Toronto’s airport train will shift to another part of Union Station, leaving superfluous the award-winning spot built for it only a few years ago, as part of a revamp that winds down the airport link as a service separate from GO Transit.
The shift is the last act in the long evolution of a train Metrolinx launched as a high-priced boutique service, hoping it would become a profit-maker that might eventually be spun off.
The provincial transit agency says the changes are connected to a broader expansion of GO rail service, one that requires a shuffling within Union Station of which lines use which tracks.
One result is that the Union Pearson Express will load in a different part of the station – leaving the soaring Zeidler-designed wood space where the train now stops to find a new use – and its unique rolling stock will be replaced gradually by regular GO trains.
While some UPX trains will still run express, with only two stations between the downtown and the airport, others will feature more stops along the way. Some trains may also continue beyond the airport, or begin east of downtown, linking the service into the broader GO offerings.
“There’s both good and bad here,” said Cameron MacLeod, executive director of the transit-advocacy group CodeRedTO. “It’s unfortunate that we have to spend a lot of money to repair old decisions. It’s a good reminder that we have to be careful.”
Metrolinx president and chief executive officer Phil Verster was unavailable to comment in person on Wednesday. In a statement, he said that the agency is “planning now for a future UP Express service that is more frequent and also has some journeys that are quicker than today.”
The shift was first reported by the Toronto Star, which obtained a February report detailing these and other possible changes. Some options in the 36-page report are no longer on the table, the agency said Wednesday, including a pedestrian bridge at Union Station to the new UP Express platform that would have added considerable time to the journey of UPX passengers.
“It should’ve been GO right from the start,” Toronto Councillor Josh Matlow said. “It should never have been a high-priced boutique service. It should always have been a more affordable GO line serving the average residents of Toronto and the [area] and I hope this is a lesson learned.”
Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins acknowledged that the UPX had demonstrated the problem of trying to mesh a public transit model with a service aimed deliberately at wealthier passengers.
“I think trying to create a public-transit service that caters to a very specific niche audience is difficult,” she said. “I think when the price dropped, we changed the business model at that point to turn it into public transit.”
The UPX launched in 2015 as a specialized service, with premium fares that were supposed to cover operating expenses. The trains were nicer than regular GO rolling stock, staff wore UPX-specific retro uniforms and passengers got a free on-board magazine to peruse.
Surveys by Metrolinx showed the service was popular among those who rode it. But the train hemorrhaged money in the initial period, with few willing to pay the high prices.
To transit consultant Jarrett Walker, the train was an example of “elite projection,” which occurs when political leaders or other influential people assume that a service they find valuable will automatically have broader appeal.
The government eventually slashed fares. Ridership jumped, with the train also starting to attract substantial numbers of commuters. From there, step by step, the uniqueness of the UPX has been chipped away.
Its president was removed and its operations were put under the GO umbrella. The uniforms became less eye-catching. The magazine was axed. And now it is set to disappear entirely as a separate offering.