More than a month after Metrolinx began piloting GO Transit rail service between London and Toronto, the trains are running mostly empty, according to new ridership figures. But the provincial transit agency says it stands behind the project, saying the growing region of Southwestern Ontario needs more transit, and new services take time to attract customers.
GO began running two trips each weekday between London’s Via station and Union Station in downtown Toronto on Oct. 18. With each journey taking four hours and Via Rail offering faster options, from the outset some experts predicted the pilot wouldn’t attract enough riders to justify its investment. The two-year pilot is expected to cost about $2.6 million annually.
According to figures provided to the Star by Metrolinx, the Ontario Crown corporation that operates GO, average ticket sales as of the first week of operation were about 31 passengers per trip. By the week of Oct. 25, sales rose to about 43 customers per train, but by the week of Nov. 15 it had fallen back to about 32 customers per journey.
At those levels, passenger volumes aren’t enough to fill a single TTC bus, let alone a high-capacity GO train. A single GO coach can sit 162 people, and Metrolinx is running the London pilot with six-coach trains.
Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said it’s too early to draw conclusions about the viability of the service.
“It can take many months to analyze results and likely longer given we are still coming out of the pandemic,” she said.
Ridership across the GO rail network is still suffering from the impacts of COVID-19, and weekday passenger volumes remain at about 25 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Aikins said the London pilot has already proven to be a success in terms of “increasing transit access for communities in southwestern Ontario.”
In addition to London and Toronto the trains stop at Stratford, St. Marys and stations on GO’s Kitchener line, which Metrolinx says is important because it improves transit access to smaller Southwestern Ontario communities that have been affected by cuts to other rail and bus services.
“We know this is one of the province’s fastest growing regions and this (pilot) supports transit needs for today and tomorrow,” Aikins said.
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Under the pilot’s schedule, a GO train leaves London every weekday at 5:20 a.m. and arrives at Union at 9:13 a.m. The return train departs Union at 4:19 p.m. and gets to London at 8:17 p.m.
Via Rail already operates six daily trains between London and Toronto, and because most of them take a more direct route than GO they have travel times as short as 2 hours and 10 minutes. Via’s London-Toronto fares can be as low as $37, which is only slightly more than the $30 GO charges.
The journey can also be faster by car. In good traffic conditions, a driver leaving London around 5:30 a.m. could expect to be in Toronto before 8:30 a.m.
Shoshanna Saxe, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure and an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s department of civil and mineral engineering, said the ridership numbers indicate that GO’s London pilot as currently operated is “not attractive enough for a huge number of people.”
“It’s very hard to attract people to transit when it’s slower than driving,” she said.
But Saxe said low ridership in its early stages isn’t indication that Metrolinx should abandon the pilot. Instead, the agency should be looking for ways to improve it, like operating more frequent and faster trains.
“We know that there’s a huge unmet demand for well-designed public transit in the region,” she said. “We don’t want to build things that don’t work or don’t serve people, but we need to be much more ambitious.”
The pilot also has support of local elected leaders. London Mayor Ed Holder said in a statement “the fact GO rail now extends to London is a success in and of itself.”
Holder said he was confident Metrolinx and the Ontario government will build on what they’ve done so far. “They did not make an investment of this magnitude only to see it fail,” he said.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr
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