GO Transit goes golden

Written by John Thompson, Canadian Contributing Editor
GO Cab Single Level A

(Editor’s note: The following is the full version of a story published in the June issue of Railway Age.) It all began on a lovely Spring morning in 1967, Canada’s Centennial Year: Startup of North America’s arguably most successful new commuter rail service, GO Transit.

The “GO” stands for “Government of Ontario,” reflecting the ownership of the operation, and is also a clever play on words. In those early days, the legal name of the authority was “Toronto Area Transit Operating Authority” (TATOA), which was too much of a mouthful for the riding public to be expected to remember.

The initial operation, started on Tuesday, May 23 (the day after a Provincial holiday, Victoria Day) required 40 passenger coaches, nine self-propelled cars and eight diesel locomotives, operating on 65 route-miles. Today, the GO rail system consists of 656 coaches, 75 locomotives and 281 route-miles.

GO’s first service extended from Oakville to Pickering, two towns along Lake Ontario. Pickering was 25 miles east of Toronto Union Station; Oakville 33 miles. There was also very limited rush hour service to Hamilton, at the eastern end of the lake, 40 miles from Union Station.

It will likely surprise many readers to learn that the initial sponsor of GO was the Ontario Department of Highways. It realized, with commendable foresight, that continually expanding roads in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) simply would not work, from the standpoint of land requirements, cost, and simply not moving people effectively. It is well known that motor vehicle traffic quickly expands to fill the space available; it is impossible to continually meet the demand.

Canadian National (CN) had, somewhat reluctantly, operated limited commuter service in the area for some time, using 1920s-vintage, heavyweight, non-air-conditioned coaches. These were pulled by steam locomotives as late as the Spring of 1959. The operation, in common with most such services, was run at a loss, and CN had no interest in making improvements or sustaining the service indefinitely.

GO Cab Single Level AThe catalyst for launching GO train service was the opening, in mid-1965, of CN’s new Toronto (now MacMillan) Hump Yard, a few miles northwest of the city. This facility was linked to the Lakeshore line at Burlington (adjacent to Hamilton), and at the aforementioned Pickering. Most of the railway’s freight trains were rerouted from the lakeshore and onto a new access line north of the city. This action freed-up the existing trackage for commuter service.

The area at the eastern end of Lake Ontario, basically extending from the city of Oshawa, about 35 miles east of Toronto, to Niagara Falls, some 70 miles westward, has for many years been called “The Golden Horseshoe.” This name describes the region’s long-standing role as the industrial and fruit growing heartland of Ontario.

The area contains many industries, such as automotive plants, while Toronto hosts numerous corporate offices, e.g., banks and insurance companies, as well as being the Provincial Capital. Toronto was traditionally the second largest Canadian city, after Montreal, but has since secured the number one spot, with more than 2.5 million residents. It was on this stage that plans were made, beginning in the early 1960s, for the debut of GO service.

In common with many other cities, the Toronto area has numerous so-called bedroom communities; that is, outer suburbs where houses are more affordable than closer in. It was these areas, to some extent, that GO was intended to serve.

In 1962, the Metropolitan Toronto and Region Transportation Study, which examined land use and traffic in what was now 244 square mile Metropolitan Toronto, was tabled. One of the key recommendations was for a new, provincially-sponsored rail commuter service. Thus was GO Transit, as it became known, with its distinctive herald, born. As a sidebar it should be mentioned that three planned expressways in Toronto were subsequently canceled.

The Provincial Government initially considered GO as a three-year experiment; that is, if the trains did not prove sufficiently popular, the service could be terminated and the equipment sold off. It was accepted that the service would operate at a deficit, perhaps C$2-$3 million annually.

Expenses were held down as much as possible. Existing CN stations were used, or very rudimentary new structures were built. Additional trackage and signals were installed at GO’s expense. Part of CN’s disused Mimico Yard, about five miles west of Union Station, was taken over for a storage yard and maintenance shop. Heavy locomotive repairs and car washing were performed at CN’s Spadina Avenue facility, just west of Union Station.


Early Equipment

The initial eight locomotives ordered by GO were of a new design prepared specifically for the service by General Motors Diesel, London, Ontario (the Canadian arm of EMD, the Electro-Motive Division of GM). They were, in a nutshell, a modified version of GM’s proven GP40 model, with a lengthened frame to accommodate the auxiliary engine/generator set. The locomotives, which developed 3,000 hp, were designated GP40TC (the TC stood for “Toronto Commuter.”

The locomotives were initially numbered 600-607; renumbered 9800-9807; then 500-507. They arrived from GMD several months before GO’s debut, and were put to work in CN freight service.

Again, in the interests of economy, GO decided to start off with single-level coaches. A new design, somewhat influenced by existing Toronto subway cars, was developed and built by Canadian Car and Foundry in its Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario plant. This facility is presently owned and operated by Bombardier Inc., and still turns out GO coaches.

The 40 cars, 85 feet long, were built of aluminum to conserve weight, and rode on inboard bearing trucks. Eight were equipped with control cabs for push-pull operation. In addition, nine self-propelled cars, running in two unit trains, were bought for off-peak service. However, these were subsequently converted to coaches, partly due to troublesome engines.

The Early Years

At 5:50 AM on Tuesday, May 23, 1967, GO Transit’s first regular eastbound train eased out of CN’s red brick postwar Oakville station, towards the rising sun. On board were the Premier of Ontario, John Robarts; CN Vice President Douglas Gonder, numerous other dignitaries, the media and commuters. The first day riders included this writer, and friends Bob McMann and Ted Wickson, who had arisen at an unearthly hour and driven over from their homes in Toronto for this historic ride. It was certainly a delightful change to be on a first run rather than a last run!

As part of the festivities, first day rides were “on the house”! As the saying goes, the best things in life are (sometimes) free. By the end of Day One, some 5,000 riders had been counted.

At the time, GO’s service schedule required 20-minute headways during peak hours, and hourly at others time, between about 6:00 AM and midnight. Apart from the Oakville-Pickering service, two weekday rush hour runs were extended to and from Hamilton’s CN James Street station.

GO proved to be a tremendous success almost at once; within two weeks, four more trains needed to be added to relieve PM rush hour crowding. By August, despite the summertime vacation period, the service had already attained a daily total of 15,000 riders. A year later the total was 16,000, or 10 times greater than the former CN service. Any plans for cancellation went into the wastebasket of history.

During the summer and fall of 1967, due to problems with the self-propelled cars, and until the additional ordered coaches were delivered, GO leased two trainsets from provincially-owned Ontario Northland Railway to fill the gap. These comprised four arch-roof heavyweight coaches, with an ONR FP7 cab unit at each end. Some riders observed that the ONR coaches rode far better than the regular GO vehicles.

At Union Station, GO took over the former CN-CP arrivals concourse. Passengers bought tickets there, then passed through staffed gates, depositing their tickets in fareboxes. This method was followed at the other stations.

One of the incentives for GO riding has been the provision of free parking at most stations. In recent years, multi-story parking garages have appeared at the busiest stations, but the price is still the same.

With GO such a success, planning began for the next route, which would serve the rapidly-growing area in the northwest. The terminal would be the town of Georgetown, about 30 miles from Union Station, on CN’s secondary Toronto-London line. Trains would serve the northwest Toronto suburbs, as well as the city of Brampton.

The opening, on April 29, 1974, was executed in grand style, with ex-CPR 4-6-0 1057 piloting the first train into Georgetown. A small storage and maintenance yard was built across from the classic stone CN station. Patronage on this route, though, did not really mature until about 1990, after much further development had occurred. Earlier, in 1970, GO had launched its own bus system, to feed and supplement the rail service.

In 1978, GO trains arrived in Richmond Hill, a bedroom community on CN’s Bala Subdivision some 20 miles north of Union Station. This time the lead locomotive was CN’s magnificent excursion locomotive, Mountain type 6060, a 1944 Montreal Locomotives Works graduate.

GO Cab Single LevelBMeanwhile, other major improvements were in store for GO passengers. In 1979 the first bi-level coaches, including cab control cars, were ordered from the Thunder Bay plant to help cope with the ever-expanding ridership. They represented a new, unique design, jointly developed by GO staff and the builder, that has since been adopted by many other commuter authorities in Canada and the USA. The coaches were a true bi-level, eliminating the traditional shortcomings of gallery cars.

GO had tested gallery cars, borrowed from CP Rail (Montreal) and Chicago & North Western for testing on the Lakeshore Line, and decided it needed something better. Since their introduction, the GO bi-levels have gradually replaced all of the single-levels, which have seen further service elsewhere. Some single-levels went to the Ontario Northland, while others hauled Montreal-area commuters.

Autumn 1981 saw GO trains venture onto CPR rails for the first time, from Union Station to Milton, some 35 miles to the northwest on CP’s Toronto-Windsor main line. En route, they passed through the rapidly growing former towns of Cooksville, Streetsville, and Erindale, now part of the city of Mississauga. The Milton trains also offered a connection with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) Bloor-Danforth Subway at Kipling Station, in the western suburb of Etobicoke.

Two new routes were added in 1982: Bradford, some 40 miles north of Union Station, on CN’s Newmarket Subdivision, and Stouffville, 35 miles out, a small town northeast of Toronto reached via CN’s Kingston and Uxbridge Subdivisions.

Corporate Changes

In mid-1995, following the election of a Progressive Conservative (PC) government in Ontario, it was announced that there would be significant spending cuts. GO expansion projects were frozen as a result of this new policy.

Another major change, in January 1997, was the announcement that Ontario was turning over GO funding responsibility to the local governments served by the system. This announcement, naturally, was very unpopular with the municipalities. The government sweetened the proposal by saying that it was prepared to assume certain costs that were incurred by the municipalities up to this time. The funding responsibilities covered all of GO’s capital and operating deficits, and became effective on Jan. 1, 1998.

Then, one year later, a new, provincially-created agency came into existence: the Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB). It was comprised of Regional Chairs, municipal mayors, and local councillors from GTSB’s service area. GO Transit effectively joined the municipal sector on Aug. 7, 1999.

Following numerous and strenuous complaints regarding the perceived inequity of the new system, Premier Mike Harris agreed that his government would take back GO Transit as a provincial crown corporation, and would also invest $3 billion in public transit. The experiment in municipal ownership had been a significant failure; the GTSB was abolished.

The year 2006, though, would see the creation of a new super agency: the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority, which soon adopted the current, easily remembered name of Metrolinx. The agency, basically, has overall responsibility for planning a seamless, integrated transit network within the GO operating area. In due course, Metrolinx produced a regional transportation plan entitled “The Big Move.” A major role of the plan was the improvement of coordination between transit systems, such as TTC and GO, with control remaining at the local level.

GO became a division of Metrolinx in 2009, although its operating identity has remained intact. However, Metrolinx remains largely unknown to the travelling public. GO Transit is the operator of their trains, and has done so quite well for 50 years. This being the case, it would seem sensible to retain the GO name indefinitely, although it has not been applied to the Union Pearson Express service.

GO requires an operating subsidy, of course, and has since Day One, as do most public transit operations. The province understood and accepted this from the outset, and the three parties in power since 1967 have always been willing to provide it.

Operations, Present and (Possibly) Future

From the beginning, GO train operation has been centered on Union Station, that is, downtown Toronto, which remains a thriving and expanding business, employment and entertainment destination. There are, for example, several live theater venues within walking distance of Union Station, as well as several major sports attractions.

From time to time over the years there has been talk of a crosstown GO train service. The most likely candidate for this would be CPR’s North Toronto Subdivision across the central part of the city. This line angles toward the northeastern suburbs after it crosses Yonge Street, the city’s major north-south thoroughfare. A connection with the Yonge Subway’s Summerhill Station could be implemented, using the former CPR North Toronto station that survives on site as a retail store.

The trackage east of West Toronto Junction to the junction near the Leaside station site has been essentially freight only since 1930. CPR would most likely insist upon additional trackage and signaling; this could include widening or replacing two major bridges. Opposition to increased train frequency along this route could be expected from local residents. In short, it would be quite costly and difficult to implement.

Another possible cross-Toronto route would be CN’s freight access line that extends from Burlington to Pickering. The portion from just east of the city of Brampton, to Pickering, was built in the early 1960s to serve the railway’s MacMillan hump yard; it has always been freight-only. CN would insist upon numerous expensive physical improvements before it would accept GO trains.

As a result of these considerations, a cross-Toronto route, desirable as it might be, seems unlikely in the near future, given GO’s other priorities. In short, it may not come to pass until the need is seen as being overwhelming.

GO Cab Single LevelThat said, there has been much discussion recently about remaking GO as something of a local transit service within Toronto. This is been largely at the initiative of the city government, specifically Mayor John Tory, who used it as a campaign promise, dubbing the service “Smart Track.” At time of writing there is considerable uncertainty as to what form it will take. The concept arose partly because it was realized that there will never be enough money to build all of the rapid transit lines Toronto needs, and Smart Track was seen as a possible alternative.

An encouraging sign is that the federal government has recently promised a major grant to Toronto for transit projects that could include Smart Track, or something called Regional Express Rail. This level of government has, unlike the U.S., traditionally had little involvement with urban transit financing. That policy is changing, partly due to the perceived role that mass transit plays in improving the environment. At time of writing, it is uncertain just how far this concept of making GO more of a local service will progress.

GO Transit’s mid- to long-term planning includes rail extensions to Bolton, over the CP; Brantford (CN); Peterborough (CP); Uxbridge (GO-owned track); and Bowmanville (CP). There have, over the years, been numerous requests from the city of Cambridge to extend the Milton service westward over the CP to that growing city. The one definite extension, in the works, is the previously mentioned eastward extension on CN, toward Niagara Falls.

Implementation of extensions, of course, depends on ridership projections, funding availability, and priorities. Any extensions over CN- or CP-owned tracks always require substantial infrastructure improvements, insisted upon by the railways, at GO’s expense.

If GO decides to implement electrification during the 2020s, a very costly undertaking, route expansion could move to the back burner for several years. That said, service improvements (all day service, and perhaps weekend trains) are contemplated for several lines.

The expansion has continued apace with the never-ending population increases in the Greater Toronto Area. Rail service now extends north to the city of Barrie and west to Kitchener.

Future plans include extension of the original Lakeshore service eastward to Bowmanville, about 45 miles from Union Station. The Bowmanville extension would be very costly, as it would involve following the CPR Belleville Subdivision eastward from Oshawa, on purpose-built tracks, that would involve a bridge over Highway 401. This project is one of several that have yet to be approved.

A more definite, and affordable, project, is the gradual expansion of rail service from Hamilton to Niagara Falls, in increments. This would utilize existing trackage: CN’s Grimsby Subdivision.

The first section, from the new West Harbour station at James Street in downtown Hamilton, to a station to be built at Centennial Parkway, is approved and scheduled to begin by 2019. GO has been running a weekend/holiday service from May to Autumn between Toronto and the Falls since 2009 that has been quite popular. One reason for this success is the ghastly traffic jams that are common on the Toronto-Niagara Falls highway, the Queen Elizabeth Way.

The only regular passenger service on this route is Amtrak’s Toronto-New York City Maple Leaf, VIA having departed several years ago.

GO has assumed responsibility for Union Pearson Express, serving Pearson International Airport near Toronto. This was originally set up as a separate operation, but did not prove to be satisfactory.

Grade Separation Projects

Over the years, as GO trains have brought increased frequencies to the lines over which they operate, numerous grade crossings have been replaced with overpasses or underpasses, in the interest of safety. These projects are partly financed by the federal government, under a long-standing program that dates back to the 1930s, if not earlier.

In addition, GO has in cooperation with CN and CP eliminated a number of rail crossings. The first of these, begun in the late 1970s, was a flyover junction just west of Union Station. This was constructed to separate trains on the Lakeshore line from those heading northwest on the Milton route, launched in late 1981. The underpass was built with two tracks and space for a third, which was installed recently for Union Pearson Express.

A new underpass also takes GO’s Georgetown line trains beneath CP’s busy North Toronto Subdivision at West Toronto; the Barrie and Stouffville services, respectively, now travel underneath CN’s freight access line. Future plans call for taking the Barrie line beneath the North Toronto Subdivision. Part of the Georgetown route was lowered into a concrete cut through the suburb of Weston, eliminating grade crossings and reducing train noise for the benefit of nearby residents. The rail underpasses end delays to GO trains caused by waiting for long freights to pass.

Union Station Remodeling

In recent years, GO has also been involved, in cooperation with VIA Rail and owner Toronto, major renovations to Union Station. These have included a new passenger concourse for GO patrons, improved platform access, and a new platforms roof. The work at Union Station has been extremely complex, and is still ongoing.


• Number of rail stations: 65

• Number of stations shared with VIA: 10

• Daily weekday ridership: 227,000

• Miles of track operated: 281

• Amount of track owned by GO: 80%

• Number of coaches (all bi-level; seating capacity 162): 565. All GO coaches built in Thunder Bay, Ontario, by Bombardier and predecessor companies.


GO trains are operated with three person crews: two engineers, and a customer service representative, who is responsible for door operations, station announcements, placement of the mid-train handicapped ramp, and other duties as required. All train crews are Bombardier employees. CN and CP employees staffed the trains until a few years ago, but GO decided that using Bombardier would be more economical.


GO train fares are based on a zone tariff between two specified points. Categories include adults, students, seniors, children and groups. They are sold in the form of single trips, day passes (round trips) and monthly passes. The Proof of Payment (POP) system is used on trains, and is enforced by roving inspectors.

Many of the local transit systems that connect with GO trains provide discounted combined fares. GO, in common with many other operators, is working towards a mainly electronic fare system, the PRESTO car.


GO trains have a flawless passenger safety record; during the 50 years of service there has not been a single passenger fatality.

A Failed Project

The decade of the 1980s also saw service extended on an all-day basis to Burlington, and eastward to the town of Whitby; it was subsequently extended further eastward to the city of Oshawa, GO’s present easterly limit of rail service.

The year 1982 witnessed a daring announcement by Ontario Minster of Transportation and Communications Jim Snow: implementation of GO Advanced Light Rail Transit (ALRT). This would have been an electrified multiple-unit service using three-section lightweight cars. It was initially planned to operate the service between Oakville and downtown Hamilton, and Pickering to Oshawa. The gap in the central section would be closed at a later date.

Plans were also released for a line across the northern end of Metropolitan Toronto, on a provincially-owned power line right-of-way.

Most of the GO ALRT operation would have been on government-owned property, including hydro lands, thus avoiding the trackage charges levied by CN that the province felt were excessive. The MU trains were chosen as their lighter weight would reduce the cost of bridges and elevated structures.

The GO-ALRT system was never built, partly due to the estimated cost of $2.6 billion (1980 Canadian dollars), for infrastructure, even before rolling stock was factored in. Also, the city of Hamilton refused to consider an elevated GO-ALRT line along one of its main roads.

However, one lasting benefit from ALRT was GO’s construction of its own trackage between Pickering and Oshawa, on surplus highway expansion land. Since then, the agency has pursued an aggressive policy of buying up surplus track from CN as it becomes available.


Since the 1970s, GO has steadily built new, permanent stations of brick and concrete. The Union Station facilities were recently shifted to the west side of that structure, although this involves a longer walk to the TTC subway station. Fare collection is now Proof of Payment, aboard the trains.

The agency opened its own impressive maintenance shop, called Willowbrook, at Mimico Yard in the early 1980s, while expanding the storage yard. Additional yards have been built along the system as required. Union Station has storage facilities on both its east and west perimeters. A new satellite maintenance shop is being built at Whitby, which will reduce deadheading.

Over the years GO has reduced its dependence on CN for the provision of operating and maintenance personnel. Much of this work is presently contracted out to Bombardier.


GO’s original GP40TCs soldiered on until 1988, and were then sold to Amtrak. They had been joined in 1974 by an order of F40s; in 1988 a group of F59s joined the roster. The newest power is a group of MPI MP4PH-3Cs, rated at 4,000 horsepower. That said, about 10 of the rebuilt F59s remain in service.

During the 1980s, GO purchased a number of F7 cab units from the U.S. for service as cab control units; these have since been retired.

As GO’s passenger loads increased significantly during its first five years of operation, and with the Georgetown service expansion looming, the need for additional motive power was apparent. Thus, in 1973, an order was placed with GMD for 11 GP40-2L locomotives. They were numbered 700-710, and delivered over a two-year period. Sixteen FP7As were bought from the Ontario Northland Railway during the same time frame, for provision of Head End Power (HEP).

The next locomotives to join the fleet were 16 F40PHs, in 1978. These lasted for 12 years in GO service, then were sold to Amtrak in 1990. They were all retired by 2003.

In 1988, GO moved up to the F59, buying 41 units in various subclasses during the next two years. These were built by Electro-Motive Diesel of LaGrange, Ill., rather than GMD of London. During 2011, numbers 557-564 were rebuilt for continued service, mainly during peak periods. They will face retirement by 2018.

The newest locomotives in the GO fleet are MP40 and MP54 units. These offer a streamlined design with a curved nose to reduce wind resistance, and a full body cab. The MP40 develops 4,000 horsepower, vs. 3,000 for the F59, and has a top speed of 93 mph. The extra power was needed to haul 12-car trains; the older locomotives were limited to 10 cars.

The MP40s and MP54s were built by Wabtec subsidiary MotivePower Industries, Boise, Idaho. The newer version provides up to 5,400 hp, and has Tier Four-compliant engines, providing a significant decrease in pollutants emission. There are 67 on the roster, numbered 600-666. These locomotives are extremely successful, and GO has been quite pleased with them.

It was announced in 2011 that the Lakeshore Line would be electrified by the mid-2020s, along with part of the Kitchener route. This, naturally, would be a very costly undertaking, and its implementation is thus far from certain, especially if a different provincial government is in power (the next election is in 2018).

Nevertheless, there is no question that GO service is absolutely invaluable and extremely popular, and will continue to expand in some form, far into the future.

Thinking back to that exciting and optimistic day in May 1967, when GO service began, it may be appropriate to close with an analogy from a famous movie: “Build It, and They Will Come.”




































































































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