More than a month after Metrolinx began operating the Go Transit rail service between London and Toronto, trains are running mostly empty, according to new ridership figures. But the provincial transit agency says it is behind the project, adding that the growing region of southwestern Ontario needs more transit, and it takes time for new services to attract customers.
Go launched two trips each week between Via Station in London and Union Station in downtown Toronto on 18 October. Each journey takes four hours and offers a quicker option than via rail, with some experts predicting from the start that the pilot would not attract enough riders. Justify your investment. The two-year pilot is expected to cost about $2.6 million annually.
According to data provided to STAR by Metrolinx, the Ontario Crown corporation that operates the GO, average ticket sales by the first week of operation were about 31 passengers per trip. By the week of 25 October, sales per train reached about 43 customers, but by the week of 15 November this had dropped to about 32 customers per trip.
At those levels, the number of passengers is not enough to fill a TTC bus, let alone a high-capacity Go train. A single coach can seat 162 people, and Metrolinx is piloting London with six-coach trains.
Metrolinux spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins said it was too early to draw conclusions about the service’s feasibility.
“It may take months to analyze the results and possibly longer than we are still coming out of the pandemic,” she said.
Ridership on the GO Rail network is still suffering from the effects of COVID-19, and weekday passenger numbers remain at around 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
Aikins said the London pilot has already proved successful in terms of “increasing transit access for communities in southwestern Ontario”.
In addition to London and Toronto, trains stop at stations on Stratford, St. Mary’s and GO’s Kitchener Line, which Metrolinx says is important as it improves transit access for smaller southwestern Ontario communities that use other rail and rail lines. Bus services have been affected by the cut.
“We know this is one of the fastest growing areas in the province and it (the pilot) supports the transit requirements for today and tomorrow,” Aikins said.
As per the pilot’s schedule, a Go train leaves London at 5:20 am every weekday and reaches Union at 9:13 am; the return train leaves Union at 4:19 am and reaches London at 8:17 am
Via Rail already operates six daily trains between London and Toronto, and because most of them take a more direct route than the Go, they have travel times as low as 2 hours and 10 minutes. Via London-Toronto fares can be as low as $37, which is only slightly more than the $30 GO fee.
Travel can be faster than a car. In good traffic conditions, a driver leaving London at 5:30 a.m. can expect to be in Toronto before 8:30 a.m.
Shoshanna Saxe, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure and an assistant professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Civil and Mineral Engineering, said the number of riderships suggests that the London pilot of GO currently operating is “not attractive enough for large numbers of people.”
“When it’s slower than driving, it’s very hard to attract people to transit,” she said.
But Saxe said the low ridership in its early stages is not a sign that Metrolinx should abandon the pilot. Instead, the agency should look for ways to improve it, such as operating more frequent and faster trains.
“We know that the huge demand for well-designed public transport in the region has not been met,” she said. “We don’t want to make things that don’t work or serve people, but we need to be more ambitious.”
Pilot also enjoys the support of local elected leaders. “The fact that Go Rail now extends to London is a success in itself,” London Mayor Ed Holder said in a statement.
Holder said he is confident Metrolinux and the Ontario government will build on what has been done so far. “They didn’t invest this magnitude just to see it fail,” he said.