The journey back to GO Transit – We climb aboard the train as more and more riders are returning

With the gradual easing of COVID-19 restrictions, more people are putting on non-sweatpants, getting on GO trains and buses, and going to the office, as well as countless other journeys. So, Metrolinx News senior writer, Mike Winterburn, recently joined the Monday commute, with scores of other travellers, to chronicle what a return to normalcy looks like.

The GO Transit parking lot offers the first clue that people are on the move.

Sure, it’s not full like 2019, but there are certainly more cars than in 2021. Monday morning commuters find spots and make mental notes of where they parked (something that was not necessary during the months when front row parking spots were plentiful).

It’s a crisp 4C Monday morning and there’s a steady movement of customers at Pickering GO to board the 7:27 a.m. Lakeshore East train to Union Station.

After a COVID lull of two years, you can see a return to habits.

People are nicely spaced along the platform, mainly looking at their phones. It’s not packed, but certainly livelier than a year ago, or even last fall.

Customers await the 7:27 a.m. train at Pickering GO.
Customers await the 7:27 a.m. train at Pickering GO. (Mike Winterburn photo)

Boarding the train at this hour – other times and trips can be different – riders can sit, comfortably spaced, alone in a four-seat pod. At this point, the only people sitting together are those chatting quietly with their travelling companions.

Among them are a mother and daughter travelling from Durham to jobs at law firms in downtown Toronto.

Their new normal routines are different with Cathy – she asked that her last name not be used – working in a hybrid model (commuting every third day) while her daughter has been volunteering to go in daily since the start of the new year.

Cathy points to the plexiglass barriers between seats while talking about the safety measures she notices on GO trains, noting: “It’s a bit more comforting.”

A GO customer points to a plexiglass barrier
Many GO customers say they feel safer thanks to the plexiglass barriers between seats. (Mike Winterburn photo)

The two describe a rise in ridership, having noticed an uptick in during March Break, as well as more families going into the Eaton Centre.

GO Transit ridership continues to increase as many employers are slowly returning to in-office operations. The latest Metrolinx figures show GO Transit ridership is about one third of what it was before the pandemic.

There are some trips that are busier than others. In the morning rush on the Milton and Barrie Lines some trains are close to 75 per cent full.

To increase capacity, some existing GO Trains are being lengthened from six cars long to 10, to give customers more room.

That work is already done on the Milton Line and will be done on some Barrie, Kitchener, and Stouffville Line trips in early April.

Customers will also see a gradual approach to service increases as the team at Metrolinx continues to monitor ridership on each bus and train trip. Service will be added in phases throughout the year – bringing back some trips as early as May – aligned with demand.

A GO Train passes over a rail bridge
All Milton Line GO Train trips are now 10-car trains instead of 6

More service is being added on the Lakeshore lines and UP Express in April.

Numbers paint an interesting picture of the return to GO Transit, but so do the riders themselves.

Sarah Paulo, an insurance underwriting technician travelling from Ajax to Toronto, is one of the returning people. In fact, this is her first GO ride since the start of the pandemic.

“[After] being at home for two years, it’s nice to get back,” Paulo says. “I can’t complain on day one.”

Her first impressions of the train are positive.

“I noticed the signs and hand sanitizer stations, and everything seems good,” she notes.

“People are keeping their distance, which is great. It’s not overly crowded.”

On the Eglinton platform, waiting for the 8:01 a.m. departure, Matthew Torio, who works in Scarborough for Amazon, is headed downtown to pick-up a new computer for working from home.

Matthew Torio is heading downtown to pick-up a new computer for working from home. (Mike Winterburn photo)

He usually takes GO when heading into Toronto.

“I like the GO Train,” Torio says. “It feels like I’m riding on an airplane and it’s faster.”

This is the first full day of both Spring (Mar. 22) and partially relaxed provincial mask rules. Across Ontario, masks will continue to be mandatory on public transit until at least April 27, and everyone seen on board is wearing one.

Two passengers, provincial government employees travelling together, noted they have occasionally seen a few people without masks. One of the two men, Darryl G. – he also didn’t want his full name used – chimed in about their importance.

“I have to wear my mask because my wife is immunocompromised so when I see people who don’t wear masks, I feel a little bit uneasy,” Darryl says.

Not everyone is going to work. Some have much longer trips.

A snowbird, Dale MacDonald, is connecting from Guildwood to the UP Express, and a flight to Florida. From there, he will drive his car back to Canada.

GO customer sits in a seat with a mask
Dale MacDonald is connecting from the Lakeshore East Line to the UP Express and then catching a flight to Florida. (Mike Winterburn photo)

He is continuing to be a regular on GO, riding “not as much as we used to, but we’ve been out a few times.”

It’s not the first time Metrolinx News has struck up conversations with strangers on a train, but morning commuters are more subdued than visitors taking the UP Express from Pearson or Jays fans going to Rogers Centre.

They tend to stick to their phones or catch a few extra moments of shut-eye.

For two sisters, the GO ride represents the end of a family weekend.

Lynn will connect to the Kitchener Line and Guelph Transit bus, after visiting Kirsten in Rouge Hill. The two-way trip is her first on GO in months and it meets her high standards.

“I expected it to be reasonably clean and it’s good,” says Lynn, who, like her sister Kirsten, asked her last name not to be used.

Kirsten has been riding the GO every day for months, going to her job in a research lab at the MaRS Discovery District. She is noticing a rise in ridership.

“Definitely busier – as expected,” Kirsten notes.

GO customers getting off the train at Union Station
The Monday morning commute ends at Union Station with an orderly exit. (Mike Winterburn photo)

As the train approaches Union Station, there’s a real difference in how people exit. Compared to the old days, when people bounced out of their seats and crowded the doors, it’s much more laid back.

People are waiting for the train to stop and then slowly making their way out in an orderly fashion.

It’s a calm end to a relaxing ride.

Though also a steady return to more and more riders remembering old transit habits.

By Mike Winterburn, senior writer, Metrolinx News