracks from Burlington to Niagara Falls?
Glen Murray: No. All tracks we own or lease.
Tom W: Thanks! Also, does “high-speed rail” to London mean 200+km/hr?
Glen Murray: 320KM
Tom W: To be clear, you’re promising a train with a top speed of 320 kilometres per hour running from Toronto to London?
Murray really seems to be freelancing on both of these issues given the ownership and existing uses of the corridors in question, not to mention the challenge of truly high speed operation in the KW-London corridor.
On April 17, asked about travel across Toronto rather than to the core:
Glen Murray: #RER15Min is 15 minute service across the GTHA using Electric Multiple Units (EMUs) running on all GO lines. Huge reduction in congestion.
Saurabh: Someone going from York region to Peel can bypass Union?
Glen Murray: Yes. Once the Crosstown is complete. It is under construction now.
Someone should mention to the Minister that his own government chopped off the western end of the Crosstown, and unless the boundary of Peel Region is now at Weston Road, the Crosstown won’t get someone to Peel from Richmond Hill even presuming they wanted to take such a route.
And finally on April 19:
Glen Murray: Projects 4 Prov funding will b evaluated by MLX based on Big Move priority & net benefits.
This, of course, presumes that “net benefits” are fairly calculated and don’t include politically inflated assumptions.
When the budget comes out, we will see just how much of the “promises” made here have survived.
The Joys of VIA Rail Operations
This thread has been created to hold a string of comments that developed elsewhere about VIA’s less than first rate manner of operation as compared with other railways, even GO Transit.
Comments found elsewhere on this subject will be moved here.
Sometimes Old Technology Wins Out
The BBC reports that despite the heavy snow and service disruptions on Britain’s rail network, a brand new steam engine managed to operate and provide rides for about 100 passengers stranded by the weather. The locomotive makes regular runs, and this happened to be the last one for the season on this tourist train.
For detailed information about this locomotive and its construction, visit the A1 Steam website.
In light of the TTC’s plans to convert the SRT to LRT, I won’t drag out plans for steam-hauled RT trains.
Why Do We Need Another Bus Terminal?
From time to time, discussions here about Union Station turn to the question of a bus terminal. A bigger terminal. A better terminal. A terminal with seamless connections to the trains.
GO/Metrolinx has major service expansion plans for its rail network including all-day service to cities now with, at best, peak hour, peak direction trains. As service frequencies increase and good, all-day service is the norm on GO rail corridors, what do we need the bus routes (and their terminal) for?
A review of the list of all GO scheduled services shows us the future, such as it is, of GO bus operations downtown.
Timetables 01, 09, and 12 are all Lakeshore rail services whose bus components connect with rail terminals at all hours.
Timetable 16 is the Hamiton QEW bus service. When GO reaches the point of having all day, 30 minute rail service to Hamilton, why run a parallel bus service?
Timetables 21 and 31 are the Milton and Georgetown services, both of which will receive frequent rail service that, like the Lakeshore routes, should be fed by buses at the outer, all-day terminals.
Timetable 32 is the Brampton to Union via Thornhill bus service. Although this route connects today with the Yonge Subway at Finch and Sheppard Stations, it will eventually connect with the Richmond Hill subway extension. The buses do not need to come into downtown. Updated August 29, 2008.
Timetable 61 is the Richmond Hill service. Like the other rail corridors, this is scheduled to receive frequent all-day service, as well as a subway extension.
Timetables 65 and 71 are the Barrie and Stouffville services. All-day train service over part of these lines is included in the 15-year Regional Plan. Off-peak buses services beyond would feed the trains as on other all-day corridors. In the same timeframe, the subway will be extended to Vaughan. Even without all-day train service to Bradford, Vaughan Centre (or York U) is a much more appropriate connection for the bus service than bringing trips all the way into downtown.
Timetables 19, 20, 22, 27, 29, 32, 34, 37, 38, 40, 46, 50, 52, 60, 62, 64, 66, 69, 81, 88, 93, 94, 95 and 96 are all bus services that do not come into downtown. They either connect with the subway at suburban stations, or they are between points in the GO network outside of Toronto.
Planned expansion of rail service in the Niagara peninsula and northwest from Georgetown will compete with and may replace private bus operations to these areas.
Land near Union Station for bus operations is difficult to find, and the last thing we need is an oversized bus terminal that will have no buses operating from it in less than 20 years.
Metrolinx is studying possibilities for such a terminal, but they need to step back and ask whether such a terminal is even required. The rail networks of both GO and TTC are expanding at very substantial cost well into the GTAH. Why spend all this money only to perpetuate limited capacity bus operations running all the way to Union?
Overall, operation of intercity bus routes into downtown Toronto will decline substantially over the next decade and beyond. If we are to have a new bus terminal, it should be planned for the services that will exist, that will survive into the future, not for today’s routes that are soon to be replaced with rail.
Union Station Funding Approved
Today, Queen’s Park and Ottawa announced their funding contributions to the Union Station Revitalization project. Ottawa will spend up to $133-million while Queen’s Park will spend $172-million toward the $640-million total.
At a special Council meeting early in August, Toronto will likely announce the private sector partner who will take the head lease for all of the commercial space in the expanded station, and this lease is expected to contribute a substantial amount to the City’s share of the project. That partner will be responsible for managing all commercial tenancies.
On other sites that I will not bother to cross-link, there has been an overflowing of bilge on several fronts including the civic workers and VIA strikes, Mayor Miller, spending on “a building that works”, among other arguments. The level of misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, is staggering.
To refresh everyone’s memory, here is what we are getting for all that money:
- Restoration of a physical building which has been disintegrating for several years. Some of this work has already been done or is underway by the City notably the windows in the west wing and the bridge over the Front Street moat.
- Creation of a completely new two-level concourse area under much of the station. This will be achieved by digging down so that the lower level is at roughly the same elevation as the existing subway station mezzanine. The new upper level will handle GO passengers, and will be roughly three times the size of the existing GO area. The lower level will provide general circulation and shopping.
- GO improvements and other changes in the station will accomodate a doubling of demand expected at this site over the next decades. This could not occur without the reconstruction and the provision of greatly expanded pedestrian areas.
- The lower level of the west wing, now occupied by car rentals and underutilized back-of-house space, will be converted to GO and commercial space. This work will be completed before work moves to the existing GO space and empty former Post Office areas in the east wing.
- Why shopping? Aside from all the commuters, there will be a large population right outside the soon-to-open south door of Union Station occupying both office towers and condos. The character of commercial uses in the station should be improved so that it does not appear like an overgrown dollar store.
- Energy efficiency of the building will be substantially improved, and air conditioning will be provided with deep water cooling from the lake. Energy is a major operating cost for the station today.
- The connection to the subway station will be revised to eliminate the stairway between the subway mezzanine and the moat. The moat will be enclosed so that travellers don’t have to endure the weather, whatever it may be, to reach the subway and the PATH network beyond.
- A new northwest PATH connection will be created from Union Station north via York Street to Wellington. This will divert many commuters from the eastern connection and ease congestion on that side of the station.
- GO Transit will buy and move into the vacant west wing offices from their leased space at the foot of Bay Street. These offices will be renovated to modern requirements, but some heritage areas will be retained.
- Connections between various parts of the building will be improved, and new links will be added to simplify access between sections and to spread out pedestrian traffic. For example, there will be links to the new GO concourses through the archways in the south wall of the Great Hall now occupied by the Security Office (east) and Harvey’s (west).
- A new south entrance, built as part of the recent GO Transit platform work, will give passengers direct access to a plaza between the station, the Air Canada Centre and other new developments in the area. A new taxi stand in this area is intended for use by arriving VIA passengers to separate them from the activity on Front Street.
- The east entrance via the old Post Office, now Scotiabank, will be reopened and the space on the ground floor will become part of the public area of the railway station.
- Renovation of the York Street teamways for pedestrian use in a manner similar to what is now in place on Bay Street.
- This heritage building will be restored, where appropriate, by stripping off more recent additions such as mid-60s ticket counters.
- GO Transit will rebuild the trainshed substantially in the form it now has but (a) cleaner and brighter, (b) with provision for future electrification and (c) with a glass atrium roof running the length of the shed in the area directly above the VIA concourse (the location is dictated by the location of supporting columns beneath).
Information on this project is available on the Union Station website.
Other projects that will take place in the same timeframe include:
- TTC’s second platform for Union Subway Station.
- TTC’s expansion of capacity in the Harbourfront streetcar loop to accommodate the new eastern waterfront streetcar service.
- The reconfiguration of Front Street from Bay to York to provide additional pedestrian capacity.
It is unfortunate that this announcement comes just as VIA staff go on strike. However, the project has been in the works for years, and spending on this major work with decades of future benefit is long overdue. Fortunately, the announcement was not delayed in deference to then-pending strike. Moreover, the primary beneficiaries of this work will be commuters on GO Transit for whom additional train capacity is constrained by the limits of the station itself.
Some have claimed that there is nothing wrong with Union Station that needs fixing. They have not looked closely at either the building itself, at the severe congestion problems or at the vast amount of unused space available for expansion, much of this hidden from public view.
This is not a “make work” project, but something Toronto badly needs. Union Station handles more passengers every year than Pearson Airport on a fraction of the capital budget. The station doesn’t get to charge an improvement fee to every passenger to fund its ongoing construction and operations.
The reconstruction will be a long project, not without its inconveniences. We are lucky to have an almost-empty west wing in which to start and create new space for GO so that existing operations can continue during the early phases. Detailed design will be completed this fall with work in the west wing to begin in early 2010. The project will complete in 2014.
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.