The Union Pearson Express launched with expensive rides and low ridership. Now, with fares slashed in half and a light rail connection in the works, it’s a legitimate transit alternative for workers.
For years, arrivals to Toronto via its Pearson International Airport emerged into a sunless area beneath an overpass 14 miles from downtown.
Until recently, anyone without a ride waiting for them outside the terminal would have to settle for a taxi, rental car, or a city bus. With downtown cab costing a fixed $53 CAD before tip, many settled for the $3 bus.
Unlike Chicago, which wants a new rapid transit service between O’Hare and downtown—potentially courtesy of Elon Musk—Toronto doesn’t have a subway connection to its airport. As a result, the 192 Airport Rocket bus was just the first in a series of steps necessary to reach the city center as it dropped off passengers at the end of the subway, with a 30-40 minute ride and a transfer away from the city center.
That all changed for Toronto on June 6, 2015 when the Union-Pearson Express (UPX) opened to the public. Built and operated by Government of Ontario transit agency Metrolinx, the $456-million line was the first ever direct rail link between downtown Toronto and the airport.
It isn’t the “high-speed Loop” Musk’s Boring Company is proposing for Chicago, but it fills a similar gap in the market: A 20-minute service priced between the cost of a subway fare and a cab.
UPX originated in the early 2000s under then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. The service was supposed to be privately built and managed without public funds. Named “Blue22” the service would use second-hand diesel trains from VIA Rail, Canada's national passenger train service. But by July 2010, plans for Blue22 had stalled. The project was taken over by Metrolinx with the expectation that it would open in time for the 2015 Pan American Games.
Compared to the 192 Rocket bus, the UPX is incredibly sleek. The stations, designed with input from style expert and Wallpaper* magazine founder Tyler Brûlé, are fresh and modern with exposed concrete and wood accents, the trains arrive on time, and the end-to-end journey takes about 25 minutes—much less time than by car.
The diesel train sets come with Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, and live flight information screens. There’s even a special travel magazine in the seat pockets. In the beginning, there was also a lot of extra room. The end-to-end fare on opening day was $27.90 CAD (discounted to $19 with a Presto fare card), about eight times the subway and bus fare. As a result, ridership was embarrassingly low. Only about 2,000 to 2,200 people were riding daily, well short of the 7,000 targeted by Metrolinx.
“We’re trying to make this an extension of the airline experience, as opposed to a daily commuter service,” Metrolinx’s then-CEO Bruce McCuaig told the Globe and Mail in 2014. “We have other services that are intended to target the market of day-to-day commuting.”
The idea of a boutique transit line didn’t sit well with people who lived along the route who had been calling for better transportation options for years. “This is, once again, a slap in the face of every resident along the corridor who have been advocating for the UP line to be built right the first time: electric, more stops and affordable fares,” wrote Suri Weinberg-Linsky, the co-chair of a local community association, in a 2014 press release.
The original fare structure was designed to cover the anticipated $70-million annual operating cost within three to five years with profitable years to follow. But shortly after opening it was operating at about a quarter capacity as even wealthy business travelers turned their noses up at the cost. “It was an admirable goal to try and make it self-sufficient,” said Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins. “There was lots going for it. The one thing that wasn’t going for us right off the bat was we didn’t have enough riders.”
In early 2016, in response to growing pressure, Metrolinx slashed UPX fares to $12.35 cash ($9 with a fare card). Ridership improved almost immediately. “We changed the pricing strategy,” said Aikins. “We had two stations in between [the airport and downtown]. If we priced those like a commuter service… we would attract a commuter market.”
In just a few months of targeting commuters, ridership doubled and then tripled, reaching 6,500 daily riders. The fare is approximately twice the cost of the same journey by subway, streetcar, or bus, but considerably faster and more reliable. Metrolinx says almost a quarter of riders are now traveling for work or other reasons than accessing the airport.
By slashing fares, Metrolinx took money out of its own pocket. The province is currently subsidizing each ride by $11.
According to the latest figures reported by the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, the UPX cost $62.8 million to operate between the fiscal year April 2016 to March 2017. Over the same period it brought in only $32.4 million from fares and other sources.
These numbers were hailed as a success as the per-ride subsidy was $52.25 the year before. Despite ridership approaching 50 percent of the line’s capacity, Metrolinx doesn’t expect the line to ever break even under the current fare structure. “The [new] fare structure is like public transit, which is going to require a subsidy,” said Aikins. “You work… to try to get our subsidy level for any service down as low as you can, that’s always the goal.”
Over the next decade, Metrolinx expects to electrify the UPX (the trains can run on diesel fuel or electricity) and add a new station with a connection to the under-construction Line 5 Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, ensuring it remains a hybrid between an airport train and a commuter line.
Other cities looking at ways to create faster airport-to-downtown transit should take Toronto’s lessons into account, particularly when it comes to fares. “Building transit is challenging under the best of circumstances,” said Aikins. “Accessible, affordable, comfortable, convenient, reliable—those are all the things that make people choose transit. You have to cover it all—and [that] means a lot of different things to a lot of different people.”