British deckers in the Toronto mix

British deckers in the Toronto mix British deckers in the Toronto mix

Fly to Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis, then drive from Pearson Airport to the city centre and you will soon spot one of GO Transit’s distinctive green and white commuter buses.

Enviro500s are a key part of the interurban fleet for regional operator GO Transit in southern Ontario. Steve Banner reports.

A familiar sight on the highways that criss-cross the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, along with GO Transit’s trains they serve a population of more than 7 million spread over upwards of 11,000 square kilometres. Between them the buses and trains handle more than 57 million journeys annually.

An operating division of Metrolinx, Greater Toronto’s transportation authority and an agency of the provincial government of Ontario, GO Transit runs 394 single-deckers and 22 double-deckers says director of bus services, Paul Finnerty. While the former are all Canadian-built 45ft three-axle 57-seaters constructed in Winnipeg by Motor Coach Industries (MCI) and more like inter-urban coaches than service buses, the latter are recently-acquired three-axle 12.8m Enviro500 82-seaters produced in the UK by Alexander Dennis and are proving invaluable on GO Transit’s more heavily-used routes.

“We’re planning to buy another 25 double-deckers every year for the next three years,” says Finnerty. “They’re bringing us greater efficiencies.”

Persuading GO Transit to support the use of double-deckers was a challenge, he says, and he remains grateful to GO Transit president, Gary McNeil, for his vision and leadership.

“He became the driving force behind the idea,” Finnerty admits. “I couldn’t have convinced people on my own.”

So why were people so cautious about the adoption of double-deckers? Partly it was cultural – Canadians are nowhere near as used to them as the British – and partly it was practical.

“Obviously double-deckers are affected by height restrictions, and in Toronto that can be a real issue what with low bridges and overhead wires,” he says. “Because we run services to the city rather than within it that’s not too much of a difficulty for us, but we do suffer in one or two places.”

He cites a low bridge close to Union Station, the city’s main railway terminus, as an example. “However we don’t face any height problems along the major highways and that’s where we mostly operate,” he points out.

To ensure safety however the double-deckers are tracked using GPS and the routes they are run on are geofenced.

Going off-route triggers warnings in the driver’s cab and the GO Transit control centre and the driver is contacted by radio and instructed to stop immediately. If there is no response, the vehicle can be slowed and brought to a halt remotely.

Articulated buses might have been more readily accepted and were considered.

“They’re a good way to get additional capacity but double-deckers offer more seats – artics will typically give you just 70 – while occupying the same footprint as a single-decker,” Finnerty says. “As a consequence you can use the same size parking bays and workshop inspection pits.”

Another reason for not running artics he says is their comparative lack of traction in winter weather: and Canadian winters can be bitter. “In this respect double-deckers are much better,” he observes.

Furthermore, there was no need to raise the workshop roof to accommodate the double-deckers. There was sufficient clearance.

 “We’ve built several new facilities since we first introduced them and they’re all constructed to double-deck height,” he adds.

The Alexander Dennis buses are fitted with wheelchair ramps which can be deployed much more quickly than the wheelchair lifts fitted to the MCI vehicles.

No matter whether they are single- or double-deckers, all the buses GO Transit operates are diesel-powered aside from a pair of MCIs fitted with Allison EV 50 hybrid systems that have just completed a two-year trial. “We’ve tried compressed natural gas (CNG), and liquefied natural gas (LNG) too, but neither has been particularly successful,” he says.

One reason is the length of some of the routes the fleet serves. “As a consequence we could end up with our vehicles miles away from refuelling stations if we went CNG or LNG,” he says.

The MCI hybrids have the advantage that they can be refuelled with readily-available diesel.

Aside from one or two minor teething troubles they have proved reliable says Finnerty and produced a modest fuel serving. “They’d probably do better on fuel if they were on stop-start work but on commuter routes we don’t do much of that,” he remarks.

Unfortunately they are expensive vehicles to acquire.

 “They cost 50 per cent more than a standard diesel model and we’re not yet convinced that they’re a better solution,” he says. “However, we’re looking to buy some more in order to carry out further testing.”

The Ontario provincial government – “which provides our capital funding” – met the additional cost of acquiring the two hybrids. There is however no national government fund that supports the acquisition of cleaner, greener buses.

Public funding has been provided for extra construction costs over and above what would normally be incurred however for another initiative GO Transit has undertaken: the building of a new, environmentally-friendly garage at Mississauga just outside Toronto. It is one of five depots of varying size the fleet uses, with two more under construction.

Built from locally-sourced materials to avoid the environmental harm (CO2 emissions from trucks for example) that can be caused by transporting materials from afar, it boasts a green roof – one that is partly covered with vegetation – along with a rainwater harvesting system and a high standard of insulation to keep heating bills and the depot’s carbon footprint to a minimum. The water used in the bus washes is recycled.

“The building is on a brownfield site, and constructed on a concrete slab that rests on pillars to avoid the need to remove and transport any polluted soil,” says Finnerty. That sort of activity too can be environmentally damaging.

No matter whether it is vehicles or premises that are involved, Metrolinx has considerable buying clout he says, and uses it to aid certain smaller operators.  “We’ve got a joint purchasing scheme – the Transit Procurement Initiative – that municipalities and transit agencies only wanting to buy, say, five buses can sign up to,” he says.  

All those orders for five, ten or 20 vehicles can soon add up to 150 or 200, and the order is then put out to tender. As a consequence the 12-plus operators who participate benefit from a better price than they would enjoy if they placed their orders individually.

“There’s a good deal of discussion beforehand to get everybody involved to buy into the same design and that’s usually fairly successful,” he says. “It involves agreeing on, for example, the powertrain or seating configuration, but with scope for minor differences in detail.”

It is by no means the only programme Metrolinx is engaged in.

Led by Metrolinx, the government of Ontario is implementing the PRESTO card system at GO Transit and nine transit systems in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area as well as in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. An electronic purse, it communicates with readers on buses and at stations to calculate the fare for the trip which is then deducted from the balance stored and allows users to move seamlessly from one participating transit system to another.

With an eye to cutting congestion, another programme called Smart Commute advises employers and individuals on different commuting options (catching the bus, cycling, walking and so on) with an eye to cutting congestion.  Something that should definitely reduce traffic on the heavily-used route between downtown Toronto and Pearson Airport is the Air Rail Link. An express rail shuttle service between the two locations, it is due to be opened by Metrolinx by 2015 in time for the Pan Am Games, which Toronto is hosting.

Originally from Ashton-under-Lyne in Greater Manchester, Finnerty emigrated to Canada in 1974 at a time when the economic outlook in Britain was bleak and trained as a bus driver with the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

Responsible for bus, subway and streetcar (tram) services in Toronto itself, the TTC is owned and operated by the city. “The key difference between GO Transit and the TTC is that we bring people in and out of Toronto while the TTC transports them around once they’re there,” he says.

Climbing behind the wheel of a TTC bus was the first time Finnerty had anything to do with the bus industry other than as a passenger. Having driven one for six months or so he then learned how to drive a TTC subway train.

“I did that for a couple of years then worked in the subway control centre for six years,” he recalls. “I moved to GO Transit – the initials originally stood for Government of Ontario – as an operations controller in 1984.”

Thereafter he held a number of jobs within the organisation before occupying his current seat.

While double-decker buses remain a novelty in Canada, double-decker trains of the type GO Transit also operates – “we designed them ourselves and we’re famous for them” – are perfectly acceptable. That is something Finnerty and his colleagues have been able to capitalise on.

 “The fact that we operate both has turned out to be a great marketing opportunity,” he says. “‘Double your fun with GO Transit’, ‘We offer double the service’, ‘We’re twice as good as everybody else’ …. the tag lines are endless.”

Hopefully they will help persuade more and more passengers that going upstairs on a bus is just as acceptable as going upstairs when you are travelling by rail.