I recently wrote about bus travel to Niagara in a post focusing on the usability of Megabus’ service between Toronto and Niagara Falls. I focused on Megabus because it is typically the most useful service that connects the two locations: there are about a dozen direct departures per day and the travel time averages around 2 hours. As I wrote in that post, Megabus is frustratingly close to being good. Sufficiently frustrating to have a closer look at the alternatives.
After Megabus, the alternatives are Greyhound and VIA (both of which only have a few runs per day), and most importantly, GO transit.
Yes, Niagara has GO service.
According to many folks around Niagara, the fact that GO already comes here is either unknown or disregarded. I am not quite sure which. From my perspective, the root of this ignorance seems to be a local obsession with GO trains. It is true that there have been summer GO trains on weekends for years and plans to have weekday trains in the future. I can (and will) talk about those another day. The more important thing at this stage is to shine a light on the nearly 20 daily bus departures that are basically ignored by the majority of Niagarans.
Route 12: Niagara’s GO bus
According to GO, Route 12 is all things to all people. It links Niagara to the larger GTA. It connects destinations within Niagara for people without cars. It builds ridership for the future weekday train. I see GO’s point, Route 12 does do all of these things – and it does them all quite poorly.
In this blog post I will not get into detail with respect to my many specific frustrations with Route 12 (a different collection than the ones I have with Megabus). Instead, I will simply describe the route in order to be able to refer back to this description in future posts.
Route 12 is essentially a highway coach service with nine stops. At one end of the route is the Niagara Falls Bus Terminal, which is at least a bona fide piece of transit infrastructure, although poorly located because of Niagara Falls’ 40-year history of ignoring its legacy downtown. At the other end of the route is Burlington’s “Dundas St @ Hwy 407 Park & Ride,” a GO bus platform in a field that is serviced by some, but not all, of the Highway 407 West GO bus services.
Importantly, the route connects with the Lakeshore West (LSW) train service at Burlington GO. Buses from Niagara are scheduled to arrive at Burlington GO 15 minutes prior to Toronto-bound LSW departures; Niagara-bound buses leave 10 minutes after the arrival of outbound LSW trains.
Between the termini, Route 12 has the following stops:
-Niagara Falls, Hwy 420 @ Stanley Ave. (closest to the falls)
–Niagara College Glendale Campus
–St. Catharines Fairview Mall (local transit hub)
–Beamsville Park & Ride
–Grimsby Park & Ride
–Stoney Creek, Barton & Nash (Hamilton public transit)
The majority of Route 12 runs cover the entire length and make all stops. In addition to this, there are three branches: 12A (truncated route, Grimsby to Hwy 407), 12B (express route, Niagara Falls to Burlington GO), and 12D (express route, St. Catharines to Burlington GO).
The schedule of Route 12 is quite straightforward on weekends: it basically runs hourly (although the schedule changes slightly at the outer ends; presumably to account for average traffic and passenger volume). This regularity is supported by the all-day half-hourly service of the LSW train from Burlington. Starting in the summer of 2016, there were occasional 12B Niagara Falls express buses woven into the weekend schedule.
The weekday schedule of Route 12 towards Toronto feels very erratic in the morning, with gaps of over 90 minutes between buses right at the time that is most convenient for me to travel. The apparent reason for this erraticness is the LSW schedule: during the morning rush hour, the trains break their regular half hour schedule in order to squeeze a combination of express and local runs to Union Station. There could also be other reasons, like the bus fleet being allocated to other routes, or “traffic delays” that tie up vehicles (aka, the unwillingness of Ontario to give highway space and priority to buses). Regardless, headed into Toronto, the #12 service evens out around 9am. Leaving Toronto, the service remains regular through the day, with the LSW outbound rush hour train schedule having a small effect on the regularity of the buses leaving Burlington.
During the week, nearly all Route 12 runs service the entire route. The only current exceptions are the first Burlington-bound bus of the morning Mon-Fri (12A, starting in Grimsby) and a series of express runs on Friday (Niagara-bound 12B; Burlington-bound 12D).
Oh man, I wish I knew the official numbers.
Despite a fair amount of research and specific questioning to GO transit, official ridership remains a mystery to me. It seems impossible that these figures aren’t available on a system based upon electronic ticketing and fare cards, but hey, what else to do when no one else seems to be asking for this.
Given the lack of systematic information, I will rely upon the tools available to me: my observations as a regular rider. These observations are as follows:
-Most riders use Burlington GO station, presumably to connect with the LSW train.
-A smaller number of riders, but still notable, use Stoney Creek to travel to/from Niagara. Many of these riders walk across the plaza parking lot to take the #2 HSR bus. It would appear that despite its terrible location, the corner of Barton & Nash in Stoney Creek is essentially the public transit hub for Hamilton-Niagara.
-The Grimsby, Beamsville, Niagara College, and Hwy 407 Park & Ride stops are lightly/rarely used.
-Through most of the year, the busiest stop is St. Catharines Fairview Mall. It is not uncommon for the bus to be held up here as a line-up of riders buys tickets from the driver (there is neither a ticket kiosk, nor a ticket vending machine here). Nearly all riders from St. Catharines are traveling to Burlington GO or Stoney Creek.
-The next busiest stops are the two in Niagara Falls, although through most of the year these two stops combined seem to have fewer riders than St. Catharines (holidays are an exception, during which ridership to Niagara Falls balloons). Like St. Catharines, nearly all riders from Niagara Falls are traveling to Burlington GO or Stoney Creek.
Route 12 does connect Niagara to downtown Toronto, but GO Transit takes approximately one hour longer than Megabus in locations that are served by both.
From my observations (which I would love to have GO correct with official data), ridership is clustered around stops with destinations, large populations and/or transit connections. In St. Catharines, the Fairview Mall is one of the city’s few transit hubs (as is the Megabus station) making robust connections between Route 12 and St. Catharines Transit or Niagara Region Transit. It seems unsurprising that this stop is busy, and unfortunate that the value of transit to this busy location is reduced by time-wasting detours through Beamsville and Grimsby.
The Beamsville and Grimsby parking lots are just that: windswept locations designed to welcome automobiles and repel everyone/thing else. To their credit, Grimsby is developing a plan for local transit, with the connection to GO as a key point. Consistent to Niagara’s train obsession, the Town’s messaging is written as if GO will only come to Grimsby in the future. In fact, Grimsby has been serviced by GO for nearly a decade.
Although it also creates a detour, the Stoney Creek stop is well-used. This situation begs the question of how much better the ridership would be for a bus that actually went to Hamilton, instead of a strip mall that’s a long city bus ride away from Hamilton.
In recent years there has been a marked increase in service – with the addition of new weekend express routes, and three new stops added (Hwy 407, Beamsville, and Niagara College). For the majority of Mon-Fri travelers, it is questionable as to whether these changes have led to any benefits: the main additions have primarily been lightly used/unused stops that slow the route down.
Although it might consume bus time that could be better used, the extension of Route 12 to the “Dundas St @ 407 Park & Ride” might be more valuable. In connecting with the #47 bus, it does connect Niagara to McMaster and York Universities and Mississauga Square One (as well as a collection of other parking lots along highway 407).
For all Niagara’s obsession with GO trains, there is no reason to believe that these will provide inherently superior mobility to buses. Reviewing the “summer excursion train” schedule provides a fabulous example of this (see page 4 of the 2017 summer schedule here). The train’s running time from Toronto to Niagara Falls is 124 minutes (2 hours, 4 min), BUT, this is with a schedule that has far fewer stops than is likely with the future weekday train. How long will that trip take when we add Grimsby, Stoney Creek, Hamilton, and other LSW stops to the run? Meanwhile, Megabus’ running time to Niagara Falls varies between 105 and 155 minutes, with most running around the 2-hour mark. Even GO’s best travel time does not involve taking the train all the way: the winner is a combination of the limited-stop express train to Burlington connecting with an express bus to Niagara Falls: 114 minutes (leaving Union Station at 9am on the weekend; transferring to 12B at 9:54).
May I repeat: useful public transportation does not inherently rely on rails.
There are numerous oddities with GO transit’s Niagara service. We will draw attention to many of these in subsequent posts.
**Addendum: After this post was drafted, but before it was published, GO announced their June 24 service changes. One important change is the addition of six 12B runs every weekday. Let’s be clear: this is a positive change. Unfortunately, it does nothing to improve travel to/from St. Catharines and Hamilton. Also, it is listed as a “seasonal” (i.e., summer-only) change.