New Toronto to London (ON) Train Ridership Half that of a Bus

The Toronto Star reports that the new Toronto to London, Ontario “GO” Transit commuter train is carrying far fewer passengers than the average transit bus. (see: GO’s new London-Toronto train is moving fewer passengers than a half-full TTC bus). During the week of November 15, ticket sales were only 32 per scheduled train.

The service, according to the Star, is operated with trains with six cars each, with a capacity of 162 passengers. This means is operating at three percent of capacity (that assumes all riders travel the entire distance from London to Union Station in downtown Toronto).

According to The Star, the GO trip takes nearly four hours each way between Toronto and London. VIA Rail, Canada, the national passenger rail system operates services between the two terminals in 2:10.

Metrolinx, which operates the GO train system across the Greater Golden Horseshoe, indicates that ridership remains about 75% less than normal, due to the pandemic. Even if the new London service were to attract four times the ridership (which returning to normal would accomplish over the entire network), less than 15% of the capacity would be utilized. This is a patronage level that could be easily handled by a few buses, which would also permit provision of trips throughout the day.

On the assumption that the public purpose of this service is serving people, the least expensive option should be provided --- that which attracts the highest number of passengers for the least cost. It is inconceivable that this could involve six car trains, and not even one-car trains.

This is not intended to criticize Metrolinx or GO trains, since similar decisions have been made by governments and transit operators virtually around the world, favoring trains, regardless of the cost. There are obviously places where rail transit is justified, but regrettably, not in many of the places it has been built in recent decades. The result has been to provide considerably less transit service and fewer rides than would have been the case if more efficient alternatives were adopted --- and alternatives that are time competitive with the car.

The University of Toronto’s Professor Shoshanna Saxe “hit the nail on the head,” noting “It’s very hard to attract people to transit when it’s slower than driving,” The problem not limited to the London to Toronto service. For example, international research found that within the Toronto CMA, cars provide 4.5 times the 30-minute job access as transit, despite the fact that it is hard to find a better transit system in North America.

Employment access should be the principal driver of transit policy, with emphasis on obtaining the largest increases among lower-income households that have less automobile access. That would lead to less poverty, an improved economy and more jobs.

The issue is not cars, trains or buses, it is outcomes for people. Transit’s potential can only be achieved if available resources are committed to maximizing ridership, especially to work, which is the most important trip.

Note: As a matter of interest, Metrolinx made a pre-pandemic-pandemic map of ridership by train line available (April to September 2020).

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy firm located in the St. Louis metropolitan area. He is a founding senior fellow at the Urban Reform Institute, Houston, a Senior Fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Winnipeg and a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University in Orange, California. He has served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris. His principal interests are economics, poverty alleviation, demographics, urban policy and transport. He is co-author of the annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey and author of Demographia World Urban Areas.

Mayor Tom Bradley appointed him to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (1977-1985) and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council, to complete the unexpired term of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman (1999-2002). He is author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life and Toward More Prosperous Cities: A Framing Essay on Urban Areas, Transport, Planning and the Dimensions of Sustainability.