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How a growing GO Transit is keeping the GTA from standing still Add to ...

Lots of executives say they are excited about the organizations they head, but Greg Percy has better reason than most. GO Transit, the regional commuter service he has quarterbacked as president since November, is on a roll.

More and more commuters are choosing to ride its growing fleet of green-and-white trains and buses. Political leaders are promising to invest big money in expanding GO service. At a time when frustrated commuters are wondering when the city is ever going to get its transit act together, GO’s quiet, steady success stands out.

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“We just keep building. It’s what we do,” Mr. Percy, 57, told me at his office in the west wing of historic Union Station, which is in the throes of a huge renovation that will expand the GO platforms and concourse to deal with surging passenger traffic. “It’s just so exciting to be part of something that is growing and changing shape and is such an important piece of the fabric of Toronto.”

GO has come a long way since the first single-deck commuter train rolled out of Oakville at 5:50 on the foggy morning of May 23, 1967, bound for Union Station. Conceived as a two-year experiment, GO (which originally stood for Government of Ontario) Transit has seen ridership soar from 2.5 million in that first year to around 65 million today.

Its rail fleet has grown to include 65 locomotives and 574 bi-level coaches. Trains that used to pull five or six coaches now pull as many as 12 and carry up to 2,000 people, turning them into what Mr. Percy calls "villages on wheels." What used to be solely a lake shore service now runs on seven rail corridors, with a 2,760-kilometre web of GO bus routes feeding into it.

To keep up with demand and create more, GO spent about a billion dollars on capital projects last year, 10 times the amount when Mr. Percy, a veteran railman who spent 18 years with Canadian Pacific, first came to the agency in 2000.

GO has been taking delivery of new rail coaches at a rate of two a month. It is rolling out more double-decker buses. It is buying track from other railways so it can have better control of GO train traffic. It is spending millions building multi-level parking garages at its stations so that suburban commuters can park and ride.

Last year GO started running trains on its Lakeshore lines every 30 minutes, a landmark in its quest to lure suburban commuters out of their cars and ease the congestion that threatens to choke the regional economy. Today, commuters in their upholstered seats riders on the GO Lakeshore route can gaze with smug contentment at the crawling cars on the Gardiner Expressway, now undergoing massive reconstruction.

Innovations such as the Presto electronic-payment card, service alerts to GO riders’ cell phones, quiet zones on its train coaches and Wi-Fi in some stations are giving GO a sheen of modernity that makes its much bigger city cousin, the Toronto Transit Commission, look poky by comparison.

Ridership has been growing by about five or six per cent a year. Mr. Percy claims he has the easiest job in the world: “I put out a train and it fills up.”

For all its progress, GO still falls short of its potential. Most big cities with great public transportation systems make commuter rail a big part of the mix. Paris has its RER network, Stockholm its Pendeltag system of electrified trains and Tokyo a huge web of rail lines linked to its subway system. These services tie the suburbs into the dense transit web of the central city, creating a truly comprehensive people-moving system.

The Toronto region still has nothing like that – yet. Toronto’s streetcars alone boast more weekday boardings (280,000) than the whole of the GO system (251,000). Except at GO’s hub, Union Station, integration with the TTC’s subways and other modes is generally poor. Paris’s RER becomes part of the subway network in the central city. GO is a network unto itself.

But GO has big dreams and, these days, they seem more than mere fantasy. Premier Kathleen Wynne has promised to spend billions on expanding transit, GO included, if her Liberal party is re-elected in next month’s vote. Tim Hudak of the Conservatives and Andrea Horwarth of the NDP are talking about GO expansion, too.

With more investment, Mr. Percy says, GO could double or triple its ridership in coming decades, making service so frequent that GO becomes a kind of surface subway system and riders don’t have to consult a schedule. “You just go to a GO station and you know there is going to be a train.”

Converting GO locomotives from diesel power to electric is part of the long-term plan. Along with yielding lower emissions, electrification would allow trains to speed up and slow down faster, which means faster service.

Investing in GO’s expansion makes sense. A study by the Neptis Foundation, an urban issues think tank, found that for the $3.2-billion cost of the first phase of the proposed downtown relief subway line, Ontario could upgrade the whole GO system to 15-minute, two-way, all-day service.

GO is not perfect, by any means. Like any commuter network, it suffers delays and other glitches. Some riders found incorrect balances on their Presto accounts this winter, to take one example.

But its growth, performance and stress on customer service are impressive all the same. Under GO’s customer charter, introduced in 2010, train passengers can apply for their money back if their arrival is delayed for 15 minutes or more. Mr. Percy says with pride that its trains are on time 95 cent of the time.

He says the biggest complaint he gets from customers about GO is that they need more of it, “so more is a good strategy.” To fulfill its promise, GO needs to grow.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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