The greater Toronto region has been the flagship for Canadian growth over the past 50 years, but one thing is clear: while Regions like York and Peel—north and west of the city respectively—have seen incredible growth with populations soaring to well over 1 million each, investments in transit connecting to the city of Toronto have been lacking, and investments in internal transit connectivity have been mostly anemic. 

In my previous piece, I looked at the impressive GO Expansion program within the context of the city of Toronto, where much of the flashiest infrastructure will be built and new stations abound. But in today’s article, we’ll be looking outside of the borders of the 416, at GO Expansion's impact in the surrounding cities and regions of Toronto’s orbit, also known as “the 905” for the suburban area code.

GO Train at Union Station, image by Reece Martin

While GO Expansion is important for Toronto’s future transit growth, it is critical to transit ridership growth outside of the city proper. Toronto already has an extensive rapid transit network in the form of the TTC subway, and as mentioned in my first article, it will become incredibly comprehensive over the next decade. By comparison, the surrounding suburban regions are investing in significant amounts of bus rapid transit and light rail (though often with less than impressive service) which I’ll cover in another future article. Such transit might be useful for a jaunt to a nearby grocery store or similarly close destination, but I remain highly sceptical of its usefulness for longer journeys given its low average speeds and the low-density development predominating the suburbs. There's also the problem of all too often low frequencies operated, especially when larger vehicles are available to transit operators. Suffice it to say, while Toronto can lean on its subway network to provide high-speed connectivity for trips longer than a few kilometres, the rest of Southern Ontario will likely need to rely on GO for the foreseeable future. 

Union subway station, image by Reece Martin

With Peel and York region’s transit modal share still hovering around 10% pre-COVID, and basic local transit becoming increasingly viable, it’s clear that a fast high-capacity rail service is needed, especially if the suburban regions are to compete with Toronto in a world becoming increasingly familiar with the destructive impacts of cars on our cities (Toronto’s transit modal share was in the high 30% range pre-Covid). Indeed, suburban employment hubs such as Toronto Pearson International Airport are already feeling the pinch from high auto modal share.

York Region Transit bus, image by Reece Martin

Of course, improved GO rail service will also completely transform people's ability to travel between suburban and regional municipalities. For example, regular trips from Mississauga or Toronto to Waterloo Region, or from Niagara to Hamilton, will become much more feasible on transit; currently such trips are frequently delayed by highway and road traffic. GO train service also has the potential to be highly competitive with car travel, particularly over longer trips, due to the much higher top speeds compared to buses. Such high speeds can open up timely trips not even possible with a car.

Highway 404, image by Reece Martin

The Greater Toronto region also desperately needs to solve its housing problems, and of course a new rapid transit backbone throughout the greater Golden Horseshoe can be of great benefit here, enabling high density, walkable, mixed-use development and reducing the burden of car ownership on residents.

What service do we have today?

Now, before we break into the future, we should talk about the services the suburbs currently receive on the GO Rail network as a jumping off point. It’s really important to recognize that significant new GO rail service has already been deployed in recent years, particularly in off-peak periods, which will be of critical importance for creating a useful regional rapid transit system especially in a world of hybrid workplaces. Metrolinx themselves have stated that uptake of off-peak and evening service has been more substantial than on 9-5 work commutes.

As addressed in the previous article, Metrolinx is focusing its service improvements on five rail corridors where it has majority ownership: Lakeshore West, Kitchener, Barrie, Stouffville, and Lakeshore East. Though it seems more enhancements may come to the peak-only lines as well in the future.

Currently to the west, the Lakeshore line features hourly service to Hamilton’s West Harbour station, newly introduced this past year, with half-hourly service to Aldershot station, and service every 15 minutes to Oakville station. Meanwhile to the east, most service operates to Oshawa every 15 minutes. Notice that I didn’t specify the Lakeshore West or East lines: most trains interoperate between the two, so the East and West suffixes mainly serve to confuse riders about what is essentially a single continuous service.

West Harbour GO station in Hamilton, image by Reece Martin

In recent years, the standard Lakeshore services have extended even further to St Catharines and Niagara Falls. There is currently one commuter-oriented round trip on weekdays, and four general travel round trips a day on weekends. These trips previously only operated during the summer, but have somewhat recently been made a year-round affair. The commuter-oriented trips were started early in the current provincial government's tenure and were somewhat controversial. To many, the trips felt like a “paper” option that would be impractical for actual commuters because of low speeds and timing. This was exacerbated as West Harbour station in Hamilton does not have a track connection at the east end of its two island platforms, necessitating an awkward reversing train move that adds unnecessary time to the trip. This connection is however set to be constructed in the coming years.

Niagara Falls, image by Reece Martin

Fortunately, the days of “Lakeshorelinx”, as many on the UrbanToronto Transportation and Infrastructure Forum have called GO’s parent agency, are nearing their end — The Lakeshore Line is no longer the only one to receive comprehensive all-day service.

The Barrie Line features hourly bidirectional service between Toronto Union Station and Aurora during weekday midday and evening periods, as well as on weekends. There’s also an additional counter peak round trip all the way to Allandale Waterfront station in Barrie during weekdays, and several round trips to the station on weekends, meaning even those in Barrie can take the train into the city any day of the week.

The Stouffville Line has also been blessed with hourly all-day service with the same pattern of weekday midday and evening and weekends as the Barrie Line, all the way to its northeastern terminus at Mount Joy station.

What’s also been very interesting to see is that Metrolinx is already taking advantage of the subway connection at Downsview Park, which opened a few months before the all-day hourly service on the Barrie Line kicked off, as a transfer point for service cut back, while work progresses on the Davenport Diamond project further south, I talked about last time. In the past this probably would have resulted in a full bustitution. I’d love to see more surgical service changes like this in the future.

Downsview Park subway station, image by Reece Martin

The Kitchener corridor is seeing more service than ever, though it is split across two separate services: the UP Express, which is an airport link between Union Station, a few other 416 stations, and Toronto Pearson International Airport, has found significant success operating on upgraded portions of the Georgetown South Corridor, which forms the eastern end of the Kitchener Line. The UP Express is somewhat limited in the service it can operate though, given it uses trains which are non-standard to the GO fleet. That said, the UP Express was the first foray into high frequency 15-minute all-day two-way operations on the mainline rail network in the GTHA. The Kitchener GO service itself is operated with standard GO trains, and is seeing more service than ever with peak hour commuter service to and from Kitchener, as well as some midday and evening trips, and hourly service between Mount Pleasant station and Toronto Union station during midday and evening periods.

Union-Pearson Express, image by Reece Martin

There was also big news in recent months with the announcement of a new Kitchener Line rail service extension to London with intermediate stops in St Marys and Stratford. This service will start operating on October 18th, 2021, and will provide one 4-hour trip from London to Toronto Union station during the morning weekday peak period, and one trip back from Toronto to London in the evening peak period. Much like the extension of commuter service to Niagara, this extension has been seen by many as a “paper” option, especially as the current government has spoken about how important connecting southwestern Ontario is to it. As with the Niagara GO service, track issues limit a more practical service offering, as the tracks between Kitchener and London are in poor condition and hence necessitate low speeds. Furthermore, the timing of the single trip makes it impractical for commutes to either Toronto, or even Kitchener-Waterloo which is a 2-hour trip. That said, as with Niagara, I am not entirely pessimistic that this service will have some uptake. Its travel time is only slightly longer than VIA, and it has the ability to turn up and go and take luggage or pets onboard more easily than on VIA Rail. While service expansion has come fast and furious, besides the UP Express, the corridor sees no weekend service at the moment unlike the other key corridors. This is something we will definitely be looking for in the future.

Via Rail at Union Station, image by Reece Martin

It’s worth noting that these increases in two-way all-day service have been possible because of the Metrolinx program of double tracking construction, bridge work, and some tunnelling over the last few years. 

What service will we see in the future?

While Metrolinx has done an admirable job expanding and extending service in recent years, we are only just starting to see the beginnings of truly massive service increases as evidenced by the 15-minute frequencies operating on the Lakeshore Line: It’s time to talk about the service we’re excited to see in the future. To be clear, the official plans are still mostly up in the air, but I’ll make some well-informed predictions based on the GO Expansion business case and existing schedules.

The Lakeshore Line is likely to see the least service improvements as it already has 15-minute all-day bidirectional service for most of its length, though it will likely see even more service in the peak commute direction. That being said, some express trains should be added into the mix to improve travel times, even if there are only a few per hour. There are also plans to extend hourly service further east to the planned Confederation GO station in Hamilton, though that depends on the construction of the station and the east side track connection mentioned earlier. The line would also benefit from a more refined service pattern that does not operate all stops, as currently express QEW bus services can outpace the train. 

Perhaps the biggest improvement Lakeshore Line customers will see is electrification, which will bring with it quieter and potentially much faster trains, though that is dependent on whether new trains are multiple units or electric locomotive-hauled. Electrification is set to run from Burlington station to Oshawa station, and newer infrastructure like GO’s east rail maintenance facility in Whitby is already ready for it. Of course, track expansion works will help enable more express services across the line, and quad-tracking of the inner Lakeshore East should help to enable even higher than 15-minute frequencies by giving both the Lakeshore and Stouffville lines a dedicated track pair.

On the Stouffville Line, service is set to have at least 15-minute service both ways all the way to Unionville station, with 30-minute service continuing beyond Unionville all the way to Mount Joy station, providing most stations in Markham with 30-minute all day service. Of course again, peak hour service is likely to be even more frequent. This is being enabled by the current construction work to quad track the shared segment between the Lakeshore and Stouffville lines, and by double tracking the Stouffville Line from Scarborough station to Unionville station, as well as expanding corridor stations to have at least two tracks apiece (Unionville will have three tracks and platforms to turn trains).

Unionville GO Construction, image by Reece Martin

On the Barrie Line, service is set to be at least every 12 minutes both ways all the way to Aurora, with 15-minute service likely to continue to Bradford, and at least 30 minutes between trains traveling the full distance to Allandale Waterfront station in Barrie all day long. That said, while peak hour service will be even more frequent as with other lines, this will likely come at the cost of slightly less frequent service in the counter peak direction at the northern end of the line. Work is slowly progressing to double track the southern portion of the Barrie Line, but the major Davenport Diamond grade separation in the City of Toronto appears to be the top priority.

Davenport Diamond, image by Reece Martin

The Kitchener Line is in need of a lot of service enhancements across the board. Metrolinx announced some time ago that they plan to eventually diversify the UP Express service by offering more trains per hour and different service types. Of course, the room for more varied service on the UP Express means that more regular GO service on the Kitchener corridor is a must. The GO service on this line is set to have frequent service of at least 12-minute service all the way to Bramalea station. Some level of regular train service to Mount Pleasant station and beyond has also been discussed, with infrastructure plans and the initial business case seem to suggest half hourly service all the way to Kitchener. That said, Kitchener service is set to be lower on weekends and during midday periods than on other lines; this may be because of infrastructure limitations with the shared section of operations with CN. However, this could be mitigated with new infrastructure such as a flyover. Of course, higher frequencies could eventually also extend to London, allowing easy travel between southwestern Ontario and the Waterloo Region all day long. The lynchpin for all of this is travel times, and significant work is already going into reducing these, particularly through Guelph, though as mentioned the line between Kitchener and London will also need significant work.

Bramalea GO Station, image by Reece Martin

Planned Service Extensions

There are also plans for significant service extensions on the GO network. 

For one, a four-station extension east of the Oshawa terminus to Bowmanville of the Lakeshore East is moving along. This extension would feature two stations closer to the main population in Oshawa, with another station in Courtice and the terminus in Bowmanville. The extension is planned to feature less parking than other Lakeshore Line stations, with a larger focus on transit-oriented development and active transportation access. Fortunately, Metrolinx also plans to operate some level of all-day service on the extension, and infrastructure could allow for even higher frequency service to operate at some times.

GO Train at Milliken Station, image by Reece Martin

All-day two-way service to Niagara is also in the cards and has been detailed in some Metrolinx business cases. It would benefit significantly from new station connections at the future Confederation station and West Harbour, as this could provide some commuters inbound to Hamilton a reasonable GO rail option from Niagara which does not exist in the current timetable. There's also another additional station planned at Grimsby roughly halfway between Confederation and St Catherines, though work on it is still in its early stages. Of course, this extension is also different from Bowmanville as it already receives some service, albeit irregularly.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, service to London is also planned and could take a similar path forward as service to Niagara Falls, with increased service and improved stations in the future. That depends on improved track conditions though.

A note on trains

A small note I want to add is one about future rolling stock. While questions still exist about what types of trains will operate on the network in the future, what’s clear is that the GO services are increasingly divided between longer trips (usually >1 hour in travel time with express operations) and shorter “local” ones. The future GO transit fleet should be better adapted to these longer trips, with better onboard amenities such as more comfortable seating, and more space for things like luggage and bikes. A great model for this is the state of New South Wales, Australia, which uses the same fundamental design for its longer distance regional trains as the local commuter models, but with a different interior layout. As GO’s fleet increases in size, the idea of two sub-fleets makes more and more sense.

Interior of a GO Train, image by Reece Martin

Station Improvements

Fortunately, we aren’t only seeing substantial improvements to service, but also to numerous station facilities across the region. Enhanced stations will make waiting for a train or bus a lot more comfortable, with more waiting areas and weather protective canopies. A lot of good work is also underway to improve station access options for those walking, cycling or taking transit, and for those with accessibility needs, though there is still too much emphasis placed on free parking provided at stations.

Unionville station, along with its siblings on the Stouffville Line, is getting more platforms and tracks. It’s also getting accessibility improvements, and very nice new platform canopies. These improvements should be well used with nearby downtown Markham and the new York University-Markham campus next door, though poor pedestrian connections there do need to be fixed first.

Unionville GO Construction, image by Reece Martin

Similar works are planned to eventually happen at Maple, King City, and Aurora stations, but as mentioned earlier, most Barrie line works are lagging behind the Stouffville line. That said, significant work is underway at Rutherford station to add a second track and platform, as well as an overhead bridge to improve station access. This work is coming in tandem with a grade separation between Rutherford Road and the Barrie line, which is also improving accessibility and weather protection at the station.

The Kitchener line is also seeing work occurring with improved capacity and platforms at Malton and Bramalea stations, designed to help the stations handle more frequent train services. Bramalea is also getting enhancements to improve connectivity with Brampton Transit.

Of course, the Lakeshore Lines aren’t being left out, with new grade separations and station accessibility improvements ongoing.

Stations farther out in locations such as London, Waterloo Region, and Niagara Falls could also benefit from substantial improvements, especially as they see more rail service at less—admittedly infrequent—intervals. Waterloo Region is leading the way with its new King/Victoria GO Train station and transit hub, which will bring long distance bus and rail facilities directly next to light rail service. Better yet, the facility will be modern and spacious and provisions exist for adjacent transit-oriented development. Such station improvement projects can be local community assets, improve connectivity, and help improve the travel experience.

Transit Oriented Development

Perhaps to a greater extent than within the City of Toronto, in the surrounding regions we’re seeing significant transit-oriented development around GO stations. This is very exciting as residents and offices near stations naturally encourage more service uptake.

Downtown Markham on the Stouffville Line is a well-known case of this, but the development hasn’t been very good for transit access, with growth located away from Unionville Station rather than being adjacent to it. Poor pedestrian connections also mean that developments that may be physically close to the station can be surprisingly tedious to access.

Downtown Markham Development, image by Reece Martin

Fortunately, we’re seeing other TOD sites spring up, particularly along the Lakeshore Line. Burlington station has among the only adjacent high-density developments on the GO network, while other stations like Port Credit and Oakville are set to be surrounded by significant intensification.

There are also grand plans for transit-oriented new towns such as “The Orbit” at Innisfil on the Barrie Line, though whether such plans will ever materialize is questionable.

Burlington GO Station Transit-Oriented Development, image by Reece Martin

That said, perhaps the best example of transit-oriented development currently surrounding a GO Station is that at Maple station on the Barrie Line. The station, which receives hourly bidirectional service for most of the week, has been surrounded with new mid-rise condo developments with easy pedestrian connections to trains. The location will only become more desirable when service inevitably ramps up in coming years.

Fortunately, numerous stations including on extensions, are zoned for intensive transit-oriented development, and parking lot sites present a real opportunity for Metrolinx to capture land value back and invest in enhanced stations and infrastructure.

So that’s the state of GO Transit’s rail services outside of the city of Toronto. Increasingly significant amounts of service are being pushed out onto Metrolinx’s five key rail corridors, and the construction to further enhance service with expanded track and stations is already quite far along. Work to electrify and extend services further as well as further integrate with local transit service will help provide services with a much larger ridership base. In addition, significant new transit-oriented development is already coming online across the region. 

Taken together, these changes will allow more people to do more of their travel by transit, whether trips are cross regional or within the neighbourhood. The shift away from parking as a top priority will also pay dividends with more equitable access to service and more potential riders. New service will also change the shape of the region, empowering subcentres like Waterloo Region and Hamilton to grow in a sustainable way. Expect a future article exploring how new rapid transit in the form of light rail and bus rapid transit will help to connect such satellite municipalities within the context of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area.

In the meantime, you can find more in UrbanToronto's dedicated Transportation Forum thread, or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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