Down is the new UP: Thoughts on dismal UP Express ridership

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At February 10th’s Metrolinx board meeting, there was an update on the Union Pearson (UP) Express ridership. The news isn’t good, as ridership dropped in the last few months, instead of growing according to Metrolinx’s rosy projections.

UP Express launched on Saturday, June 6, 2015, a month prior to the 2015 PanAm/ParapanAm Games. I was one of thousands to ride the train on that inaugural day; thousands of free tickets were given to the public. Nearly 7,000 rides were taken that Saturday, a number that has yet to be surpassed. Metrolinx estimated that UP Express would start off with an average of 3,000 daily riders, and within a year, there would be 5,000 daily riders. While the base one-way fare for UP Express is $27.50, the fare for Presto cardholders is $19.00.

The line chart below shows the projected ridership (increasing weekly towards 5,000 riders by June 2016) and the actual daily ridership. As one can see, the ridership varies by the day of the week, mirroring trends in air passenger traffic. Fridays are generally the busiest day of the week for UP Express, while Saturdays are the quietest.

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After the June 6 launch, the busiest day for UP Express were Sunday, June 16, which coincided with the Honda Indy at Exhibition Place, when 5,673 passengers used the train. There were peaks on Friday, June 19 (3,628 customers), Thursday June 25 (3,077 customers), and on Friday, July 10, when 3,424 riders took UP Express, the day of the opening ceremonies for the Toronto 2015 PanAm Games.

But ridership plateaued after October, which had the highest monthly ridership recorded, at 79,010, which works out to a daily average of 2,548 passengers. The last peak was on Friday, October 19, the day before the Canadian Thanksgiving long weekend. Nearly 5,000 passengers rode UP Express. Ridership dropped in November and December, a busy travelling season. The daily average ridership dropped to 2,169 in December, a new low, and never was above 3,000 after Friday, October 23. Ridership bottomed out on Christmas Day, when a mere 1,086 rode the train.

MonthlyUPXMetrolinx should be embarrassed by these extremely low ridership figures. UP Express is a semi-autonomous operating division of the provincial transportation agency with its own President, Kathy M. Haley. The agency spent $4.5 million on a contract for branding with Winkreativewhich included special uniforms and even an “in-flight” magazine. The TTC’s 192 Airport Rocket, which has its own dedicated bus fleet, carries 4,700 passengers on an average weekday. The TTC doesn’t have a special operating division or President for that route, even though it carries nearly twice the number of passengers.

For comparison, in 2014 — the last year for which detailed ridership data is available — only twenty-five regular TTC bus routes had a daily weekday ridership that was lower than the UP Express for the months of November and December. The 48 Rathburn Road bus route, a minor feeder route in Etobicoke, carries approximately the same number of people as the airport rail link.

GO Transit’s Richmond Hill corridor — the lowest ridership of GO’s seven rail lines, with only 11 trains daily — had a daily ridership of 10,587 according to GO Transit’s Spring 2015 cordon counts, an average of nearly 1,000 riders per train. UP Express, with 156 trains a day averages just over 15 passengers per train.

The narrative in the local media is that UP Express fares are too high; that ridership will improve if the fares are lowered. Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig claims that “a lack of awareness” is the cause for the low ridership. Given the media hype surrounding the launch, and the improved wayfinding signage at Union Station and Pearson Airport, I don’t think that awareness is the problem.

I also don’t think that lowering UP Express fares, without looking at fare and service integration, is going to be a magic bullet either. Last year, I was pleasantly surprised by the announcement that Presto fares were going to be $19 for Presto cardholders, which was slightly less expensive than I expected. Travelling alone, it’s a bargain compared to riding a taxi or limo, especially if your origin or destination is in Toronto’s financial district. . (Connections at Bloor Station and in Weston are less useful.) I live about 15 minutes away from Union Station by foot, and I’ve taken advantage of UP Express. The cars are comfortable, the wi-fi is a nice perk, and the service is fast, friendly, and reliable.

Happily, UP Express isn’t a white elephant. Most of the sunk costs — $456-million — are salvageable, and a rail link to Pearson remains an excellent idea.

I think the answer is making UP Express more of a transit link, useful for residents of North Etobicoke, Weston, Mount Dennis, and West Toronto. The service would be more like Vancouver’s Canada Line; a part of the local transit network, but with a premium on single-ride fares from the airport to recover costs. Metrolinx could start by integrating UP Express with its GO Transit operating division, phasing out the ridiculous branding and separate bureaucracy.

UP Express could even be part of a re-routed “SmartTrack” corridor, where it would make a few additional stop. But most importantly, it would become part of Toronto’s transit system, rather than a boutique airport shuttle service. The rail infrastructure improvements built for UP Express go a long way towards improving GO train service to Bramalea and points west. Hopefully, we get a revised airport rail link somewhat similar to that of Philadelphia, with fares integrated with the TTC and GO Transit. It’s also worth noting that Pearson Airport offers transit connections to GO Transit buses to Richmond Hill and Hamilton, as well as express and local Mississauga and Brampton Transit routes. There’s a need to recognize Pearson Airport’s role as a regional transit hub, not just a hub for Air Canada and WestJet.

But the UP Express fiasco raises other questions. How can we expect Metrolinx to come up with a credible fare integration strategy when it can’t even get GO Transit fares right, never mind the UP Express? Yes, there are many fine people working at Metrolinx, but the UP Express hurts the organization’s credibility.

All that said, I still sometimes feel optimistic about Toronto’s transit progress in recent years. The UP Express, while suffering from poor ridership, is still useful. The Eglinton-Crosstown LRT is underway, and might be extended in both the east and west. The [Downtown] Relief Line subway plan is still a viable project. And despite John Tory’s budget cuts, TTC bus service has been expanded in 2015 and 2016.

Meanwhile, UP Express will be offering free fares this Family Day weekend. It will be interesting to know whether this promotion will increase ridership on the weekend or not.


Thanks to Steve Munro for providing me with a copy of Metrolinx’s ridership numbers for UP Express.

 

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One Response to Down is the new UP: Thoughts on dismal UP Express ridership

  1. Thank you for an excellent piece on the UP Express. I agree that neither “lowering prices” nor “increasing awareness” will raise ridership in any significant manner. Rather, the real lessons are more complicated. One has to look at similar services in other cities [e.g. London, Stockholm, Hong Kong] with fantastic ridership levels. There are three reasons.

    The first is that the engineering for the UP Express needs to improve vastly. There needs to be a tunnel that goes directly under the airport terminal rather than the convoluted and interminable walk to the train at Pearson Airport. This is expensive, but we are talking about a long-term investment for the city and its global connections. Also, the train should be direct, without stops in the middle. This is about the speed of service.

    Second, the connections at Union Station and Pearson Airport are pathetic. Whether it is from the subway at Union Station or the arrival area at Pearson Airport, the walk to UP Express is long and confusing with very little signage. In fact, having done it several times, it is a real pain in the butt. Connections should be simple and easy.

    Third, the service itself is below par. The train literally crawls in and out of Union Station and Pearson Airport, like a dog with its tail between its legs. The last time, the wifi on the train was not working, and the comment section on the UP Express website also does not work. People will pay for good service that is fast and convenient.

    I’m stunned at the superficial level of discussion around public in transit in Toronto: if the city wants to be truly world-class, it needs both–a much deeper and sophisticated analysis of what works, what doesn’t, and why; and it needs political and transit leaders who are far more visionary and bolder in their ambitions for Toronto.

    Thank you for your blog and contributions to this discussion: I hope your writing will help raise the bar, because Toronto deserves better, much better.

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