Rolling back the clock – The remarkable 50 year evolution of the GO bus

What a ride. GO Transit celebrates 50 years of GO bus service in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Here’s a look back at the buses and coaches that have hit the roads and highways of Ontario over the decades.

Let’s look into that ‘fishbowl bus’ your grandparents may remember.

Theses buses, along with a service called Dial-A-Bus, which you can learn more about in a future story, were some of the first modes of transportation used by GO transit to help move people.

The first GO bus first hit the road 50 years ago, on September 8, 1970.

Though they didn’t always look the way they do now.

Nor did it connect the region as well as it does today.

The initial buses were unveiled at Queen’s Park, and the service linked Oshawa on the east and Hamilton on the west, with a bus commuter service running north to Newmarket from Toronto.

GO’s first fleet was the GMC ‘New Look’ buses. Many Ontario transit agencies, and even the TTC, would rely on the New Look style that was both reliable and durable. (Dan Dell’Unto Photo)

They also had a very distinct, true to their name.

“They were commonly nicknamed the ‘fishbowl’ due to its large front windows,” says Dan Dell’Unto, a transit historian and photographer based in in Toronto.

He’s been following and capturing the evolution of transit vehicles over the years.

“These vehicles were originally introduced by General Motors in 1959 and quickly became one of the most iconic North American buses.”

They also operated on very different routes.

One of them was GO Transit’s Toronto-Newmarket-Richmond Hill intercity route, which was new at the time.

Photo of GO Buses on display at the CNE in 1970
The GM New Look suburban coach buses on display inside the Automotive Building during the September 1970 Canadian National Exhibition. (Ted Wickson Photo)

Upgrading to Coach

As demand for GO Bus services grew, so did its fleet and number of terminals. To meet this demand, GO launched new services including bus service timed to the arrival of GO Trains – making connections easier.

GO Transit purchased its first conventional coach buses in 1975 in the form of the Motor Coach Industries MC-8 model.

The coach had amenities such as reclining seats, luggage racks, individual passenger lighting and air vents as well as an underfloor luggage compartments. There was the option for onboard lavatories but being a commuter operator with shorter trips, that option wasn’t necessary.

The ‘80s rolled along and GO Transit continued to expand its coach bus fleet, turning to MCI for its new ‘A-series’ design, the next evolution of their coach bus line.

The look and sound of the bus was quite distinct.

“The model name (102-A2) sounded like a droid from a Star Wars movie,” says Dell’Unto.

“The front end was modernized and had a more powerful Detroit Diesel 92-series turbocharged V6 engine.”

Photo of a 1980's model GO bus
First purchased in the mid-80’s, the 102-A2 model would be a popular bus found on GO’s intercity runs until the final ones were replaced by newer MCI coaches in July 2006. (Dan Dell’Unto Photo)

The 1400’s would be a common workhorse bus found on GO’s intercity runs throughout the ‘90s and early 2000’s before they were replaced by newer MCI models in July 2006.

“These buses were unique, comfortable and with their single rear-axle, reliable in adverse weather,” recalls Anthony Pezzetti, who first joined GO Transit in 2006 as a bus driver.

“They were custom-designed for our operation and before changing these buses, many drivers expressed their enjoyment and preference to operate them, including myself.”

Pezzetti, who drove for two years, is now a Senior Manager for Bus Operations at GO Transit.

He says it’s hard to pick a favourite model but of the many buses in GO’s fleet over the years, the 1400s definitely stood out.

The late ‘90s and early 2000’s also marked the beginning of GO Transit modernizing its bus fleet and making it more accessible for all customers.

In 1999, the transit agency placed an order with Quebec-based manufacturer Prevost Car for 20 of their LeMirage XL-40 coaches.

These coaches were the first accessible buses in GO’s fleet, equipped with a curbside wheelchair lift that folded away into the body when not in use.

They were also the first new buses delivered in the new GO Skyline livery, featuring a stylized shadowed GO logo and an outline of the Toronto skyline at one end. They would also be the last units GO ordered with the classic silverside stainless steel body panels.

Photo of a 1999 model GO bus
GO Transit 1618, a Prevost LeMirage XL-40, is pictured on layover inside the York Mills Bus Terminal in October 2008. GO ordered 20 of these Prevosts in 1999, but opted for larger MCI coaches for future orders. They were also the final units GO ordered with “silverside” stainless steel body panels. (Dan Dell’Unto photo)

A familiar looking bus

In the mid 2000’s, GO Transit decided to switch things up and go with the slightly longer MCI D4500 coach bus, the most modern iteration of the popular coach design. This coach could accommodate 57 passengers rather than the 49 on the previous models.

Just like the Prevosts, they too came with folding curbside wheelchair lift for accessible passengers and wheelchair spaces inside.

GO bus at Union Station in 2006
Taken from Union Station in 2006, the bus parked here shows the revised, contemporary front end/headlight design similar to the buses we use today. (Dan Dell’Unto photo)

GO Transit would stick to this model for more than a decade. The D4500’s were reliable, and lived through a number of changes over time including new paint liveries, seating styles and digital signs inside the coach, to name a few.

In 2005, the model went through another facelift.

A new, revised contemporary front headlight design was introduced and opted for on all of GO’s new orders, dubbed the D4500CT.

Other changes to the rear engine bay also took place with a new engine introduced to meet emissions requirements.

2007 GO Bus
In 2007 GO introduced a new updated livery of its classic colours to replace the previous “skyline” paint livery. The “swoosh” livery was on all the new orders of D4500’s and the first few orders of double decker buses. (Dan Dell’Unto photo)

Fast-forward to 2013, as part of GO Transit’s re-branding under Metrolinx, a new colour two-tone green and white livery was introduced for GO’s bus and rail fleet. Two years later, GO would receive its newest and final order of D4500’s.

Modern GO Bus
The current two-tone green livery, the one many of our customers are familiar with today. (Dan Dell’Unto photo)

Double-decker

Traditionally, most transit agencies in North America have always used single-level buses.

“Double-deckers were popular for limited tourist operations around cities like Niagara Falls, Toronto and Victoria,” says Dell’Unto. “For the longest time, most transit agencies relied on regular coach buses.”

Popular overseas, especially in Europe and in the UK, double-decker buses posed problems for some roads – they were too tall.

The biggest problem was clearance issues with bridges and under paths, structures that weren’t originally built for the height standard of Double-decker buses.

GO Transit, looking to expand the capacity of its growing fleet to carry more passengers on busy routes, first set its eyes on double decker buses as a solution in the early 2000’s.

“GO was no stranger to the double decker idea,” says Dell’Unto. “GO had pioneered the highly successful bi-level rail car design in the late ‘70s for commuter use.” BC Transit had been operating double decker buses in Victoria transit service since 2000, and in May 2002 GO leased a new BC Transit Double-decker.

Photo of a trident model double decker bus
Yes, this bus is in the right city. Seen here is a Dennis “Trident” model built by TransBus International in the UK. GO Transit leased the vehicle from BC Transit to operate on routes in the Yonge Street corridor between Finch Terminal and Richmond Hill as part of an experiment. (Felix Tse photo)

The trials went well and GO Transit decided to place its first order of double-decker buses – A dozen Enviro500 models with Alexander Dennis, a UK based manufacturer. These would become GO’s first Double-deckers and would also mark GO’s first purchase of a low floor accessible bus design, allowing wheelchair passengers and those with mobility needs to access the main level via a short ramp, instead of having to deploy a side-mounted wheelchair lift on a conventional coach bus with stairs.

Among other features were onboard security cameras, power outlets for charging electronic devices, wheelchair accessible spots, and onboard stop announcement and display systems.

With the double-deckers, GO Transit introduced a special “geo-fencing” system, that would warn the operator and dispatch if a bus goes off an approved routing, and shut down the bus, if necessary.

First model GO Bus double decker in 2008
Brand new GO Transit Double-decker 8001, part of GO’s first order, undergoes test runs and driver training at Bramalea GO station in April 2008, prior to the fleet entering service. (Dan Dell’Unto photo)

The new double-deckers had a higher passenger capacity than a standard single-level coach bus with 78 compared to the 57 seats in the regular coach buses.

But their use was limited due to height clearance issues. They were restricted to operating on a set of routes that ran over the Highway 403/407 corridor, and on seasonal runs from Burlington to Niagara Falls.

In 2012, GO Transit was presented with a solution.

“Alexander Dennis, had presented a slightly lower height design that had been developed,” says Dell’Unto.

“These buses could now run over a greater variety of GO’s routes but still limited from entering some major terminals due to their height.”

But the redesigned version in 2016 was a game changer.

The new SuperLo buses measured 12.8 feet in height, allowing them to now access both the Union Station Bus Terminal and the Yorkdale Bus Terminal.

The chassis of the SuperLo were assembled in Vaughan before being shipped on a flatbed to Indiana in the US. There, the body of the bus was put together and completed before returning to Canada as a finished bus.

The SuperLo buses are longer and can carry up to 81 passengers.

Newest model super low double decker GO bus
GO currently operates over 300 low-height Double-decker buses, including 200 of the SuperLo design that allowed them to operate on a wider variety of routes. (Dan Dell’Unto photo)

At the peak of its bus service, prior to COVID-19, GO Transit ran on average 485 bus trips every weekday out of the current Union Station Bus Terminal, transporting around 13,600 daily weekday riders.

So while your GO bus trip may seem similar to rides of decades ago, there’s been a constant evolution of coaches and buses.

Story by Nitish Bissonauth, Metrolinx bilingual spokesperson, media relations and issues specialist