‘Bold change’ needed, agency boss concedes — but effect on bottom line is unknown.
February 23, 2016
A passenger exits the UPX terminal towards Union Station. Photo: STEVE RUSSELL / TORONTO STAR
The province has slashed the fares on the struggling Union Pearson Express, conceding — nearly nine months after its launch — that there were too few riders to meet the train’s targets.
“We should have started with a lower price to introduce more people to (UPX). We had to build more awareness faster,” said Metrolinx chair Robert Prichard after a special Tuesday board meeting where the dramatic price reductions were unanimously approved.
It remains unclear, however, what the implications of lower prices will be on the UPX’s break-even prospects, the amount of provincial subsidy it will require, or even how the new fares — about half the original ticket costs — were arrived at.
Provincial agency Metrolinx will “continue to do analysis on that,” said Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, in reference to the financial questions.
“When the trains are empty or mostly empty, obviously there’s a challenge with respect to the numbers. Our job right now is to encourage more people to take it so we drive up the ridership which will help us with those larger questions,” he told a news conference at the UPX terminal in Union Station.
Metrolinx had projected the train would break even in three to five years when ridership was targeted to reach 7,000 a day. It expected to be at 5,000 daily riders by the end of the first year in June. But the service is only drawing about half that number.
“I’m optimistic, now that there’s an awareness — because we are dropping the fares dramatically — we will hit that target,” said Del Duca.
The price cut, he said, is designed to provide more options for middle-class families and commuters in a city where transit advocates, fed up with TTC crowding and fare hikes, complained that the publicly funded UPX was priced out of reach.
Regular fares will also be halved starting March 9. Adults with a Presto card will board for $9 rather than $19. Those without the card will pay only $12, instead of $27.50. Commuters at the Bloor and Weston stops will pay about $5 — a price that is in line with GO fares, said the minister.
In the meantime, UPX riders paying the old fares will get a free ticket valid for the next year as compensation.
The airport workers’ UPX pass that was introduced at a cost of $300 a month will be reduced to $140 a month, or about $3.50 per ride, said the minister.
Metrolinx officials admitted that their initial ridership forecasts didn’t materialize and there were market changes they didn’t predict, including the impact of Uber, the ride-sharing service that has cut the cost of an airport limo in half.
“We wanted to make a bold change. We wanted to recast the pricing,” said Prichard, adding that although there’s “no magic formula” to arriving at the new prices, “It’s crystal clear no one can possibly say this is overpriced.”
The $456-million train runs every 15 minutes in both directions up the Kitchener GO line and onto a spur into the terminal. If every train was full, the UPX would carry about 17,000 people a day — about a third as many as the TTC’s King streetcar.
Government critics and transit advocates declared the price cuts at least a partial victory.
“If the (government) wasn’t so obsessed with making this luxury, boutique train it wouldn’t have cost $27.50 in the first place,” said Progressive Conservative Transportation Critic Michael Harris (Kitchener-Conestoga).
“GO riders and taxpayers will have to ask themselves how much is it going to cost them for having to pay for the step back they should have done in the first place,” he said.
Others praised the Ontario government for listening to complaints about the price. “As much as I criticized UP Express’ uncompetitive and unaffordable fares, I think it’s important to recognize the good work Metrolinx is doing now to ensure this train successfully serves the public,” said city Councillor Josh Matlow.
“The province has built a world class air-rail link; no question. It’s time for all of us to put our collective energy into getting more people in the airport area to use transit by giving them better reasons to leave the car parked at home,” said Greater Toronto Airports Authority vice-president Hillary Marshall.
This article can be found in its original form at: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/transportation/2016/02/23/upx-fares-to-be-slashed-ahead-of-march-break.html