In typical fashion, we’ve all been talking for decades about a fixed rail link between the busiest airport in Canada and the busiest surface transit hub in Canada, but despite near-universal agreement on its necessity, the project is still vapour. The $200 million+ Blue22 plan designed in the mid-’90s was originally slated for completion right about now, but endless disagreements about how to implement it, who pays for it, and whose property values it threatens have prevented any shovel from breaking ground.
About sixty major cities have dedicated premium rail transit from the airport to their city centres, and Europe and Japan have boasted solid systems since the ’80s, but Hong Kong’s Airport Express is brilliant in its sheer simplicity of use.
Now in service for a decade, the Airport Express plan had the luxury of being designed in conjunction with the massive, US$20 billion(!) Hong Kong International Airport project (both opened simultaneously). The system was designed to allow the trains to arrive directly at the terminal every twelve minutes, letting customers off right at the check-in area or picking them up from the arrivals lounge. The obvious benefit of this door-to-door service is not having to haul luggage very far, although free porters are available to help.
Tickets are easily purchased at touchscreen terminals for HKD$100 (about $17) by cash, credit card, or the ubiquitous Octopus card, the latter of which is accepted on almost all public transport in Hong Kong. Some airlines even support automated check-in, so travellers can grab their boarding passes while they wait for the train, which comes every twelve minutes.
The GTAA says that Toronto’s new Terminal 1 has been designed with the future rail link in mind [PDF], and it would arrive at the facility’s existing LINK tram station, which currently connects satellite parking lots by cable-pulled train to Terminals 1 and 3. Since there are no existing train tracks that go as far as the airport, a new spur would need to be built, likely from the Woodbine terminus, located about 3 km from Terminal 1.
Proposed stops on Toronto’s plan include Union Station, Dundas West TTC station (GO’s Bloor station), and one near Woodbine Racetrack at Highway 427. The Hong Kong line has also kept stops at a convenient minimum, and the trains feature an LED progress bar that shows where the train is in relation to the next station—something peripherally discussed for future TTC subway cars.
The trains on the Chinese link are manufactured by Montréal-based Bombardier, which builds TTC subway cars and is one of the bidders for the Transit City Light Rail Plan. These electric “A-Stock” trains are specifically customized for airport travellers, with wide aisles, generous leg room, and large baggage racks beside the doors. Large flatscreen panels announce current and upcoming stops and display short ads and lifestyle clips in between.
Brand-new track for Hong Hong means a faster, smoother ride—something that Toronto won’t be able to fully realize, since most of a 25-kilometre Pearson link would exist on the current rail corridor on segments owned by CN and GO Transit. Most conspicuously, the trip between downtown Hong Kong and the airport is dead silent. Unlike the subway or GO train, there is no significant side-to-side rocking or screeching, making for some welcome decompression time after a long day of travel. And, oh ehm gee, there’s WiFi.
Though running a shorter distance, a Toronto link would take about the same time—about 22 minutes from airport to downtown, versus 24 minutes for Hong Kong, and trains to Pearson would operate every 15 minutes. Transport Canada estimates that a direct rail link here would eliminate 1.5 million car trips in in the first year.
Like many other relatively new surface transport stations, Hong Kong’s Airport Express employs full glass safety barriers, which only allow ingress and egress when the train has fully stopped and do not allow access to track level. This type of barrier is one of the options examined by the TTC, but it will probably prove too expensive of a reno.
As for advertising, the Airport Express has it, but it’s restrained and relatively subtle. In every case, directional signage takes priority, comforting tourists and giving the platforms and trains a cleaner, uncluttered look.
Hong Kong’s system parallels those in many other countries, and there isn’t really much to complain about—the journey is basically seamless, comfortable, and idiot-proof. With talks ramping up again this summer about getting a Union-Pearson project back on track (albeit one likely to be operated by the private sector), planners could crib much from Hong Kong’s sophistication. But, jeez, let’s get on with it.
Photos by Marc Lostracco.