The 40 year bus ride – GO Transit veteran recalls days of customers smoking on vehicles and having to make emergency repairs next to busy Ontario highways

Chris Johnson knows GO – especially the massive buses that have moved millions of people over the decades. As a bus mechanic for the past four decades, while not sitting in the driver’s seat, he’s had a rare view of the changes transit has undergone over generations. Things used to be bumpier, louder and the seats a bit stiffer. Here, he and his son talk to Metrolinx senior manager of media, Anne Marie Aikins, about his own voyage during a lengthy career – as well as why the elder Johnson always arrives an hour before his shift begins.

Chris Johnson keeps time in a trunk.

It sits at his work station at GO Transit’s Steeprock bus garage, in Toronto’s east end, and is filled with memories and mementos of a transit career that stretches back 40 years. That amount of time spent at in any occupation – whether toiling at an insurance company or putting shingles on roofs – allows for a certain rare perspective of how things have changed.

Some of you may have ridden with GO Transit for as long as Chris has been expertly wielding his tools for us. In many important ways, he – and many others like him – has quietly been there beside you. You just have never met before.

Image shows Chris posing in front of a tool chest.

Captured in a Polaroid image – Chris, in front of his trusty tool kit, at work for GO in the 1980s. (Chris Johnson photo)

That’s not some clever motto or bit of hyperbole.

It’s been his job to keep Go buses safely on the road. And if your vehicle ever broke down, it was someone like Chris who was on hand to repair it – in some cases, years ago, working underneath the behemoths as they occasionally sat crippled along busy Ontario highways.

I recently say down with Chris – along with his son Dave because, frankly, his dad is a working man of few self-serving words – and asked the elder Johnson to do a bit of unpacking. To go through his memories, and that trunk where he keeps old photos and keepsakes, and take us back to where he started his own GO journey.

If you’ve been a loyal GO customer for many years, some of his recollections will be familiar – including days when cigarette smoke filled the inside of buses. Though some of the things he most recalls, we hope, talk about how dedicated he has been to generations of strangers on buses he’s largely never met.

To set the stage, Chris starts his day in the middle of the night and prefers to arrive a full hour before he starts his shift at 5:00 a.m. This gives him time to relax and enjoy his first coffee of the day. That means he usually wakes up at 3:00 a.m. before he heads to Steeprock from his home in York Region.

Now, back to unpacking that trunk, filled with time.

AMA: What brought you to GO Transit?

Chris: That’s a funny story because I blame my wife. She saw a job ad in the Toronto Star, filled out the application and I signed it. Before I knew it I was getting called in for an interview and landed myself the job. I was so excited and clearly remember my first day on March 16, 1981 in the Wilson and Dufferin yard (that was the head office for GO back then).

Dave: We used to visit Dad at his worksite every year during GO Family Days. We’d ride the trains and buses. I remember feeling so excited and proud of my Dad’s job.

AMA: What are some of your earliest memories and some of the biggest changes?

Chris: The model of buses changed over years — first we had Prevost and later GM highway and city coaches and then the MCIs and Double Deckers. When buses broke down on the highway, we’d hop on another bus and drive out to fix them on the side of the highway. That’s all changed. Highways are bigger and much too busy now so it’s safer to return the bus to the shop to repair it.

Smoking — that was a big change. It became illegal (to smoke in transit vehicles) in 1990 but GO changed it’s policy some time in the early 80s. We used to have smoking sections like in airplanes and restaurants but we finally banned it outright. The windows on the bus didn’t open so the air quality was terrible – but the worst was the butts all over the floor and window sills and butt burns on the seats. It was terrible. So glad times have changed so dramatically now.

Dave: Dad’s clothes used to smell of smoke so we were glad when it was banned too.

Chris stands in front of a bus.

In another Polaroid shot, Chris is seen standing in front of a New Flyer D40 GO bus. The one to the right is a GM. (Chris Johnson photo)

AMA: Is there a day that really sticks out in your mind?

Chris: There was one in particular that will forever stay in my mind. I had to go to an accident on the QEW when a bus with customers on board was hit three separate times by cars. I think it was in the late 1980s. There were lots of passenger injuries mostly minor but the drivers in the cars involved I’m afraid didn’t do as well. It was very foggy and our bus driver had stopped because of an accident ahead and people were just driving too fast or not paying attention and drove right into the bus. Three separate times. Really scary sight.

AMA: When many of us went into lockdown to protect our health, you and your colleagues continued to work everyday during the COVID-19 pandemic in spite of the risks. First, thank you for your commitment to public service. Secondly, do you remember what it was like during previous pandemics?

Chris: Thank you, it’s been my privilege and honour to work for GO. I sure do remember other pandemics like working during the time of SARS and H1N1. There were all kinds of precautions we put in place and extra cleaning and I remember how nervous customers and other staff were. But nothing like today during COVID. Back then we didn’t lose any of our riders—they kept coming all the way through those pandemics because work continued. Nothing was shutdown like what has happened with COVID. I think we learned a lot from those experiences.

Now we are all wearing masks at work and on transit and taking all kinds of precautions including extra cleaning, keeping a distance and monitoring our health. We have to do a health check everyday. It makes me nervous but we’ve adapted.

We just come to work and try not to worry about it or dwell on it. The buses still need to be maintained to ensure they are fit for the road at all times.

Dave: Dad may not be nervous but I worry about him all the time. We all do. I really hope riders wear masks or face coverings and do their part to keep each other safe. One of those people you’ll be helping protect may be fathers and their families want them to stay safe, to come home safe everyday.

Chris standing in his backyard garden holding a drill

Chris standing in his backyard garden – forever a handyman (Chris Johnson photo)

AMA: You still look young and young at heart. Is retirement in sight for you in the near or distant future?

Chris: (chuckling) Well my wife worries about that a lot. She doesn’t know what she will do with me home every day. But I am thinking about retirement in the coming year as I complete my 40th year with GO. 40 years is a long time.

Dave: My Mom does wonder what she’ll do with Dad home everyday but I have no doubt he’ll keep busy.

And probably still get up really super early.

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, Metrolinx senior manager, media