By Ben SpurrTransportation Reporter
Thu., Sept. 16, 2021timer4 min. read
updateArticle was updated 8 mins ago
The provincial government is launching a new rail connection between London and Toronto that could revolutionize the way residents of Southwestern Ontario get to work — as long as they don’t mind spending eight hours a day on their commute.
On Wednesday the Ministry of Transportation unveiled plans for a pilot project of weekday London-Toronto GO Transit service that will consist of two daily trips taking about four hours each way.
Schedules have yet to be finalized, but trains are expected leave London just after 5 a.m. and arrive at Toronto’s Union Station after 9 a.m., and return trips will depart Union around 4:15 p.m. and arrive at about 8:15 p.m.
The service is scheduled to start Oct. 18 and will see GO venture beyond its traditional mandate of operating commuter rail in the Greater Toronto region to deliver inter-city service between two of Ontario’s biggest municipalities.
The province estimates the pilot will cost about $2.6 million annually, although it’s not clear for how long it will run. Fare prices hadn’t been announced as of Thursday afternoon.
In a news release, Associate Minister of Transportation Stan Cho predicted the London service would provide “another option that will benefit individuals, families and workers” in Southwestern Ontario, and said the Ontario PC government is “keeping our promise to support local communities and reduce congestion through a better-connected transit network.”
But some transportation experts were left scratching their heads about who would ride such infrequent, slow service.
“I’m not quite sure what the point is,” said Eric Miller, a professor of civil engineering and director of the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute.
“If you’re just looking at trying to connect London to Toronto, one train a day each way, four hours, makes no sense whatsoever, I’m sorry.”
He noted VIA Rail already operates faster, more frequent service between London and Toronto. The national rail provider offers six weekday trains between the two cities, and most trips take less than two-and-a-half hours. One-way tickets cost as low as $37.
While the provincial government says the pilot will serve riders in smaller communities between London and Toronto, Miller said it’s not clear there’s enough demand in those places to justify the high expense of operating more rail service. He said adding bus trips to smaller towns could provide more frequent and better service at far lower cost.
“I don’t know what sort of analysis has gone into this. Probably not much,” Miller said. He added that he can’t be certain what’s motivating the government, but “transportation is always political,” and it’s possible the plan “sounds good to voters in Southwestern Ontario.”
The London service would be an extension of existing trips on the Kitchener GO line, and no additional trains would be added, according to Metrolinx, which oversees GO. In between London and Union, there would be new stops at St. Marys and Stratford, and as well as at stations on the Kitchener line already served by GO.
To extend its service to London, GO is partnering with VIA and CN to use their track and stations. The ministry said the trips will take longer than most VIA service in part because GO service will follow a less direct northern route, and the CN track along that corridor has speed limitations.
While the extension is based on a draft transportation plan for Southwestern Ontario the province published in January 2020, the ministry of transportation confirmed it has not yet produced a business case that shows the service is justified. But the government maintains there is a need for it.
“The people of southwestern Ontario deserve better access to a safe and reliable transportation network. Our government knows southwestern Ontario is a vibrant destination with the potential to further grow,” said ministry spokesperson Nicholas Rodrigues in an email.
He said the service is expected to serve 25,000 riders a year at the three new GO stops in London, Stratford, and St. Marys, a projection that takes into account lower transit use due to COVID-19. By comparison, before the pandemic the TTC’s busiest streetcar line, King St., had 84,000 boardings every day.
Rodrigues said in addition to improving connections between London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, and points in between, the new service will be used by post-secondary students at Fanshawe College, Wilfred Laurier University, the University of Waterloo, and other schools, and provide “more options to travel to and from Toronto for things like occasional business meetings, appointments or fun.”
Murtaza Haider, a professor of data science and real estate management at Ryerson University, agreed with Miller that there may not be an immediate benefit to the London GO service. But he argued that in the long run it’s a good idea to provide more transportation connections between smaller communities and the Toronto area, especially given that living in Canada’s largest city has become so expensive.
“There’s a need to build better linkages with these satellite towns, hoping that one day … people may have a chance to move to these affordable neighbourhoods and affordable cities” while still working in Toronto, he said.