Though I am loath to give the Doug Ford government the benefit of the doubt, I will give them credit when it's due, and the recent news of their purchase of new passenger equipment for the restoration of the Ontario Northland train from Toronto to Timmins is undeniable good news.
I still haven't forgiven Dalton McGuinty for cancelling this special train service. Yes, it lost money, but all modes of transportation do. We have to spend money to ensure mobility, whether it's on roads, bus services, public transit, and trains into the northern part of the province. And given the boost to tourism, the local economy, northerners' health and wellbeing (connecting them to hospital services in southern Ontario), and generally keeping an eye on our links to the Arctic in this age of climate change, this investment is worth our while.
The new equipment purchased by the Ford government builds on the sleek new trains VIA Rail is getting for the Quebec-Windsor corridor. All in all, thanks to Ottawa and Queens Park, come 2026 I'm going to have more places to ride, and nice accommodations when I ride. I'm happy about that. I would even recommend that the premier purchase a few more sets of equipment and operate the new GO Train to London using them. They're probably a damn sight more comfortable for longer distance. Integrate the service with VIA Rail and possibly brand it VIA Ontario.
All that said, while there is much to look forward to on the public transit front in the next three years, there is a lot of room for improvement. Yes, we may be on the verge of the biggest addition to Toronto's rapid transit network since 1966, but the ongoing delays and the corporate cloudiness at Metrolinx demands an investigation and some accountability. Rush hour express trains between Toronto and Kitchener are running for the first time since the pandemic started, reducing the commute time to downtown to 95 minutes (try driving that in that length of time during the same period), but weekend service between Kitchener and Toronto has degraded. All that GO has for Kitchener is their bus service to Square One in Mississauga. With Greyhound vanished, there is no direct downtown weekend connection from Kitchener to speak of, save for the lonely VIA train, which inexplicably worsened their service when they moved their morning inbound train to early in the afternoon.
Metrolinx has promised two-way, hourly, seven-day-a-week train service between Kitchener and Union for 2024, but that's not looking likely. I would gladly take what limited service Barrie now receives to downtown Toronto, with trains between these two centres every three hours, or so. Sure, it would cost money, and certainly the competing freight traffic makes it difficult, since unlike Barrie, Metrolinx doesn't own all the tracks between Toronto and Kitchener, but the service would be instantly popular, and the costs of providing it less than people think if Metrolinx would just look at the opportunity staring them in the face.
Metrolinx already serves Stratford, with a single train that operates in from London on morning weekdays and returns the following evening. The train is stored in London overnight, except for the weekend, I believe, when it deadheads back to Toronto for maintenance. Here's the opportunity: don't deadhead the train.
And here's the second opportunity: work with the schedule of the Stratford Festival.
You can look up GO's schedules for trains to Kitchener and London (the route number is 31) and extrapolate the times a few weekend runs can do. A train departing London at 5:14 Saturday morning gets to Stratford at 6:15 and Kitchener at 7:38. Serving all stops to Bramalea and running express to Union east from there gets passengers to downtown Toronto at 9:13 -- a perfect time to start a day trip in Toronto. Trains can turn around pretty quickly at Union, so it can likely depart at the already scheduled weekday time of 9:34. Making all stops, it arrives in Kitchener at 11:21. Given travel times to Stratford, it can continue to that city and arrive at 12:14. Plenty of time for people to grab a lunch and catch a 2 p.m. matinee at the Stratford Festival.
After a matinee, and time for a dinner, people can head back to Stratford station to catch the train back to Toronto at 7 p.m. Serving all stops, it can reach Toronto at 9:58, turn around for a 10:30 departure, returning to Kitchener just after midnight and in London around 2 a.m. In one fell swoop, you've provided a useful service for Torontonians to a tremendous attraction that requires bus parking to handle all the tour groups, and you've given residents of Waterloo Region access to Toronto for a weekend day trip. We could even tighten the schedules so that the return time isn't so late, and there's plenty of room in the middle of the day for a Stratford-Toronto-Stratford run providing more choices for Waterloo Region and Stratford residents as well as Torontonians, keeping a lot of people and cars off of Highway 401.
It seems a no brainer. I realize that the presence of Canadian National freight trains along the route complicate this service, but really the thing holding it back is a lack of political will and an unwillingness to spend the money to make it happen. The thing is, though: with the correct schedule and a decent marketing plan, Metrolinx will not have to spend nearly as much money as one would think, and it would be a boon to the tourism industry in southwestern Ontario.
Like him or dislike him, Ford seems like he's getting it done on the Northlander. I appreciate that. He needs to get this done for Stratford and Waterloo Region.
And add some direct bus service between Kitchener, Guelph and Hamilton while you're at it!