The lower fares helped a lot.
Union Pearson Express (better known as UP Express) is the 16-month-old rail connection between Pearson International Airport and Union Station in downtown Toronto. It launched on June 6, 2015, a month before Toronto hosted the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. The train makes stops at Bloor and Weston stations as well as Union Station and Pearson airport. Trains depart every 15 minutes, and take 25 minutes to complete the trip from Union to Pearson.
The rail link, which was originally pitched as a private-sector service, cost the government $456 million to build.
At the time, the one-way fare between Union Station and Pearson airport was set at $27.50, or $19.00 with a Presto card. Discounts and special fares were available for families, airport workers, and same-day return trips.
In June 2015, UP Express had an average daily ridership of 2,858; in July, the average daily ridership was 2,383. Metrolinx expected that daily ridership would grow to 5,000 within a year.
Instead, ridership declined after the Pan Am Games; the average daily ridership bottomed out in January 2016, when only 1,967 passengers a day took the train, or 12.6 passengers per train operated that month. On Saturday, January 23, a mere 1,174 persons rode the UP Express, less than the daily ridership of the TTC’s 74 Mount Pleasant bus.
In February, Metrolinx blamed a “lack of awareness” for UP Express’s embarrassingly low ridership, but in March, the agency took decisive action. It merged UP Express, previously a separate division of Metrolinx, with GO Transit, and slashed UP Express fares, effective March 9, 2016.
The one-way cash fare was reduced from $27.50 to $12, and from $19 to $9 with a Presto card, and fares between Union and Bloor and Weston stations were reduced to match the GO Transit fares for the same trips.
Since the new fare structure was introduced, UP Express ridership has more than tripled. By June 2016, the daily average ridership increased to 7,657, or 49 passengers per train. The busiest day so far was Friday, July 29, when UP Express carried 11,000 passengers.
According to figures supplied by Metrolinx, UP Express continues to primarily serve passengers headed to and from Pearson; rides to and from the airport makes up approximately 80 per cent of the ridership.
The remaining 20 per cent ride the train between Weston, Bloor, and Union stations, using the service as a commuter line, as well as for other purposes, such as shopping or attending games or other special events. Forty-two per cent of UP Express’s ridership during weekday peak periods (6-9 a.m. and 3-7 p.m.) are local riders to and from Weston and Bloor. The rest of the time, only 11 per cent of all trips are between Union, Bloor, and Weston stations, with the rest to and from the airport.
While the reduced fares have definitely improved ridership on the airport rail link, they have also made UP Express a far more useful service for residents living along the rail corridor. In 2021, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is expected to open, offering another connection opportunity at Mount Dennis.
But there are other opportunities for improvement that will make UP Express even more useful. UP Express connects with GO Transit, the TTC, and even MiWay and Brampton Transit at Pearson airport.
The airport region is a major employment centre, yet is difficult to serve by public transit. Fare integration between all these services would be a first step in creating a full regional rail network, a concept that Mayor John Tory pitched as “SmartTrack.”
UP Express’s ridership increase is a good news story. But there’s so much more utility that can be leveraged.