Weekend ridership jumps after weekend service is introduced to the Barrie line. But is it enough?
Marvin JS Ferrer
Metrolinx is engaged in a long-term dramatic expansion of weekday and weekend GO train service in the Greater Toronto Area. In a promising start, at the beginning of 2017 Metrolinx introduced weekend Barrie GO train service, leading to dramatic ridership and travel time improvements for GTA commuters on a major regional rail line.
Barrie GO Ridership Jumps
With the addition of weekend trains, weekend transit ridership has jumped on the Barrie GO lines. Each month, average year-over-year weekend daily boardings increased by an average of 30% from January until May, which is the most recent month for which data is available. In contrast, each month, the average year-over-year weekday daily boardings increased by only 3%.
Although ridership has jumped, weekend trains are not very full and have the capacity to hold many more riders. An average of 100 boardings were taken on each weekend Barrie line GO train trip in February, but one six-car GO train has seating for 972 people. One GO bus has seating for approximately 60 people.
Less Frequent Service with Fewer Pickups
Before the change, weekend GO bus service from Barrie to Newmarket was provided by a bus ride that could take almost 2.5 hours, which made a trip every 1-2 hours. Weekend GO bus service from Newmarket to Union Station was provided every thirty minutes. Both routes serviced the Newmarket GO Bus Terminal, but not the Newmarket GO Train Station, with pick-up and drop-off along Yonge Street, a major north-south artery in Newmarket and Aurora (Figure 3, “Previous GO Bus Route”).
The new weekend Barrie GO train service runs 19 trips per day, with 13 trips serving Union Station to Aurora, and 6 trips travelling the full length of the line from Union Station to Barrie. Bus and train services also begin earlier and end later. When trains are running, service is approximately every 1 hour 15 minutes. When trains are not running, GO bus service to East Gwillimbury is approximately every thirty minutes, with GO bus service to King City (in northern York Region) every hour.
In addition, GO bus service now bypasses Yonge Street in Newmarket and Aurora; Newmarket GO train station is the only pick-up/drop-off location between Aurora GO and East Gwillimbury GO train stations. The new route bypasses the Newmarket GO bus terminal, a hub for local transit connections across the street from Upper Canada Mall (Figure 3, “New GO Bus Route”).
Travel Time from Parts of Barrie Line Shortened
The train travel time from Barrie to Aurora was reduced by up to 49%, or up to 44 minutes, compared to the previous bus service (Figure 4).
However, train service did not improve weekend travel time from Aurora to Union Station compared to bus service (Figure 4).
Barrie GO Train Route South of Aurora
Why is the GO train weekend travel time from Aurora to Union Station slightly slower than a GO bus making the same trip?
The Barrie GO train line turns westward south of Aurora to service King City and Vaughan before turning back east to enter Union Station in downtown Toronto. In contrast, the GO bus route travels directly south down highway 404 and the Don Valley Parkway to Union Station. Since weekend trips involve off-peak, non-rush-hour travel, the GO bus travel time on Highway 404, the Don Valley Parkway, and the Gardiner Expressway are relatively speedy.
Metrolinx’s Regional Express Rail plan envisions two-way full-day weekday and weekend train service every 15 minutes from Aurora to Union Station, and weekday service every 30 minutes (60 minutes on weekends) service from Barrie to Union Station.
When asked for comment, Metrolinx spokesperson Vanessa Barrasa said by email that they are pleased with ridership growth so far. “The growth is encouraging, especially as we undertake a 10-year expansion program that will result in a four-fold increase in the amount of off-peak service we provide.”
“Within three years of service, we expect roughly 3,000 boardings per weekend day on the new Barrie train,” Barrasa said.
There was a monthly average of 1,854 train boardings per day from January until May, suggesting Metrolinx expects continued ridership growth of approximately 17% each year over the next 3 years.
However, this is not in line with historic weekend or weekday ridership growth on the Barrie line. In order to meet its expectations, further changes should be made in to support transit users who rely on the Barrie line.
Metrolinx plans to raise adult fares which cost more than $5.65 (which are most Barrie line trips) by 3%. Fare increases should be avoided given optimistic ridership growth expectations on this line.
Alternatively, Metrolinx and local transit providers should make it easier to access GO train stations.
GO train stations are not located in central locations in Newmarket, Aurora and East Gwillimbury. York Region is constructing median bus lanes for its Viva Blue bus rapid transit (BRT) line along Yonge Street in Newmarket. However, Viva Blue does not connect directly with GO train stations in Newmarket or Aurora; it is a short 8-minute walk to the train station from the bus stop (Figure 3, “York Region Viva Blue Rapid Transit”).
In addition, just as weekend Barrie line train service started in January 2017, York Region cut service frequency by 46% on its Viva Yellow BRT line. Viva Yellow connects Newmarket bus terminal and Upper Canada Mall to Newmarket GO train station (Figure 3, “York Region Viva Yellow Bus Rapid Transit”).
With the elimination of weekend GO bus pick up and drop off along Yonge and Wellington streets in Newmarket and Aurora, York Region should consider aligning its public transit services to better serve GO train stations.
Alternatively, or additionally, Metrolinx could reinstate GO bus pick up and drop off along Yonge and Wellington Streets (Figure 3, “Possible GO Bus Route”). This might add an estimated 10 minutes to travel time between East Gwillimbury and Aurora GO train stations, but make it much easier for transit users to access GO train stations.
York Region Transit (YRT) and Metrolinx have a discount program for those using YRT to reach a GO train station. “All YRT/VIVA routes that serve a GO Station qualify for Ride-to-GO discounts,” Barrasa said.
However, Viva BRT routes do not connect directly with GO train stations. The number of local York Region Transit bus routes qualifying for “Ride to GO” fares should grow, and Viva Blue and Viva Yellow should be included.
 This is a statistically significant difference, p=0.0156, using a two-tailed T-test. Weekday boardings are a good comparison for weekend boardings because there was no change to the weekday schedule.
Marvin JS Ferrer previously completed his master’s and doctoral degree in the cell biology of reproduction and fertility at Queen’s University, where he helped many Canadians start new families. His policy interests include science and research policy, industry-government relations, and health policy. As a politically-minded scientist, he would like to advance the use of the scientific method to improve evidence-based decision making.