Chapter 1: Travel in the Toronto-Windsor Corridor

This section describes the range of transportation and travel options available in the Toronto-Windsor corridor, with a focus on the evolution of freight and passenger rail services. Historically, the majority of rail lines in the corridor were owned by freight companies, which necessitated the sharing of tracks and initially constrained the development of passenger rail service. Recently, more focus has been placed on improving passenger rail service, including infrastructure investments through Moving Ontario Forward to support increased track capacity and electrification, which will support GO Regional Express Rail (RER) and provide faster, more frequent passenger service. Further work will be required to coordinate all intercity passenger rail services, including GO RER, VIA Rail, and HSR. Work is also underway to rationalize (align and accommodate) freight and passenger rail services. Together these commitments will set the stage not only for improved rail service in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, but also for HSR service in the Toronto-Windsor corridor.

Rail Services

Track Ownership and Mixed Freight/Passenger Services – An Overview

The relationship between the owner of a rail corridor and companies paying to use the corridor often entails negotiations over use and service. In North America, the vast majority of rail lines are owned by freight companies that also operate their businesses on those lines.

When freight companies own rail lines, they give priority to freight trains over passenger trains. Freight trains can be as long as three kilometres and for freight businesses to succeed, these trains need to be kept moving. The movement of goods is itself key to the success of the economy and by its nature requires flexibility in its scheduling. When various services share track, capacity challenges and operational constraints are created for all of them, including for train schedules and the speeds trains can achieve.

In Southwestern Ontario, passenger rail services, including VIA Rail and GO Transit, have traditionally had to negotiate and share track space with freight companies, and specific passenger train paths are agreed to between the freight companies and GO Transit. Each additional GO Transit service that Metrolinx wants to introduce first requires negotiation with the freight companies.

Many of Southwestern Ontario’s rail lines were built or bought in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the Canadian National Railway (CN) and the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP), still the two main private freight companies operating lines in the Windsor-Toronto corridor today.

Starting with the introduction of the National Transportation Act in 1987, and continuing with the adoption of the Canada Transportation Act in 1996, both CN and CP closed unprofitable lines and sold others to freight operators (shortline railways) or passenger operators.

GO Transit, which is now a division of Metrolinx, purchased a number of the lines or sections of track to provide almost exclusive commuter services in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), including portions of the Kitchener GO line; some freight access rights continue to be in place on the corridors, although access is restricted to outside of peak passenger hours. The exception was a 14-kilometre stretch of track between Georgetown and Bramalea, which still forms part of CN’s main freight line and is the only non-Metrolinx-owned section of track between Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo. Metrolinx now owns 80% of the GO Train corridor network, which it has progressively purchased from the freight rail companies.

The Evolution of GO Train Service to Kitchener

GO Train service has increased over time to meet demand, and work is ongoing to continually improve service. Current efforts are focused on building infrastructure and on electrification, both of which will enable GO RER service and future HSR service. Of particular note for HSR is the evolution of, and plans for, the Kitchener line.

GO Trains were introduced by the Province in 1967, connecting Pickering, Toronto and Oakville along the north shore of Lake Ontario. In 1974, a new service was implemented between Toronto’s Union Station and Georgetown, which today forms part of the Kitchener line. More trains have been added over time in response to increasing ridership.

Initially, GO Trains operating on what is now known as the Kitchener line terminated at Georgetown. In December 2011, service was expanded west to Guelph and Kitchener, with two peak trains departing eastbound from Kitchener to Toronto on weekday mornings and returning from Toronto in the afternoon, with travel times of approximately 125 minutes. This service level remained more or less the same until 2016.

In September 2016, GO extended two morning and two afternoon peak train trips that had been running between Georgetown and Union Station to now also serve Acton, Guelph, and Kitchener. This doubled the number of weekday train trips between Kitchener and Toronto. GO also introduced a new express bus service running all day between Kitchener and the Bramalea GO station, timed to allow bus passengers to transfer to trains.

Moving Ontario Forward, GO RER and Electrification

In spring 2014, the Province announced its Moving Ontario Forward plan, committing $29 billion over 10 years to build an integrated transportation network across the province. This commitment was increased to $31.5 billion in the 2015 budget. Moving Ontario Forward ultimately falls within the largest infrastructure investment plan in Ontario’s history: a total of $130 billion over ten years for critical infrastructure. As part of this plan, on April 17, 2015, the Province and Metrolinx announced commitments for Ontario’s first RER network. The concept of regional express rail originated in Europe as a system to link suburban commuters to the downtown core.

The program includes implementing electric trains that run all day and in both directions within the most heavily travelled sections of the Metrolinx network, including a portion of the corridor from Toronto to Kitchener-Waterloo. Under this plan, core segments of the GO network will feature all-day service with faster trip times operating at expected maximum speeds of 160 km/h based on the number of station stops on each corridor. The track alignment design on the Kitchener corridor is assumed to accommodate possible speeds of up to 200 km/h, although faster speeds are assumed not to be precluded. The envisioned electrified GO RER services would offer frequent, all-day stopping services, either terminating at or passing through Union Station.

Under the 2015 GO RER budget commitment, the government allocated funding for the first stages of electrification of the Kitchener line as far as Bramalea, with planned service every 15 minutes. This commitment was expanded in 2016 to include all-day, electrified service to Kitchener.

Considerations and Implications

A main challenge facing HSR in the Toronto-to-Windsor corridor is the number of current freight and commuter passenger operators that share infrastructure, including VIA Rail semi-express services connecting cities with limited stops and GO Train stopping services serving multiple stations. With the expansion of GO RER on the Kitchener corridor, these challenges can be expected to become more significant.

Because the Province has indicated that the Toronto-to-Kitchener-Waterloo corridor should be served by a combination of HSR and GO RER service, a reference point for this study will be how these two concepts can best serve the travelling public and taxpayers in general. In the absence of a coordinated approach, there is a risk that current commitments and plans could result in three publicly-funded services (HSR, GO RER, and VIA Rail) all competing for passengers on the same corridor. The Special Advisor’s recommended approach seeks to mitigate this risk and provide the best overall connectivity for the travelling public through a service plan coordinated between federal and provincial services.
Union Station in Toronto was originally designed to accommodate long-distance passenger trains and relatively low passenger volumes; increased train services through this hub will require re-consideration of existing infrastructure.

Although significant improvements have been made in recent years to accommodate an increasing number of passengers and to better integrate local, regional, and long-distance services, the long-term capacity required to accommodate future GO RER and HSR passengers will also need to be considered.

GO RER and ultimately HSR services will require a significant increase in the capacity and efficiency of the Kitchener corridor and will only be possible if the majority of freight traffic bypasses it or is removed, allowing it to become a predominantly passenger corridor. The government’s preferred option is to build a freight bypass in return for Metrolinx assuming ownership of the portion of the Kitchener line currently owned by CN. This proposed solution has been termed “rail rationalization.”
On June 14, 2016, the Province announced an agreement-in-principle with CN that began technical analysis and planning for the construction of a new freight line. When built, the bypass will separate the majority of freight and passenger services, allowing CN to shift its traffic between Georgetown and Bramalea to the new freight line, as there is insufficient space in the corridor to provide for both freight and passenger services. Once it is complete, Metrolinx will own the entire Kitchener corridor and have sufficient flexibility to meet its GO RER commitments. HSR will also be able to successfully operate on the corridor once the majority of freight traffic is removed.

VIA Rail

Ontario’s plans for HSR will need to consider VIA Rail’s intercity services in Southwestern Ontario. In comparison with an HSR service, average travel times on the current VIA Rail system are lengthy, at 95 minutes from Toronto to Kitchener, 153 minutes to London, and 255 minutes to Windsor.

In 1977, the federal government formed VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger rail corporation. In the 1980s and 1990s, following budget cuts and declining ridership, VIA Rail’s services were gradually withdrawn from many communities across Southwestern Ontario. Today trains operate on two lines in the Toronto-Windsor corridor: the former CN North Main Line through Guelph, Kitchener, Stratford, St. Marys and London; and the CN South Main Line through Brantford and Woodstock to London, which then continues to Windsor. VIA Rail also offers one train trip per day both ways between Toronto and Sarnia. Additional trips to Sarnia are offered by an intercommunity bus connection provided by Robert Q Airbus from the London VIA Rail station.

Since 2014, VIA Rail has indicated its intention to acquire dedicated tracks to offer electrified “High Frequency Rail” (HFR) service in the Quebec-Windsor corridor, though details for HFR are not yet known. It has indicated that it hopes to attract private investment for the necessary infrastructure investments. Recent announcements include its intention to build new track in Eastern Ontario via Peterborough as part of its plan to acquire dedicated tracks.

The 2016 federal budget committed $3.3 million in funding for Transport Canada to further study the HFR proposal, and also committed $7.7 million for VIA Rail to proceed with pre-procurement and technical studies for fleet renewal and safety upgrades. At the time of writing this report, the federal government had not yet confirmed its long-term plans for VIA Rail in Ontario; however, it has publicly expressed interest in HFR and the potential to increase train frequencies in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor.

Bus Travel

The bus industry has played a crucial role in delivering transportation options for Ontario residents for more than a century. Ontario’s economic regulatory regime was established in the 1920s to ensure that intercommunity bus operators served both large urban centres and small, rural and remote communities across the province. These operators were almost exclusively private, and were required to subsidize their unprofitable routes or services with their profitable routes. This is no longer the case, and there have been reductions and discontinuances of unprofitable scheduled service routes for Ontario’s small, rural and northern communities in recent years as companies have started to require that their individual business lines be independently profitable.

Currently the private bus company Greyhound has operating licences for intercommunity bus services between Toronto and Windsor, which is one of their high-volume corridors. Greyhound also offers a number of daily bus trips to and from cities within the corridor. As of November 2016, these included

  • Toronto to Kitchener-Waterloo (21 trips)
  • Kitchener-Waterloo to Toronto (18 trips)
  • Toronto to London, and London to Toronto (12 trips each way)
  • Toronto to Windsor, and Windsor to Toronto (4 trips each way)

With the exception of Pearson Airport, Greyhound serves all the station stops proposed for HSR as well as a number of smaller communities along the route. Larger cities in the corridor usually have more than one Greyhound bus stop.

In 2016, the Province consulted with stakeholders and the public on intercommunity bus modernization, discussing whether to maintain the current approach to regulating buses in the province, or to pursue de-regulation. At the time of writing, no consensus has been reached among stakeholders on a preferred approach; however, the Government continues to work with bus operators, communities and other key stakeholders to establish a regime that is both fair to operators and better serves Ontario’s communities and the travelling public.

Within the GTHA and Kitchener, GO Transit also operates an extensive bus route network. It has multiple bus stops within cities and serves a number of smaller communities in the Toronto-Kitchener corridor, offering transportation options to an interregional market that cannot be served by GO Train services.

Air Travel

The proposal for HSR in Southwestern Ontario includes a stop at Pearson Airport, Canada’s largest and busiest airport. It is currently connected to Toronto’s Union Station via rail and served by the UP Express, but lacks rail connections to other Ontario cities.

Operated by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), Pearson Airport is a hub for approximately 443,000 flights a year, with 41 million passengers using the airport in 2015; the numbers are projected to reach 65 million to 70 million by 2043.1 While Pearson serves a number of regional airports, its main role is as a hub for long-haul domestic and international flights. It is the second-busiest international airport in North America after New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Currently, Pearson Airport is mostly accessed by car; however, the proximity of the Kitchener GO line to the airport facilitated the construction of the UP Express service between Terminal 1 and Union Station. Service began in 2015, offering trips to and from Union Station and Pearson every 15 minutes, with a journey time of approximately 25 minutes. The airport is also served by a number of Toronto Transit Commission bus routes, including an express bus service that connects to the subway system at Kipling Station.

According to the GTAA, only 8% of air passengers in Ontario take public transit to Pearson Airport, a significantly lower percentage compared to other world airports, as detailed in Table 1.1.2

Table 1.1: Public Transit Travel to Airports: An International Comparison

International Airport

Percentage of Public Transit Use by Air Travellers

Frankfurt Airport, Germany


London Heathrow Airport, U.K.


Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, The Netherlands


Kai Tek International Airport, Hong Kong


Shanghai Pudong International Airport, China


Source: Greater Toronto Airports Authority/Urban Strategies Inc.

GTAA information indicates that approximately two million people per year travel from London and Kitchener-Waterloo to Pearson Airport. There is no direct rail service to the airport along the Windsor-London-Kitchener corridor. People in these communities have to rely either on driving, limited bus and private shuttle services, or on local regional airports, some of which offer air travel options to Pearson Airport.

Current air travel patterns from Windsor, London, and Kitchener to Toronto are relatively low, comprising less than 1% of travel in the corridor. By comparison, the automobile serves approximately 93% of trips in the corridor and bus serves 5%.3

HSR service in the Toronto-Windsor corridor is expected to replace short-haul flights in the corridor, effectively freeing up capacity and runway space for bigger, more profitable long-distance flights. This has been the case for HSR between major European cities such as Paris to London and Frankfurt to Cologne, where rail has a dominant market share.4

The GTAA has recently released reports on its development strategy for Pearson Airport, which envisions transforming the airport into a multimodal transportation hub that would connect air, rail, bus, and rapid transit systems.5 An HSR station at Pearson Airport would complement the GTAA’s strategy to create a truly multimodal hub for Ontario.

Automobile Travel

The automobile is the Toronto-Windsor corridor’s most frequently used mode of transportation. Highway 401 is one of the country’s busiest automobile and truck routes, connecting Canada's busiest land border crossing, the Windsor-Detroit Gateway, to the Quebec border, and passing through Toronto. The 401 is a main artery for the movement of goods and commuters in the province’s road system. Private automobiles account for approximately 93% of mode share in the Toronto-Windsor corridor.6 In the GTHA alone, the number of car trips is increasing at a faster rate than that of the population: between 1986 and 2011 the number of trips made by automobile in the region grew 71%; in comparison, the population increase for the same period was 62%.7

In 2016, MTO announced the expansion of the current six-lane Highway 401 west of Toronto. Contrary to its original intent of reducing traffic congestion, evidence has shown that highway expansion actually leads to an increase in car use and associated traffic congestion and carbon emissions.

Another fact that cannot be ignored is that Ontario’s highways are subject to winter weather conditions that can impede traffic flow. Rail travel in winter conditions tends to be more reliable.


1 Greater Toronto Airports Authority. Toronto Pearson: an economic engine for our region and all of Canada; and Greater Toronto Airports Authority. Toronto Pearson Fast Facts.

2 Toronto Pearson International Airport and Urban Strategies (February 2016). Pearson Connects: A multi-modal platform for prosperity.  

3 MTO Preliminary Business Case Analysis. Based on 2011 Travel Survey of Residents of Canada (TSRC) data from Statistics Canada.

4 Dutzik, T. et al. (Fall 2010). Maryland PIRG Foundation. A Track Record of Success: High-Speed Rail Around the World and Its Promise for America.

5 Toronto Pearson International Airport and Urban Strategies (September 2015). Toronto Pearson: Growth, Connectivity, Capacity; and Toronto Pearson International Airport and Urban Strategies (February 2016). Pearson Connects: A multi-modal platform for prosperity.

6 MTO Preliminary Business Case Analysis.

7 Metrolinx (2015). Regional Transportation Snapshot, 2.

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