A Brief History of Public Transit in Oakville

Text by James Bow

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Today, Oakville, Ontario is officially a town, despite having a population of 182,520. It has fought hard to maintain its small town status, in spite of the fact that it is a major population centre within the Greater Toronto Area, and the fact that it was incorporated in 1827.

This attitude has affected its approach to public transit. It was slow to obtain an urban transportation network of its own, and when it did, that transportation network was largely operated in service of commuters travelling to Toronto. More recently, it has attempted to control its suburban sprawl with denser urban developments, and its public transportation has matured to better handle travel within the town itself.

Early Days

Before the 19th century, the land Oakville sat on belonged to the Mississaugas First Nations. When the colony of Upper Canada was established in 1793, soldiers carved out the military road of Dundas Street through the area. In 1805, the legislative assembly of Upper Canada purchased the land from the Mississaugas First Nations, except for land around the mouths of Twelve Mile Creek (today’s Bronte Creek) and Sixteen Mile Creek. British settlers began buying up land surrounding Dundas Street and along the shore of Lake Ontario soon after. The remaining Mississaugas land was purchased by the government of Upper Canada in 1820.

Transportation at this time was largely stagecoaches operating between the port cities of Hamilton and Toronto, but settlement soon grew up in the area, with the village of Oakville being officially established in 1827. Soon, industries developed around the natural harbour of Sixteen Mile Creek. One of the first major industries in Oakville was ship building, but the port also handled timber and wheat.

The first railway serving Oakville was the Great Western, built through the area in 1856. Oakville station, established that year, would serve passengers in various forms for the next 160 years, to the present day. The Great Western Railway merged with the Grand Trunk in 1882, which was itself absorbed by Canadian National in 1920. The station’s location at Trafalgar Road, two kilometres north of Lake Ontario and the centre of the village, would have an impact on public transportation and the development of Oakville for decades afterwards.

Interurban Service Arrives, and then Departs

The first electric railway to serve Oakville was the Hamilton Radial Electric Railway Company interurban, incorporated in 1893. Built as part of a planned line connecting Hamilton to Toronto, the line from Hamilton started construction from Hamilton in the fall of 1897, moving through Burlington Beach and Maple, Elgin, John and James streets. The line pushed east towards Oakville in 1903, running parallel to New Street to Bronte then following Rebecca to a terminal station at Randall and Thomas. Large bridges were built over Bronte Creek and Sixteen Mile Creek to handle the electric cars, and limited service began on March 3, 1906, followed by full service on May 5. At the time, the village of Oakville had a population of around 2,000.

The Hamilton Radial Electric Railway served Oakville passengers for nearly twenty years before low ridership and competition from passenger trains on the more direct CN line further north ended service. The tracks from Oakville to Port Nelson (today known as Guelph Line) were abandoned on August 3, 1925, with a further abandonment from Port Nelson to downtown Burlington in 1927. The Hamilton Radial Electric Railway ceased its remaining operations on January 5, 1929, with its tracks west of Kenilworth in Hamilton absorbed by the Hamilton Street Railway.

That would be the end of public transportation within the town of Oakville for the next thirty-seven years. In 1931, the town’s population was just 3,857, so there was little call for such service. Residents were served well enough by taking trains at Oakville station, or boarding Gray Coach buses on Dundas Street. Oakville would not see substantial growth until after the Second World War. Its population in 1951 was 6,910, but within 10 years, it would shoot up to 10,366, and that was only the beginning.

Massive Post War Growth

The City of Toronto and its surrounding regions were experiencing explosive population growth following the Second World War. In response to this, the provincial government created Metropolitan Toronto, a federated two-tier city encompassing Toronto and its thirteen surrounding villages, towns and municipalities. However, development was already spilling west of Etobicoke Creek, following Highways 2, 5 and the Queen Elizabeth Way into Toronto Township (today’s Mississauga) and into Oakville itself. From 1961 to 1971, the town’s population increased dramatically, from just over 10,000 to 61,483, a nearly 500% increase.

In 1962, In response to this growth, Oakville town council granted a franchise to C.H. Norton Bus Lines to operate two local bus routes in the town, one called “Crosstown” and the other “Central”, which together used five buses during peak hours. These buses were blue-and-white painted “Blue Bird” conventional buses which could seat 44 passengers. Service frequencies ranged between every fifteen minutes during peak times to every 90 minutes. Fares were set at 25 cents for adults, 15 cents for students and 10 cents for children and seniors.

In addition to this service, Gray Coach picked up passengers in Oakville along its Toronto-Hamilton route along Dundas Street. It offered an inter-Oakville fare of 35 cents, and buses travelled at frequencies of 20 minutes during peak times and 60 minutes at other times.

At the same time, the Government of Ontario was looking at ways of managing Toronto’s urban sprawl and relieving commuter pressure on the highways heading into Toronto. As a result of its Metropolitan Toronto and Region Transportation Study Report in the in the mid 1960s, the province established GO Transit, operating a train service from Oakville station through Toronto and east to Pickering starting May 23, 1967. The service was instantly popular, with trains operating seven days a week between Oakville and Pickering. Additional rush hour trains continued west to Hamilton, serving Bronte station (which was renamed Oakville West until the early 1990s when the historic Bronte name was restored) and Burlington along the way.

Oakville Transit is Launched

As the 10-year franchise of C.H. Horton Bus Lines neared its expiry, Oakville town council hired the consulting agency H.G. Acres Limited to consider the town’s current and future transportation needs and make recommendations. Based on citizen surveys and current ridership, the consultants recommended transit service operating at hourly intervals or better, even during the evenings, with a network of routes radiating from the town centre to key destinations.

Oakville town council took these recommendations and, after letting C.H. Horton Bus Lines’ franchise expire in August 1972, launched Oakville Transit on September 5, 1972. The new network offered five bus routes radiating from the centre of town, with initial base service of every twenty minutes from early morning to midnight. Ten GM T6H-5306 “New Look” buses were purchased for this network, with a single additional bus (an 11-passenger Ford Econoline) used to augment peak service on the northern branch of Route 5. Thirty-one drivers were hired out of more than 200 applicants

The town made sure that service was integrated with GO Transit operations, with southbound Route 5 buses timed to meet all bus arrivals from Hamilton and all train arrivals from Toronto up to 11:25 at night. The fare was set at 30 cents during rush hours and 20 cents at off-peak times. By January 1973, Oakville Transit was carrying 3,800 riders per day.

There were minor adjustments made once service launched. The sheer number of transfers between routes 5 and 7 led the system to merge the two routes into one. Service to the Ford automotive plant proved disappointing, as most workers came in their own cars (Fords, of course), and buses became entangled in the factory’s own traffic jams. That service was soon dropped. Also, operating ten buses without any spares for maintenance proved troublesome when one bus was damaged, forcing routes 1 and 3 to be interlined and operated at half-hour frequencies while that bus was repaired. Also, the low density neighbourhoods at the outskirts of Oakville proved difficult to service, leading the town to consider some kind of dial-a-bus operation. However, ridership grew and, by January 1973, Oakville town council established a student fare of 15 cents.

Consolidation and Growth

Oakville’s post-war growth helped establish it as a major bedroom community for Toronto commuters, but that was not all that the town was. Its industries continued to operate around the port at Sixteen Mile Creek and, in 1953, the town was chosen as the site of a major assembly complex for the Ford Motor company. The automotive plant produced nearly all of Ford’s automobiles until 1966, and the company continued to upgrade and renovate the plant, making it a major employer in town, and influencing the town’s growth.

The OPEC oil shock and the recession that followed may have slowed Oakville’s growth through the 1970s. The population grew only to 75,773 in 1981, but in the 1980s, the pace picked up again, with the town growing to 114,670 in 1991, making Oakville a city in all but name. Oakville Transit worked to keep up, adding buses and routes to the network, and adjusting to the town’s changing landscape.

The nature of Oakville, a bedroom community with major industries surrounding a historic core at the end of a major commuter rail line, dramatically influenced the nature of public transportation in the town. A lot of the transportation was focused around the GO stations — Oakville station initially, but Bronte station in the west and Mississauga’s Clarkson station in the east. This increased as GO increased its service, extending off-peak service to Burlington, via Appleby and Bronte GO stations (after briefly renaming Bronte station “Oakville West”, GO restored the Bronte name in honour of the local historical village).

Additional connections were made with Mississauga Transit, first at Clarkson GO station, and then with the launch of Mississauga Transit’s 101 OAKVILLE EXPRESS route on Dundas Street. Starting October 19, 2009, service on the line ran from Islington subway station to the Uptown Core terminal west of Trafalgar Road. Unfortunately, the service was cut back to Laird Road at the west end of Mississauga on May 16, 2011, due to lack of ridership on the Oakville section, and renamed 101 DUNDAS EXPRESS.

Oakville Transit Today.

Today, Oakville Transit has matured into an operation that runs 38 bus routes and specials with 89 conventional buses and 7 wheelchair accessible vans, carrying over 2.8 million passengers in 2015. The services reach throughout Oakville, with Oakville Transit buses found in nine terminals, two of them in Mississauga (Clarkson GO station and South Common Centre).

At present, there are no plans to amalgamate Oakville Transit with the other transit operations in Halton, including Burlington Transit and Milton Transit. The needs of those communities are so different, it’s likely the municipalities within Halton Region will be handling their own transit for years to come. Oakville residents, in particular, can expect continued growth, and stronger service for its increasingly dense neighbourhoods, as the town becomes a significant centre within the Greater Toronto Area.

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References

  • Chatoff, Peter. “The New Trend - Oakville Transit.” Canadian Coach Jan.-Feb. 1973: 3-7.
  • Luton, Tom. “The Hamilton Radial Electric Railway (HRER).” The Hamilton Radial Electric Railway (HRER). N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Jan. 2017.