Massive expansion of GO Transit network underway with main focus on 5 rail corridors

In the last story of our 'Transit 2024' series, Nick Westoll speaks with the head of capital projects for GO Transit about the expansion program that's underway for the network.

When GO Transit launched in 1967, there was just one rail corridor (Hamilton to Pickering), the minimum fare was 42 cents, and the Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup.

Fast-forward to today and there are now seven rail corridors plus the UP Express line, dozens of bus routes, and adults tapping their phones or fare cards pay a minimum fare of $3.70.

The first year of GO train service saw roughly 2.5 million people but in recent years the network has handled up to approximately 70 million people. Keeping up with the demand has proven to be a growing challenge.

“We already have $11-billion worth of work happening on the ground and around our network in 2023,” Stephanie Davies, the chief capital officer for GO Transit and UP Express at Metrolinx, said during an interview at Bloor GO station.

“There’s no big bang on GO expansion. We are building things and opening them and making them available to customers as soon as they are ready.”

In the years ahead, the goal is ambitious.

“All-day service on five of our core existing lines (Lakeshore West, Lakeshore East, Kitchener, Barrie and Stouffville) in our network. It’s making those trips faster for our customers — up to 10 minutes faster on average across our network — and ensuring that those trips are happening at a higher frequency, up to every 15 minutes,” Davies said.

To achieve two-way, all-day rail service, GO Transit is looking at electrification to run faster trains. The Lakeshore lines are a top priority for that large-scale upgrade.

“We’re right now in our planning and development phase of that work, so by the end of 2024 we’ll have a clear construction schedule,” Davies said.

Several improvements to address aging infrastructure and expand capacity are happening along Lakeshore West and Lakeshore East right now: Expanding the Lakeshore East line into Bowmanville, clearing and levelling certain sections of the lines to add new dedicated tracks, enhancing Eglinton GO station, building dedicated bridges for trains and in Oakville separating trains from road traffic, creating a new rail tie-in to the main CN Rail line in Hamilton at West Harbour GO station to allow full connectivity, building Confederation GO station in east Hamilton and adding train storage space in Niagara Falls.

When asked about the status of express trips, Davies said construction is being factored in.

“Express service is in high demand from our customers. Right now we are balancing off the demand of ridership with all the events, construction that’s happening in that corridor,” she said.

“We will bring express service back as soon as we can do so.”

On the Stouffville line, it was a busy year in 2023. A new Old Elm GO station was opened at the end of the line along with the completion of renovations at Milliken, Unionville and Agincourt stations.

“A lot of prep work is done to enable our future service increases and electrification,” Davies said.

Over on the Barrie line, GO Transit inaugurated the Davenport Diamond guideway. It’s a raised, dedicated section of tracks to separate passenger rail service from freight trains. Elsewhere, Maple and Aurora stations are currently being improved.

“It’s our longest line and we are doing grading work to expand our corridors and create additional space for new track,” she added, noting double-tracking work could take a few more years.

On the Kitchener line, two projects are underway as the transit agency marked the completion of an expanded Bramalea station earlier in the year.

The first new Kitchener line project involves building an indoor, underground tunnel to provide a direct connection between Bloor GO station and Dundas West subway station. Construction is set to begin soon and it’s estimated to take a couple of years to complete. Davies said it should shave several minutes off the current journey on foot and it will make it easier for GO Transit and UP Express passengers to transfer to Line 2 Bloor-Danforth. The second initiative involves clearing areas to build a new set of dedicated rail tracks.

Since the Milton and Richmond Hill corridors aren’t owned by GO and share with freight trains, Davies said it’s harder to overhaul service currently.

At Union Station, the hub for all seven GO rail lines, work continues on building a new south concourse to create more room.

David Cooper, a transportation planner and a principal with Leading Mobility, said the GO network as we know it has certain limitations.

“Before the pandemic, 96 per cent of all trips began or ended at Union Station. It was a very one-directional-type system,” he said.

He said heavily investing in GO Transit’s rail network will be transformative, resulting in quicker travel times along with other benefits.

“What two-way GO service does actually gives an ability, especially some of our regional municipalities, to start creating transit-oriented developments, to start creating employment opportunities that have two-way direction to reverse flows and ridership,” Cooper said.

Combined with enhancing local transit across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, he said some existing GO Transit parking lots could make way for needed housing.

“We have the land, but you actually can’t start moving forward on that until you actually have the service and the infrastructure to facilitate that return travel,” Cooper said.

Meanwhile, Davies looked ahead and had this hope for how GO Transit will be viewed.

“I think in 10 years people will not think about GO as a commuter service. They will think about it as a rapid transit backbone of the region,” he said.

This is the final story in a five-part series called ‘Transit 2024,’ which looks at several of the Ontario government’s major GTA transit expansion projects. Click here to read part one, click here to read part two (Ontario Line), click here to read part three (Finch West LRT) and click here to read part four (Hazel McCallion LRT).

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