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The Union-Pearson Express Train Gets a Big Thumbs Down

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What does a billion dollars' worth of transit investment get in Toronto? A piddly 5,000 daily riders. To put things in perspective, dozens of bus routes in Toronto carry more passengers every day than the trips forecasted for the Union-Pearson rail link (UP Express).

The rail-link will connect Canada's two busiest transport hubs: Union Station and Toronto Pearson International Airport. Despite the high-speed connector between the two busiest hubs, transport authorities expect only 5,000 daily riders on the UP Express. The King Streetcar, in comparison, carries in excess of 65,000 daily riders.

The UP Express and the Sheppard subway extension are examples of transit money well wasted. A 2009 communiqué by Metrolinx estimated that the George Town Expansion (including the UP Express) will cost over a billion dollars. The Globe and Mail reported Ontario government alone had invested $456 million in the UP Express. Instead of investing the scarce transit dollars on projects likely to deliver the highest increase in transit ridership, billions are being spent on projects that will have a marginal impact on addressing traffic congestion in the GTA.

With $29 billion in planned transport infrastructure investments, some of which will be publicized Thursday in the Ontario budget, the province and the city need to have their priorities right. The very least would be to stop investing in projects that do not generate sufficient transit ridership.

One may argue that 5,000 fewer trips by automobile to and from the airport should help in easing congestion in the GTA. However, with over 12-million daily trips in the GTA, 5,000 fewer trips are unlikely to make any meaningful difference in traffic congestion. At the same time, the taxpayers should focus on the cost-benefit trade-offs for transit investments. Notice the cost-benefit efficiency of the existing TTC bus service (192 Airport Rocket) to the Pearson Airport that carries over 4,000 daily passengers. A billion dollars later, the UP Express will move only one thousand additional riders.

In North America, fewer than 10 airports are connected with local subway or regional rail transit. With the exception of the Ronald Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C., most other airports accessible by rail report approximately five per cent transit trips to and from airports. The European experience though has been better. Almost 35 per cent of the trips to and from Zurich airport were made on rail-based transit. Munich airport reported 40 per cent of the trips by rail and bus.

Certain transit network attributes, which are missing for the UP Express, contribute to the strong transit ridership to and from airports. For instance, the rail-based service to high transit ridership airports does not terminate at the airport but instead continues further to serve the communities along the corridor. In addition, the airport lines at the successful airports are integrated with the rest of the rail-based transit system, instead of being a standalone line. The UP Express is a standalone rail line that connects to only one terminal at Pearson Airport. The prohibitive fare makes the ride uneconomical for commuters travelling in teams of two or more who would find a cab ride cheaper and convenient from most parts of suburban Toronto.

Two other key factors limit the ridership potential of the UP Express. First, the Billy Bishop Airport near downtown Toronto caters to the short-haul business travel market. It has been argued in the past that business travellers originating in downtown Toronto would rather take the train than a cab to Pearson Airport. Given the frequency of service and choice of destinations served by the Billy Bishop Airport, business travellers increasingly favour the downtown airport, which eats into the UP Express potential market share.

In addition, the peak operations at Pearson Airport coincide with the morning and afternoon peak commuting times in Toronto. This implies that one would have to commute to Union Station in the morning and afternoon peak travel periods to ride the UP Express. The extra effort in time and money required to travel to downtown Toronto from the inner suburbs alone will deter riders from using the Union-Person rail link.

The UP Express is yet another monument dedicated to public transit misadventures while the region continues to suffer from gridlock. Getting the transit priorities right is necessary before Ontario doles out $29 billion.


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