Centralized booking: Low hanging fruit?

In our posts, we the dudes have ranted often about the disconnected nature of intercity buses in this province; disconnected in the sense that logical routes have little to no service (EG Hamilton-KW/Cambridge) and disconnected in that operators both public and private do not exist together as one system.

We created our map because as bus users ourselves, we wanted to see how Ontario’s bus routes worked together, especially since the public sector has been dropping the ball on this since at least the early 1990’s when it stopped publishing an intercity bus map for the province.

Without putting too fine a point on this, us two dudes were able to piece together a map on our own time for free and even if the result isn’t pretty, people can glance at our work and maybe figure out where they want to go. While the MTO really should still be publishing a map, bottom-up up project was doable with publically available info on the internet.

What if, knowing how to go somewhere, a prospective passenger wants to buy tickets? It works fine if the route is all on one carrier; let’s say for illustration sake, Greyhound from Toronto to Ottawa. However, what if this person wants to, I don’t know, somewhere in Southwestern Ontario (could be Woodstock, could be London etc) to Niagara. This really isn’t a niche thing, with colleges and universities as well as tourism; people all over the province want to come to Niagara. The problem is, in order to do so, our hypothetical rider would need to buy two different sets of tickets on at least two operators (Greyhound and Coach Canada) depending on where in Niagara they wanted to go. Wouldn’t it be great if, in order to be licensed to operate on Ontario highways, bus operators had to participate in an Ontario wide ticketing system? This wouldn’t stop them from having their own websites and tickets of course, but would also allow for the purchase of through trips on multiple carriers without having to do the research oneself.

Is this just a pipe dream? Maybe not. In the UK, the national railway service was privatized in the 90’s. Each region of the country was broken up into franchises awarded by that country’s Department for Transport. In addition to the portions of the country given to them by franchise, train operators are also able to service other areas but need to apply for this service, so that schedules can be worked out for station platforms and sections of track. Because there are so many operators (24 as of 2017) a trip between different points in the country often involves multiple operators. Unlike for buses in Ontario, a traveler can book tickets for multiple British train companies on one site! The National Rail Enquiries website, allows for through tickets to be bought. For example, let’s say you wanted to go from Bristol Temple Meads (my station when I lived in the UK) to Stanstead Airport. This is a common trip because Stanstead is the home airport for many European low-cost airlines. The journey involves using two operators; both the Great Western Railway and the Stanstead Express. Let’s look at what happens when one books a ticket.

Journey Planner - Trains Times and Fares - National Rail Enquiries-page-001

Oh my goodness, it’s magic, your ticket is valid for both operators! Hell, the National Rail Enquiries even publishes a map. Crazy right? I wasn’t clear on how to find the history of this service, eg was it an initiative of the train companies themselves or was is something legislated by the national government but now it is run by the train companies themselves working as a consortium.

However it happened, the service is a lifesaver when making multi operator journeys, something that, in Ontario, would be extremely difficult.

Since we dudes are in the business of “ideas to make bus travel less shitty” we propose a central booking system for Ontario bus companies. We’d rather not impose something on the operators; for better or worse the public sector is not directly involved in running buses outside of the GTA and it makes little sense to piss them off. We’d love to have the MTO take the lead on having this ticketing system negotiated with the bus companies but it doesn’t need to directly run the site; National Rail Enquiries is, as you know, run by the firms without the UK transport department at all. For Ontario, with little precedent for cooperation between companies we think the MTO could serve as an “honest broker” in setting up such a ticketing system, negotiating with each company to come on board and making sure each company receives the correct revenue from a multi operator ticket.

Like a lot of ideas on our site, maybe this sounds like a pipe dream but the implementation of is, I think, not a ridiculously difficult thing. Maybe somebody wants to start a conversation with an MPP candidate? No, right now bus riders don’t have political power but why not get them thinking (and a bit worried) about what would happen if we did!


9 thoughts on “Centralized booking: Low hanging fruit?

  1. Being an very old dude…. I seem to vaguely remember that, when I was a kid, different bus companies would collaborate with each other to help their passengers get from point A to point B to point C, even if the B-to-C part of the trip meant using another company’s buses…

    What happened to that?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @Robert Mackenzie said: “I seem to vaguely remember that, when I was a kid, different bus companies would collaborate…”

      The above comment is proof that the holdup to things being better is a lack of willingness, not a lack of technology.


    2. When I was in BC this past fall, during the forest fires, my connecting bus in Kelowna (part of my trip from Vancouver to Penticton) was delayed due to visibility. The Greyhound ticket agent was going to try and help all of us waiting at that station get on local buses down to Penticton using Greyhound tickets. It certainly doesn’t seem to be official policy anymore though, the guy was just being nice to a bunch of tourists….


  2. Hey Vince,

    I thought you were going all “pie-in-the-sky” by bringing up this possibility (as simple as it should be) but you make a pretty good case. I echo that call that the MTO should take the lead. And the party that I blast all my friends to vote for in May is the party that takes the lead to get the MTO to take the lead…

    Anyway, here are a few thoughts that are unrelated to the upcoming provincial election:
    1. I *thought* that Ontario Northland tickets sometimes come up when one searches itineraries for Northern Ontario on Greyhound. I’m in a weak internet zone, so I don’t have the bandwidth to check this now, but I seem to remember seeing that pattern.

    2. It’s possible to buy GO (rail) tickets from VIA. I don’t think they incorporate bus stops/stations into their ticketing website, but at least that minor interoperability is something. I keep meaning to check if AMT tickets (Montreal’s GO) are also available.

    3. As absurd as it seems, it is NOT always possible to buy a multi-leg trip on a single operator. I was recently shopping for Niagara Falls to Montreal tickets (two common Megabus routes). According to their ticketing function, it’s a “you cannot get there from here” situation – even though you clearly can. I wrote Megabus about this and received a response that was full of fluff and void of substance.


    1. Hi Shaun,

      On (admitted a very brief) internet search of the Greyhound website, it doesn’t seem possible to get Ontario Northland tickets. I tried to book a trip from Toronto to New Liskeard, which is a Northland route I’ve actually done, and it shows no results.

      Regarding VIA and AMT (or is it RTM now?) the website does say VIA will sell RTM tickets along with VIA ones….so at least these two public agencies seem to realize people might like to take other trains from *gasp* a train station.

      The Megabus stupidity you mention is exactly why MTO should take the lead. Question is, how do we make this happen?


  3. The mention of Megabus is a hint for why this isn’t widely done on Ontario buses. Megabus doesn’t sell connecting tickets on purpose. This is the same reason that Ryanair will not sell you tickets for a Berlin-Stansted-Dublin trip. It’s because when they sell a connecting ticket, they’re responsible for the delays and have to either rebook you or hold the connection. If you buy a Megabus ticket from Niagara to Toronto and another ticket from Toronto to Montreal, and your Niagara bus is late because there happened to be traffic on the QEW and you miss the Montreal bus, Megabus will shrug and tell you to buy another ticket to Montreal (at last-minute prices of course). Good for Megabus, not so good for the people.


    1. Fair enough. But I have 2 thoughts on that:
      1. If you’re planning a trip through the Megabus website, it’s not even obvious that you could travel between Niagara and Kingston or Niagara and Montreal. It makes me wonder how many potential riders use the site and think “ah well, that’s not going to work.”
      2. If Megabus would sell a Montreal to Niagara ticket, I might still use Megabus to travel from Montreal to Niagara. As of now, I typically use a rideshare to Toronto and then GO to Niagara.

      Their system is good for a Megabus that wants to be lazy and only deal with the most captive of riders. From the perspective of the people, their mediocrity is intriguing, but it leads us to find other (better) ways to get home.


      1. I agree, but for better or worse, that is the model. Low-cost carriers do point-to-point. Ryanair greys out all the possible connections: https://imgur.com/10RTdna I guess maybe yield management is easier to do that way? Dunno.

        I agree it would be better for purposes of sane transportation policy to have centralized booking available. Frankly I’ve given up on any regional or long-distance bus service in Ontario doing sensible things. Greyhound & co. don’t understand network effects or don’t care, and the MTO was previously busy planning commuter rail parking lots in fields and I presume they’re currently busy planning widening freeways to 30 lanes or something.


      2. But to not be entirely negative: as far as I can tell, it is now easier and more feasible for individual people or small non-government groups to develop these resources themselves. A bus map like this one is a perfect example. With some effort it’d also be possible to create an independent trip planner for those Woodstock to Niagara trips. It probably wouldn’t do booking, but it’d at least tell you the option exists.


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