MUSKOKA – A passenger rail study has morphed into the catalyst for a new bus service between Muskoka and Barrie.
Dave Powley, co-chair of the Committee Promoting Muskoka Rail Travel, said his organization completed a transportation study about a year and a half ago to see what people were looking for in passenger train service in the region.
But, he said, it discovered more than it expected.
“We discovered that the three major groups that would use an improved train service were working adults, seniors and the 900-plus individuals who go outside Muskoka monthly for medical appointments,” said Powley.
When the province announced in March that it would cancel the publicly-funded Ontario Northland passenger rail service by September, Powley spoke with the District of Muskoka about setting up an alternate bus service to get Muskokans to medical appointments in Orillia and Barrie.
The result was the new Corridor 11 Bus operated by Hammond Transportation with the support of the District of Muskoka’s transportation planning committee.
“At first we were going to ask Ontario Northland if they were interested in providing the service, but nobody knows what’s going on with them, so I phoned Greg Hammond (of Hammond Transportation) and invited him to the meeting,” he said.
Starting Sept. 24, the Corridor 11 Bus will run as a pilot project Monday to Friday twice daily from Huntsville to Barrie and back, making stops in Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, Washago, and Orillia.
Southern stops include Orillia Soldiers Memorial Hospital, Georgian College’s Orillia campus, Royal Victoria Hospital and Georgian College’s Barrie Campus. A one-way trip is expected to take about two hours.
Powley noted the bus would help get patients to their medical appointments while taking some pressure off the transportation volunteers who drive for organizations such as the Canadian Cancer Society.
Using this service would also be a less expensive alternative for riders and non-profit organizations, he said.
“Right now, for instance, the cancer society is paying a volunteer 34 cents a kilometer to go from Muskoka to Barrie and back. From Bracebridge, that’s 100 kilometers, so that’s $68 (roundtrip). This bus service is only going to cost $36 (roundtrip from Bracebridge),” said Powley.
A roundtrip to Barrie from Huntsville would cost about $44 and a roundtrip to Barrie from Gravenhurst would cost about $30.
The service also eliminates the cost of parking at the southern hospitals, he noted.
But the main motive behind advocating for the service is to increase transportation accessibility for residents, said Powley.
It could also ast as an alternative for those who do not want to drive themselves down the highway in winter, he said.
“The whole idea was to create some accessibility – make life a little easier and cheaper – for those that have to go,” he said. “It’s a start, and you have to take a baby step before you can leap.”
Though councillors from across Muskoka applauded the bus service at a district council meeting on Sept. 10, some of them also had concerns.
Bracebridge coun. Steve Clement questioned why the buses were not equipped to accommodate wheelchairs. And Muskoka Lakes mayor Alice Murphy had a trio of questions that included whether the bus would eventually service the west of Muskoka rather than only the Highway 11 corridor, if a weekend schedule could be added and if the bus could connect with the Go Transit service in Barrie.
“We would have a real opportunity to use this for commuter traffic as well if we could get the scheduling worked out,” said Murphy.
Hammond, who attended the meeting, emphasized the service was a pilot at this point and that the company was open to tweaking service in future if the demand was there. As for wheelchair accessibility, he said the project was in the early stages and investing tens of thousands in accessibility equipment without having a grasp on ridership was too risky now.
Hammond said the service developed after years of speaking with transportation committees, politicians and non-profit service providers.
“The inability to access affordable transportation is a barrier for many Muskokans,” he said. “And there’s an obvious need for increased transportation services within Muskoka.”
He noted that the social agencies in the region that provide medical transportation services are watching their costs rise and their volunteers burn out. Now the social agencies can link into the bus service and take some of the hefty driving burden off the volunteers and a bit of pressure off the agencies’ pocketbooks.
Rick Williams, commissioner of community services for the district, said the bus service is the first step in a collaborative effort to enhance social and health transportation in the region. While he noted the district has not invested financially in the privately run bus service, he said the district will be encouraging its clients, such as those on Ontario Works, to use the bus.
“We support a number of people who need to travel around for doctors appointments and training programs as part of Ontario Works and other programs we operate. If this bus is viable, it will help get people to and from where they need to be for a lower price than we currently spend,” said Williams.
District Chair John Klinck agreed that the service seemed like a phenomenal idea, though it was early in the process. And Klinck said he did not have serious concerns about the district using a privately run service for its social programs.
“If an alternate transportation strategy offers us to save taxpayer money, we’d be foolish not to look at it,” he said. “If it reduces the cost of moving people to their appointments … then it would make a whole lot of sense for us.”
District councillors including Huntsville mayor Claude Doughty applauded the service and said they would do what they could to promote awareness of it in their communities.
But both the Committee Promoting Muskoka Rail Travel and district council added they did not consider the bus service a replacement for passenger rail service and they will continue to advocate for passenger rail in the region and in Northern Ontario.