LONDON, ONT. -- It was expected to be a slow start for the regional bus network building around London, but maybe not this slow.

One of the first out of the gate, originating in Oxford County, intercommunity transit service began to the Forest City on Wednesday.

A 20-seat bus, with seating capacity reduced to 10 by COVID-19 restrictions, arrived at London’s Victoria Hospital shortly after 9 a.m. with no one on board but the driver.

The bus was on its twice-weekly return route through centres including Tillsonburg, Ingersoll and several smaller communities in between.

The lack of riders didn’t hamper the enthusiasm of the mini-bus driver who pulled into a shared shelter with the London Transit Commission.

“It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to my first rider,” stated Ron Poole.

The Oxford Regional Transit system is managed by the Town of Tillsonburg and operated by Voyago transportation.

In total, four routes, including a daily weekday service between Tillsonburg, Ingersoll and Woodstock are running.

Only the hospital route, on Monday and Wednesday, makes it as far as London.

The service is part of a growing network of regional transit systems, supported by the Ontario government, already online or expected to go online over the next several months.

The disappointing first-day ridership in Oxford isn’t alarming to Alex Piggott, who is managing the service.

“Ridership has been slow. But we anticipated slow ridership on the service. We just want to get the bus out there, get the wheels in motion and show that the service is available.”

COVID-19 isn’t helping either. It caused a four-month delay in the anticipated launch, which had been slated for April.

Still, in small hamlets long forgotten by transit, seeing a bus stop is exciting.

Sharon Pie runs the variety store and cafe in Putnam, where until recently the upcoming spaghetti drive-thru dinner was the biggest news in town.

Now she says the arrival of a commuter bus is the biggest transit story since the stage coach left over a century ago.

“The stage coach used to be over there," says says, pointing to a building across the road. "That building there, that’s the building people stayed in when the stage coach came through. Now the bus is coming through.”

But for the moment, even though Pie, a ticket retailer, thinks it will catch on, the bus hasn’t attracted attention.

“I’ve had a lot of people asking about it. I’ve handed out a lot of pamphlets, but I have not sold any tickets yet.”

But as more and more people notice the signs and the buses moving around Oxford County and beyond, Piggott says that’s bound to change. After all, he says, for some it opens a new window to visit and work in a wider area of Southwestern Ontario.

Poole agrees, “I think as we go forward they’ll see that the service is very beneficial."

Barring an unforeseen change, the Oxford-based service will run as pilot project until March of 2023.

Nearly $1.5 million in funding has been provided by the province for its continued operation.

One way fares are $10 and more details are available here.