How Do We Solve a Problem Like UPX?


Metrolinx, the provincial agency charged with upgrading public transit across the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton, has a problem, and its letters are U.P.

The Union Pearson Express is a seriously odd-duck — a major transit improvement that neither the City of Toronto nor the province of Ontario initially asked for, but one which Ontario ended up building. It was launched as a legacy project by the federal transport minister in the dying months of Jean Chretien’s government, but it somehow survived the election of Stephen Harper. It’s a line that actually got built among a sea of transit expansion proposals that went exactly nowhere. It’s supposed to make back all its costs from the farebox. And it’s carrying fewer passengers per day than the 192 AIPORT ROCKET TTC bus to Kipling station.

This is a problem, because while Metrolinx is labouring mightily on a number of important and worthy transit projects, including the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, this is the first really noticeable piece of new transit infrastructure to bear Metrolinx’s name. And as the media reports on every story of low ridership and warms up a “white elephant” narrative on the line, the project risks tarnishing the credibility of Metrolinx.

I don’t think it’s entirely fair to Metrolinx, although the Union-Perason project is an indictment of the entire transit planning process within the Greater Toronto Area and politicians from every level of government (municipal, provincial and especially federal) that allowed this to happen. I wrote about the whole bizarre history of the Union Pearson Express in Transit Toronto, and the process does deserve a thorough post-mortem to ensure that similar mistakes don’t happen again. However, we are still left with the question of what to do with what we’ve done.

Union Pearson Express has suffered because it has been pulled in several directions at once. It’s planned as a business-luxury shuttle between the downtown and the Airport, and yet it has a stop of questionable use by the old village of Weston, put there because local residents revolted over Union-Pearson plans that would have divided their neighbourhood in two. The station stop, among other measures, was meant to placate the community, but the fares make it useless as a commuter line to downtown Toronto, which is what Weston residents want. The City of Toronto and its supporters want fares reduced to TTC levels and more stops added to the line, at Parkdale, Mount Dennis and in Etobicoke North, to name a few, to turn the line into more of a local subway, though connections between this line and the subway would be difficult (but not impossible), and more stations would make it less useful to airport travellers, while probably increasing the line’s subsidy. The vacillation between these two visions have produced a design that serves neither purpose very well and harms the line’s overall effectiveness.

So, what do we do? Well, let’s start at looking at what the Union Pearson Express does do well. I will say that the line has significantly improved airport connections for communities northwest of Toronto. This past October, I was able to catch a flight to Philadelphia, taking only public transit (including Union-Pearson) to get to the airport. The total cost was under $35 on my Presto card, compared to $92 for Airways Transit, over $100 for a limo, and $90 for long-term parking.

Most everybody agrees that the airport is a reasonable terminal for a rapid transit line. It’s the busiest airport in Canada and it employs thousands of people. Vancouver successfully extended a rapid transit line to its airport, and its fare is a fraction of what it takes to travel Union Pearson Express.

We can also say that the work on Union Pearson Express wasn’t a waste, because other GO Transit users benefitted from it. The work on Union Pearson Express piggybacked onto other improvements to the GO Kitchener line, eliminating grade crossings, adding and improving track and signalling, and ensuring that full GO Train service will extend between downtown Toronto and northwest Brampton within the next couple of years. Kitchener will eventually see all-day, two-way GO Train service to Toronto as a result of this improvement. This is money well spent.

But those Brampton-Kitchener GO Trains will be operating alongside the Union-Pearson trains, possibly at the same frequencies. They will be duplicating each other’s route for at least 80% of the Union-Pearson line. If the Union Pearson Express isn’t paying its own way, then the brains of the people on the other trains watching Union-Pearson cars pull even with them automatically say “waste”.

Fine. Lower Union Pearson Express fares to GO fares and paint Union-Pearson trains in GO colours. Instead of two sets of trains operating the same line at fifteen intervals each, combine the two services so trains operate at 7.5 minutes each. That’s not “duplication”, that’s “enhancement”. Except that a lot of money has been spent to separate the workings of Union Pearson Express and GO. Union-Pearson trains require high level platforms. GO Trains don’t. So while in theory trains may pick up passengers every 7.5 minutes at Bloor and Weston stations, those stations have two sets of platforms, and may have to run from one to the other depending on which arrives first.

Fine. Lower Union-Pearson fares to GO fares, paint the Union-Pearson trains in GO colours, and give these trains exclusive access to the GO stations between Pearson Airport and Union Station. Let the Brampton-Kitchener GO trains run express to Union, getting passengers there a few minutes faster. Duplication solved!

Except that, doing this, you cut off Kitchener’s easy access to Pearson Airport by transferring to the Union Pearson Express at Weston station. You lose the alternate connection to the Toronto subway at Bloor station. You make transit service less convenient than it can be for residents northwest of Toronto.

And this is the frustrating thing about the Union Pearson Express: the easy solutions to its problems aren’t so easy. We end up raising its subsidy, and we still end up working with a design that isn’t as effective and efficient as it could be.

One solution might be to go the City of Toronto’s proposed route: build more Union Pearson Express stations, at least three, including one in the northwest of Toronto before the Union-Pearson line breaks off to head for the airport. That station becomes the transfer point for all VIA and GO trains coming in from the northwest. The Union-Pearson Express handles all local traffic along the line (admittedly challenging the definition of the word “Express”), charging GO fares, while GO and VIA services operate express in parallel. Perhaps this concept could be rolled into John Tory’s SmartTrack proposal, saving his inadequately-considered proposal while allowing Metrolinx to unload this scar on its reputation.

This solution would still cost money, however, to build new stations and repurpose equipment, and unless the media can ease up on its white elephant narrative and acknowledge that throwing good money after bad might actually make the bad money good, it’s unlikely that the solution could be achieved without political cost.

The only other solution, however, to lower the fares and accept the duplication of services that don’t actually duplicate very well, is embarrassing and frustrating, as it ignores the reality of what we have, and the potential of what we could achieve.

P.S. The duplication/enhancement of running Union-Pearson and Brampton-Kitchener GO Trains along the same line and stopping at the same stations might be alleviated, at least perceptually, if we rename Union-Pearson’s “Union” station. Union-Pearson trains at Union do not board at the same platform or concourse as GO trains at Union, and it’s a considerable walk to get from one to the other. However, Union-Pearson’s “Union” station is closer to the western part of downtown Toronto than Union station itself. Renaming the station “Simcoe” or “Union West” to reflect this may highlight the distinct advantage of taking a Union-Pearson train over a Brampton-Kitchener GO train, and vice versa to those heading to points east.

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