Thursday, May 22, 2008

When Do We Get to Get On GO?

With escalating gas prices, the average consumer is looking for other ways to get a cheaper commute, mostly through looking at public transportation. For commuters going to Toronto daily, this can be tough but it was announced this past week that the province is looking at making things easier by bringing GO trains back to the Royal City.

"There's a huge pent-up demand for commuter rail service to Toronto," Mayor Karen Farbridge told the Toronto Star. Currently, for rail riders in Guelph, the only option is the thrice daily VIA train to Union Station. GO Transit announced last week that it would be studying the feasibility of bringing GO back to Guelph and whether there’s the “pent-up demand” as the Mayor insists.

Bring the GO train back to Guelph has been a secondary issue in the last municipal and provincial elections. The last time that the train did come as far as Guelph was the year 1993. The NDP government of Bob Rae scaled the service back to Georgetown due a deficit of ridership. GO transit users, however, complained at the time that the service was too limiting and if they wanted/needed to stay late at work, then they had to find another way home.

According to Greg Ashbee, GO Transit's manager of rail expansion programs, trains could start rolling back to Guelph with an initial commitment of two daily trains from Guelph to Georgetown, where passengers could make transfer connections be they a second train or bus. Eventually, this could lead to 20 minute GO train service in a direct route from Guelph to Toronto, both morning and evening.

This would be the second expansion of service after GO started running hourly buses from the University of Guelph to Mississauga last fall. It constituted a significant investment as GO supplemented the bus service by helping to pay for a “Park and Ride” lot near Aberfoyle, as well as a heated shelter at their stop at the University. Meanwhile, a GO bus to Union Station still leaves several times a day from the Greyhound Bus Terminal on Macdonell.

Still, there are logistical concerns to be taken into account that have to do with the train station downtown. A letter to the Guelph Mercury wrote that, in the writer’s opinion, the service failed “because Guelph was the only station other than Toronto Union where GO Transit did not provide free parking.”

Parking, as it is currently at the train station, is extremely limited. The station was constructed in 1911 and is designated a Heritage Site under the Railway Station Protection Act, but being situated on the corner of Carden and Wyndham leaves little room for expansion to make better parking facilities.

One of the ideas thrown around has been to use the Lafarge site in the city’s west end as a new transit hub with particular emphasis on a new rail station that can accommodate increased commuter service to Toronto and possibly, in the future, Kitchener. But the fate of the Lafarge site is an entirely separate debate with its own long and complex history.

The report from engineering consultant R.J. Burnside probably won’t be done until early 2009, but the pressure is on for politicians to meet increased demand for public transportation. “It's something the provincial government should give serious consideration to given our population growth and the increasing number of people making the commute to Toronto,” said Ted Arnott, Wellington-Halton Hills MPP and member of the Opposition.

As for the all-mighty dollar, typically municipalities pay no operating costs for GO service. However, they can contribute to funds for service expansion, as Barrie did when they paid a third of the bill for upgrades to GO rail service. It’s unknown right now if and how much the city might be held to for expanding GO Transit in Guelph.

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