Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star: Struggling UPX could work as part of SmartTrack, city report speculates

A draft report says the Union-Pearson airport express line could address some objectives of Mayor John Tory’s commuter plan.


October 14, 2015

Toronto Star


 Passenger disembark from the Union Pearson Express train on its first day of operation in June.

Passenger disembark from the Union Pearson Express train on its first day of operation in June. Photo: STEVE RUSSELL / TORONTO STAR


Toronto Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack train network has the potential to absorb the fledgling Union Pearson Express (UPX), according to a draft city staff report viewed by the Star.


“While there is a need to consider the ridership ramp-up period and viability of a new transit operation over a period of time, there is a possibility that the business model for this (UPX) service may need to be modified at a future date,” says a draft version of a staff report on SmartTrack.


“There may also be a future opportunity to address some of the objectives that a SmartTrack service between Union Station and Pearson airport might afford. City staff are monitoring this situation and are prepared to work closely with Metrolinx in the event that options arise to adjust the current UPX business model,” the draft version said.



Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig said there have been no discussions between the provincial agency and the city about using UPX as a commuter service. Suggestions that ridership won’t materialize for the dedicated air-rail train are premature, given that UPX has only been in service since June 6, he said.


When Metrolinx officials saw the city’s draft SmartTrack report they requested changes. McCuaig said he still had not seen the revised version at noon Wednesday. The report was expected to be released publicly Wednesday afternoon, but that has been delayed.


“Our focus is on building ridership on what we believe is properly positioned as a new, dedicated air-rail service. We aren’t considering any changes to the business model,” McCuaig said, adding that GO trains are far more suitable for commuter service.


Tory, speaking to reporters Wednesday, indicated he’d be open to discussing UPX as part of his SmartTrack plans, saying it’s up to the province, which currently operates the service.


“I’m delighted that we finally have a train to the airport. I think most global cities have these … I’m willing to talk about anything that’s going to get people moving in this city.”


UPX connects the downtown train station to Pearson International Airport in 25 minutes with two stops, on Bloor near the Dundas West subway station and in Weston.


Metrolinx is adding significantly more GO trains in the same corridor as part of its regional express rail program, which will provide electrified, two-way, all-day service running as often as every 15 minutes.


“(GO) has the capacity to meet the needs of daily commuters, and we think that is the best solution to move people from their residences, to work, to school, to medical appointments, as opposed to UPX, which has the capacity to carry people to and from Pearson airport,” he said.


A one-way fare costs up to $27.50. Forty per cent of riders pay the discounted Presto card price of $19. Ridership is split about 50-50 between business and leisure travellers, according to Metrolinx.


The train, which cost $456 million to build and $68 million annually to operate, runs every 15 minutes both ways, 19-and-a-half hours a day.


Last month Metrolinx reported the train is attracting about 2,500 riders per day — which means nine out of 10 seats are empty. That was a 23 per cent drop from the opening numbers, according to the Metrolinx report. Still, the agency maintained it was “very pleased with ridership so far.”


McCuaig stressed that public transit is always designed to handle the heaviest rush-hour ridership, with many lines having vacant seats outside the rush hour. The UPX is busiest between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., particularly on Thursday and Friday.


However, critics say it should be converted to public transit rather than providing a premium service for business travellers.


Jessica Bell, executive director of TTCriders, a transit advocacy group, said she’s pleased the city is eyeing the service and hopes Metrolinx is willing to re-examine its vision and work with Toronto.


“I think it’s very sensible that people are starting to talk about how, what would it actually look like to make this line useful,” she said. Earlier she called it “the cheapest new 23-kilometre transit line Toronto would ever get.”


“Plus the issue is around timelines. SmartTrack would take years … and I think riders really need relief now. The trains are running empty, Metrolinx could lower the cost to TTC level fares today, and everyone can use it, get that going, build up ridership, then they can study and begin developing the stations and retooling it.”


NDP MPP Cheri Di Novo (Parkdale-High Park) called the current ridership a “joke.”


“The whole thing is ridiculous as it stands, and the only way they’re really going to save this thing is by doing something reasonable with it,” Di Novo said. “It strikes me that they have to do something, because it’s going to bleed the treasury dry if they don’t.


“It doesn’t take an engineer to figure this one out.”


Councillor Josh Matlow, who called for lower fares ahead of the line’s completion, said treating it as commuter rail makes sense.


“It frustrates Torontonians while they’re still waiting to get on overcrowded subways, buses and streetcars to see an unaffordable, near-empty UP Express train go by that they were told was a priority but was really built for tourists and foreign business travellers,” Matlow said. “I think that Metrolinx is realizing that they built a white elephant, and I’m not surprised that they’re looking for a way to unload it before it leaks even more money.”


The UPX route uses the same Kitchener GO rail corridor on which Tory and his team planned to run SmartTrack in the west. If the SmartTrack route were to be adjusted to follow the UPX line, the city could potentially save billions on building new rail and possibly tunnelling under Eglinton Ave. west of Mount Dennis.


Matlow said the potential cost of the western spur remains “incredibly contentious” at city hall.


“If Mayor Tory and council take an evidence-based approach to SmartTrack and work with existing GO rails rather than putting heavy rail along Eglinton, not only will that get council and the city beyond an impasse but it will help John Tory meet his self-imposed timelines to get SmartTrack built through to fruition,” Matlow said.


The province is already studying the potential for additional stations along the existing rail corridor, including those proposed by Tory’s SmartTrack plan.


But there are some technical challenges to running a commuter service along the UPX line, including the length of the platforms, which are designed for three-car trains carrying up to 173 passengers. GO trains have 10 or 12 coaches pulled by a locomotive and carry 1,300 riders or more.


The UPX includes a new 3.3-kilometre rail spur into the Pearson terminal. That elevated track can handle the weight and width of the trains, but the platform has a three-car train capacity.


It’s not clear whether that could be expanded, but doing so would certainly come at a cost.


SmartTrack also faces challenges in the east, where the proposed route appears to align closely with the Scarborough subway. City staff are currently looking at that dilemma, with reports expected back next year.


It may still be possible to connect the airport to the corporate centre further south if council and Tory wanted that link, but runways and highways stand in the way, raising more tunnel — and cost — questions.


With files from Tess Kalinowski

This article can be found in its original form at:


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