In 1967, the Government of Ontario decided to try an experiment running a commuter rail service between Oakville and Pickering, with rush-hour service extending even further to Hamilton. The experiment proved so popular that only a few years later, it expanded to include several bus lines throughout the GTHA, and then over the next couple decades expanded to include the seven rail lines that we can see today.
The transit agency — later dubbed GO Transit for short — has been a smashing success, carrying 70.8 million riders in 2015. It's a relatively fast and cheap way to get around the region, but there are some big caveats, such as the fare system, that need to be addressed.
For example, someone travelling from Union Station to Long Branch would pay almost $5 to take the GO Train, or take the subway for only $3.
Pricing for GO Transit is calculated with a fare-by-distance method, with the intention that people who travel further on the network should be the ones to pay more than those who travel shorter distances. In theory, it's meant to be a fair system where people only pay for the resources they use. Unfortunately that's not exactly how it works.
When we break down how much it actually costs to travel with GO Transit, the results are somewhat baffling and confusing. To travel from Union Station to Long Branch costs $4.98 when taking the train, but you can travel to the exact same station on the TTC for $3 (though it does take almost twice as long). Metrolinx, the owner of GO Transit, has talked numerous times about creating a unified and sensible fare system for the entire region — but they have the option to begin doing so right now and have yet to.
The fare structure is systematically designed against people traveling shorter distances on the network. John Tory's SmartTrack plan will create GO Transit-like service on two of the pre-existing lines, but not on the Lakeshore West or East likes which see the most daily passengers. GO Transit needs to address issues like this to improve mobility in the surrounding communities within and outside of Toronto.
The way payments work for GO Transit is that each bus stop or train station is assigned a zone, of which there's almost 100. When the system was first implemented, it was designed to measure how far people travelled from their origin to Union Station, and wasn't thought out well for people travelling elsewhere besides the city centre.
Currently the lowest fare you can pay on the system using PRESTO is $4.71 for an adult fare. That'll only cover a very short trip, like Union to Bloor or Aldershot to Burlington. When you're crossing from a surrounding city into Toronto, it can be cheaper this way, since otherwise you'd be paying a double bus fare. But in most cases it's more expensive.
The stations in the chart above represent those that are between 20-35 kilometres from Union Station and represent just a few of the inconsistencies in the fare system.
You would expect that the further you travel, the more you pay for your journey, but this isn't always the case. Travelling 22.7 km to Old Cummer on the Richmond Hill line is more than a dollar cheaper than travelling the 20 km to Dixie on the Milton line.
That's not a one-off situation either, since above is only a sample of some of the stations in the network. The pricing for Port Credit, Cooksville, Erindale, Maple and Langstaff are all cheaper than travel to the next-closest station before them. This is even more obvious when we look at the price per kilometre where prices jump from $0.30 to $0.22 per km before rising to $0.30 and falling back down to $0.22. It effectively makes no sense how the transit is priced when there's so actual correlation between the distance travelled and how much you're paying.
The further someone travels from Union on any line, the cheaper it gets to travel (on a price-per-km basis). However, the Lakeshore West line stands out the most, where the price-per-km begins at an astonishing $1.47 for the shortest trip, followed by $0.46 and $0.35 to Mimico and Long Branch respectively.
Though GO Transit has been historically aimed at commuters, the Lakeshore West and East lines are different because of their frequent counter-peak service. They've branded these lines as usable for both commuting and recreation, but haven't updated fares to reflect that change.
In regards to Exhibition, luckily there is a streetcar route that'll take you right to the station from Union, but Mimico and Long Branch are both around a hour on the subway and bus. With its Regional Express Rail (RER for short) plan, GO is planning to add 15-minute two-way all-day service to the Lakeshore lines by 2025. They could begin implementing some parts of the plan right now, such as integrated fares with municipal transit systems. It wouldn't help to adjust the fares so shorter trips aren't being penalized too.
Most recently GO switched the way they did their fare increases from a flat increase per fare bracket (say fares between $5 and $6 increase by $0.10, $6 to $7 by $0.20 cents and so on) to a percentage. The set percentage is more aligned with the goal of getting people to pay by distance because it increases fares by more only when they get more expensive. It's a small, quick-fix solution to a larger problem that still needs solving.
To completely solve this issue, GO Transit should increase the cost of longer trips to be a more accurate representation of the distance travelled, while decreasing the price of shorter fares to promote shorter trips throughout the region (many of which GO is the only form of inter-city transit). Decreasing the base fare charged from over five dollars to something more aligned with the fare of the subway would go a long way for fare integration and promoting transit as a useful and inexpensive alternative to the car.