There is no central transit terminal around Hamilton and that is a problem

Hamilton is the major population node in the southwest GTA (Greater Toronto Area). Most transit services in this quadrant of the GTA have stops somewhere in, or near, Hamilton, but there is a problem: these services often do not connect with each other.

I have long sorta’ known about the disconnect in services, but the multi-nodal aspect of the problem never jumped out at me until working on the post about the disconnect between Hamilton and Niagara. Then, as I was creating a schematic map of the services in the area, the situation became obvious.

Hamilton area_hubs
The transit network around Hamilton is a spaghetti & meatballs arrangement of routes and hubs.

Essentially, the intercity transit arrangement around Hamilton is a collection of hubs. With the exception of Downtown Hamilton,* these are GO stations that are shared with other services.

*I opted to represent the downtown area as a single hub for simplicity. Most services use the Hamilton GO Centre, but otherwise express buses usually make frequent stops along King or Main. Also, some GO services use West Harbour Station instead of/in addition to the GO Centre.

Despite the convergence of multiple services in the Hamilton area, it is common for these services to call in to only one or two of the hubs. Given that the hubs are generally busy, it is certainly possible to access each hub from each other hub. This is not a You cannot get there from here issue. Instead, it is a Getting there from here is annoying and arduous issue. While some movements are facilitated, others are hampered by the need for multiple connections with unfortunate timing.

In the last post, I identified that it was needlessly complicated to get from Niagara to downtown Hamilton. This is also true of a trip from Niagara to McMaster University. More painfully, not being able to easily get to these places is a problem that compounds. This initial design flaw then complicates travel between Niagara and 1. Pearson Airport, 2. Cambridge-Kitchener-Waterloo, and 3. Brantford.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-Nia to Kitchener overview
Comparison of driving and transit from Niagara Falls to Kitchener

Remember this example – we’ll come back to it.

I could also add Guelph to this list, but with the loss of direct travel between Guelph and anywhere in the Hamilton area, this is a trip that could effectively be seen as impossible. (Unless one travels into downtown Toronto and then heads back out again – imagine if our road network forced drivers to take such circuitous paths!?!).


Briefly, if we were to try and make any of the three complicated trips above using only regional/inter-city public transport, they would all begin with a trip on the #12 to a station in Burlington, either Burlington GO (train) station or Dundas/Highway 407 Park & Ride. From there, an additional 1-2 vehicles are needed to even get to one of the hubs that serves as a departure point (i.e., downtown Hamilton, Aldershot, or McMaster). Making these connections is not only an issue of number of transfers, but also the wait involved with each transfer. Since the #12 is timed according to the Lakeshore West (LSW) trains to/from Toronto in the east, transfers in other directions are often randomly timed.

An example of travel between Niagara Falls and Hamilton GO

With the new “12B” express buses, traveling between Niagara Falls and Burlington GO station has improved significantly. As to be expected with an express bus, travel times now rival the automobile, scheduled at roughly 1 hour to cover these 74km.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-Nia to Burlington overview
Niagara Falls to Burlington: with the 12B express bus, transit is a competitive option

Despite this speedy first leg of the trip, things fall apart on the final 16km.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-Burlington to Hamilton overview
Comparison of travel options from Burlington GO to Hamilton GO Centre

From a first glance at GoogleMaps, the trip on GO between Burlington and Hamilton is *only* 32 minutes – possibly twice as long as driving. We will return to those 32 in a moment, but first, notice the timing: riders arriving on that express bus from Niagara Falls are waiting 22 minutes at Burlington GO before they even move.

Now let’s take a look at those 32 minutes. Of these, a quarter is again spent waiting, since the trip from Burlington to Hamilton GO typically involves 1) taking an LSW train to Aldershot, 2) transferring and waiting at Aldershot, and 3) taking the #18 bus to Hamilton.

Burlington to Hamilton GO Centre - Midday

Even though we are headed to a major transit hub, we need to pass (and transfer at) two nearby hubs before arriving. The total travel time is therefore stretched out to two hours.

Near misses

So why am I harping on this Niagara to Hamilton travel again? Let’s go back to that Niagara to Kitchener trip and focus on one part of it to see why.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-Nia to Kitchener map
Focusing on one of the “fastest” Niagara to Kitchener transit itineraries

From an initial bird’s eye view of the map, the most circuitous part of this trip is the detour via Mississauga. When instead counting time, and focusing more clearly on the segment around Burlington and Hamilton, we can see the inconvenience of traveling between these two.

Stanley Ave. @ Hwy. 420 Park & Ride to Charles St_text-page1
Details of the first half of the Niagara Falls to Kitchener itinerary. Notice the time and complexity of the double transfer in Burlington & Hamilton.

Note that Google suggests taking Burlington Transit instead of GO, a move that gets the rider to Hamilton quickly enough to take the #40 express bus at 1:21 pm. As an irregular rider in this area, I feel uneasy with this option (especially with the flag “Use caution – may involve errors or sections unsuited to walking”).  If it were me making this trip a first time, that transfer would be even longer than shown here because I would use GO.

What I instead want to focus upon is the way that the #12B and #40 buses pass each other within a few km, yet they do not connect. In the case of the all-stops #12 bus, it misses the #40 by even less – metres – with its terminus at the Dundas & 407 Park & Ride.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-around Burlington GO
The painful proximity of the near misses around Hamilton

Viewed individually, the isolated hubs used by each route might make sense – by stopping somewhere in Burlington, the #40 would be slowed from its mission of connecting Hamilton & Pearson – but when seen from the angle of trips that GO does not support, the status quo is absurd.

Access to information is also holding us back

As my exemplar of the absurd – or at least painful – fall-out of the disconnected transit hubs in the Hamilton area, I drew primarily upon a Niagara Falls to Kitchener trip. When I started to build the example, I thought that Google would at least provide me with itineraries where the final leg between Hamilton and Kitchener was direct. It seems that for whatever reason, Google’s algorithms do not pick up on these.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-Nia to Kitchener
According to Google Maps, one transits from Niagara to Kitchener via Toronto, Mississauga, or Brampton.

Since I know that Megabus makes that run (having crafted a southern Ontario bus map, n’ all), I work backwards, looking for the departures from Hamilton GO Centre and McMaster.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-MB Hamilton area
Proof of more direct options – if you can only get to the departure point. Note new website from Megabus Canada (more on that later)

Assembling the bits and pieces, shows that using either downtown Hamilton or McMaster leads to the same conclusion: departure from Niagara Falls at 1:43 (or 1:08, or 12:16) and arrival in Kitchener at 5:05pm. At 3 hours, 22 minutes, this is a full half hour faster than the fastest itinerary provided by Google Maps.

Hamilton hub post_supplemental-Nia to Ham
Niagara to Hamilton GO, to make connection
Hamilton hub post_supplemental-Nia to Mac
Niagara to Mac to make connection

In addition to the complicated hub structure in the Hamilton area, things go poorly when a rider has to be a full-on transit nerd to devise an effective itinerary.

Is one central terminal in Hamilton the best answer to this problem?

To be honest, I do not know. And I have no intention of pulling out my crayons to fantasy map a silver bullet.

Nonetheless, I can see a few potential options, and a central terminal is one of them. Another is the creation of additional through routes which would increase connectivity and frequency. An additional alternative would be better municipal rapid transit as a connector; a point that I sidestepped in this post because of space. A final option – and this is one that would have a notable impact on us from Niagara – would be to have direct service to the hubs on the west side (i.e., downtown Hamilton and McMaster).

Meanwhile, Metrolinx seems to be passing off the notion that the Hamilton GO Centre is the Anchor Hub. This claim seems a bit confusing since it emphasizes GO rail service when much of this will use Hamilton’s other station at West Harbour, and both stations are forecast to have rather low ridership (see pages 26-29, here). This confusing mix of messages does not leave me optimistic that this is a problem that is in the process of being solved.

11 thoughts on “There is no central transit terminal around Hamilton and that is a problem

  1. Shaun, I haven’t read up on this and since you’re the “Hamilton-Niagara expert” has HSR any plans to create some sort of central terminal once the LRT is done? As part of a network reorganization around rapid transit? Haven’t heard of anything….


    1. My initial answer to this question was “I don’t actually know.” So I put out a call for info on twitter and received a load of replies. See @UrbanSCleaver over the last 48 hours. At some point I will collate/synthesize that info.

      One thing that has NOT emerged from those exchanges: evidence of official planning for connectivity through Hamilton.


  2. I wrote 2 articles about the all-day GO trains:

    I wish that integration would happen quicker, though, with HSR following suit more quickly with their 10-year Rapid Ready plan. They tried to redo the HSR bus routes a few years ago, but failed in city council — which is a big shame. We will need to try again to fix the HSR routes, once the B-Line LRT forces that hand.

    It is indeed true that the topography is very challenging, and it appears we will need both corridors (Niagara corridor for extension to Niagara Falls, and Hamilton Downtown for convenient trips).

    Pros of Niagara corridor:
    – Toronto-Hamilton-Niagara service

    Pros of Hamilton Downtown corridor:
    – Downtown Hamilton + very close to B-Line LRT (stations is a walk of only 1-gotrain-length apart)

    The question is which one becomes the allday corridor, and the CP/CN negotiation affects this. Plus, I’ve now tweeted a brand new tweet (check it out, @mdrejhon) showing how close Metrolinx went to considering West Harbour as their allday station — they are still hesistant which station to use, even if officially they are confirming Downtown Hamilton as the allday terminus.


    1. Having had a busy last week, I just got to these articles now. A few thoughts:

      1) **GO is building a 300-car parking garage at West Harbour? In the center of an old city with a vibrant downtown???**

      That is absolutely anger inducing.

      2) I still fail to understand the obsession with the trains.

      In the second article you mention that the train “is very competitive the Hamilton 16 Express GO bus,” i.e., it’s slightly slower. When given the option between the faster bus and slightly slower excursion train from Niagara, I usually take the bus. I’m not talking about a hypothetical scenario: this is a choice that I make today.

      You continue, “…while providing a more comfortable ride.” Maybe. I guess the train has bathrooms (as do Megabus and Greyhound). If that really is the reason for investing in rail infrastructure, instead of the massive liberation in public transit access that would enabled through a similar investment in buses, then I cannot support this.

      3) I agree that the Niagara connection to West Harbour is a no-brainer.

      I note that this would mean that direct public transit access from Niagara to Hamilton would be a total of 8 vehicles/week, and only during the summer/holiday season. Although not worthy of celebration, I will admit that it’s better than the status quo. Given the West Harbour options of “parking garage” vs “a Hamilton stop on the Niagara excursion train,” I believe that GO’s choice to build the parking garage was erroneous.


    1. Have we got thoughts that someone might want to read? Darn straight we do.

      And to that effect, help us out with some more direction. We could talk about:
      1) History – how there used to be service until a few years ago.
      2) Current – a) the circuitous ways to make this trip, via Kitchener or Mississauga, or b) explore some theoretical current service, through an airport shuttle provider, I believe.
      3) Obvious – that there should be legit, frequent service connecting these points.

      Take your pick.


  3. If the train can make more stops and have a comparable trip time then yes, it is better. If the same train taking you from Niagara to Burlington also serves traffic between Niagara and Hamilton, and between any of these locations and St Catharines, then it’s going to be practical to run it more frequently than the array of express buses you’d need to duplicate it. This can also help make the train station the hub the region needs, and make it practical to time, say, a connecting bus to Kitchener, to meet the train.

    Also the electric trains support a higher top speed than buses and I think the plan, once the track work is done, is for times to be better.

    I’m not convinced two downtown stations are necessary. Acquiring part of a parking lot near Belmont would make it possible to build a track connection between Stoney Creek and the Hamilton GO Centre.


    1. @Eric L, thanks for the reply during a season where both Vince & I are overloaded with other engagements. Thus the humblingly slow reply to your comment (let alone the months since we’ve had a new blog post). To touch on a few points:

      I’m not convinced two downtown stations are necessary. Acquiring part of a parking lot near part of a parking lot near Belmont would make it possible to build a track connection between Stoney Creek and the Hamilton GO Centre.”

      I had to read this multiple times to understand what you meant. To clarify, you’re suggesting that there be a link from the CN/GO tracks to the TH&B industrial spur (which undoubtedly has an official name, but I cannot find it and will continue to think of it as “that weird little train track that runs across intersections”). Sure, if engineeringly possible, it would allow for a rail connection between St. Catharines et al. and the local transit-endowed location in Hamilton. Even so, I somehow doubt we’ll see frequent, high speed trains running the hypotenuse of Main & Gage.

      Given those…ahem…minor constraints, wouldn’t it be better to just run the buses – that we already have – in ways that encourage network connections?

      If the train can make more stops and have a comparable trip time then yes, it is better.”

      Does your claim still stand if this train only begins service in 2024? Even if there are only three trips/day? Even if it means $1B in infrastructure that could be better spent on other things?

      I don’t deny *the possibility* of benefits to train service. My issue is with the way that excitement about trains leads people to neglect basic fundamentals.

      This excitement is particularly acute in my hometown where: 1) the stigma towards bus-riding is high and 2) the reservation of road space for private automobiles is unquestionable.


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