As gas prices continue to hover at record highs, this week’s announcement that the provincial government is investing in improved GO train service to the Greater Golden Horseshoe — including Barrie — is good news for those who regularly depend on the service.
The provincial government announced Tuesday that it has awarded a contract to ONxpress Transportation Partners to modernize and transform the GO rail network and provide frequent, two-way, all-day service in the region.
The project, which is expected to generate thousands of new jobs and create economic opportunities across the region, will include the addition of over 200 kilometers of new track and the electrification of over 600 kilometers of track.
A new fleet of electric trains will also be introduced which could reach speeds of 140 kilometers per hour between stations.
The contract is valued at around $1.6 billion, said Kimberly Truong, deputy senior adviser for the Department of Transportation.
Electrification works — including at Allandale station in Barrie — should not begin until the end of the two-year development phase.
Work to upgrade the rail corridor to a second set of tracks has already begun between Toronto and King City, Truong explained, noting that the further widening of the corridor to Aurora and localized through tracks between Aurora and Barrie will start after the development phase.
“There has been a reduction in service in the evenings and on weekends, as work is carried out at night and on weekends,” Truong said.
Once the work is complete, Truong said Barrie South and Allandale Waterfront stations will get two-way, all-day GO service every 30 minutes as part of the expansion.
Metrolinx, the Crown agency of the Government of Ontario that manages and integrates road and public transportation across much of the province’s Golden Horseshoe region, and transportation partners ONxpress are set to enter a 24-month development phase to work together on design, early surveys, schedule optimization and initial major construction work.
This work will also include the delivery of overhead electrification, a new fleet of electric trains, improved train control systems and widened tracks and structures along the corridors to allow for potentially much higher frequencies than pre-pandemic service. .
The project will also include the operation and maintenance of the GO rail network.
Jennifer Evans recently started commuting between Barrie and downtown Toronto a few times a week. Although she had the option of driving, given the rising price of gas, she chose to take advantage of the GO train.
Evans said any improvements would be good for commuters, but added for those who find themselves traveling longer distances, she would like to see more than just more trains as part of the project’s end goal.
“For me, it’s not just about additional trains. Every 45 minutes is fine. It would be nice if a few of them were express,” she said.
With more and more people returning to the office, Evans says a few regular express trains would go a long way to reducing travel times.
Barrie-Innisfil MP Andrea Khanjin said she thinks the news will have a big impact locally.
“We saw that when the GO train first arrived in Barrie after years of waiting, it was really well received by many local residents, especially commuters,” she said. “There are still a lot of people who have to commute to work, so if we can make that commute a little bit easier, more flexible and faster, that means a better quality of life for those people, because they can spend this time with their families and in recreational activities.
To achieve this, that means transportation systems need to be speeded up, Khanjin added.
“What we have announced … is exciting news for our region and our community as it means we are preparing infrastructure across the Greater Golden Horseshoe to be able to upgrade all trails,” the MPP said. “We know that electrification has to happen so that we have faster trains and trains more often.
“This announcement is welcome news, as it is the infrastructure and foundational work that we need to start building now so that we can respond to growing communities like Barrie. — and surrounding areas such as Innisfil — to be able to get more reliable and faster GO rail transit,” added Khanjin.
Although many local commuters would like to see an express train leave Barrie, Khanjin acknowledged that while it’s something she would also like to see, it’s not yet planned.
“Let’s be realistic. There is infrastructure that we need to build before we get there and track electrification is definitely part of that,” she said. “We can’t put the cart before the horse here and we really need that electrifying power of the tracks to get people moving and for us to get — whether it is an express train or several local train schedules — this infrastructure is essential.
The improvements will not only get people from Barrie and Innisfil to where they need to go, but will also help bring more people north, Khanjin said.
“We have a beautiful waterfront and the project…and the Allandale Station…will be a great ‘Welcome to Barrie’ initiative,” she said. “The GO train will be at the beautiful Allandale station, but we’re also moving Barrie Transit there.
“If you come as a visitor, not only is the first thing you see on our beautiful waterfront, but you are also connected to Barrie Transit to take you wherever you need to go,” Khanjin added. “Luckily, when people arrive…they have access to our great downtown: restaurants, entertainment and theatres. They also have access to lake recreation and believe it has great potential to bring more people to the North.
Construction is expected to begin in 2023 with plans to add additional services over time from 2025-26. The province is also moving forward with the remainder of GO Rail’s early expansion work as well as off-corridor projects, which include building new corridor infrastructure and improving and expanding infrastructure and existing stations.