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Union-Pearson trains have been running less than 10 per cent full while the Toronto region is starved for transit infrastructure.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In a city starved for transit, the biggest criticism of Toronto's airport train is that it isn't really transit – it's the sort of swish train the private sector would build. But the private sector looked at the project and eventually decided it didn't make sense. So the province, which had already promised it would happen, went ahead on its own.

The train service designed to cater to the same "premium" market the private sector planned to target is now struggling to attract riders willing to pay its high prices. The result: The train is bleeding money and raising the ire of locals desperate for actual transit improvements.

Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, is getting pilloried for this. But most of the fault lies with its political masters.

Plans for an express airport rail link have long been kicked around, and the idea it would pay for itself became entrenched along the way. It was politicians who decided – back when the private sector was going to build it – to include the train in the bid book for last year's Pan Am Games. Metrolinx was told by the provincial government to build a high-end train service; so it did.

On many measures, the $456-million Union Pearson Express (UPX) is a success. It has excellent on-time performance, generates good customer feedback and offers a welcome antidote to traffic. The black spot is ridership, which is lagging well below expected levels.

The fares – set deliberately high enough to avoid crowding on the train, according to a senior figure in transit planning – appear to be doing that job too well. The train is running at less than 10 per cent capacity and may not hit its first-year ridership target this summer. The goal of day-to-day operations being paid out of the fare-box seems far off.

"You're never going to break even if people aren't using the service," Steven Del Duca, Minister of Transportation since 2014, acknowledged in an interview.

"To have that aspiration, I think, is a good thing, because I think the people of Ontario would support the idea that we would try to develop transit services that would break even, and perhaps do better than break even at some point. But when your ridership numbers are chronically as low as the UP Express numbers have been over these last eight months, something's got to give."

Metrolinx has repeatedly said the train needs time to build ridership. But with political pressure coming down from Mr. Del Duca and Premier Kathleen Wynne, change is coming. There will be more promotions – including free rides this weekend – and efforts to make the train easier for passengers to find.

It should also become more affordable. The one-way fare is $27.50, though there are various discounts and it costs $19 with a Presto card. Monthly tallies since the launch show roughly half the passengers have paid the full fare and one-fifth to one-quarter used Presto. In the first eight months, an average of 2.25 per cent of passengers were airport workers taking advantage of their discount. Over all, the average fare paid has been $22.50.

Fares are expected to drop as the train becomes some sort of hybrid between airport service and commuter option.

"[It] needs to be reconceived as part of the public transit network in Toronto," said chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat. The train has limited capacity to act as real public transit, though. Standing-room only, each train would carry only 350 people, and the stations are not designed to handle longer trains. Still, even talking about this shift means burying 15 years of theory on how to run this service.

The train was the brainchild of David Collenette, federal transportation minister from 1997 to 2003. His original concept was for the private sector to build and run the service for a profit, with no subsidy from taxpayers. For this to be possible, however, the train would need a steep fare.

In late 2003, two years after issuing a request for proposals, Transport Canada chose a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin to finance, build and operate the line. The train was to start running by the end of last decade and cost $20 each way.

But the project was more difficult than SNC expected. For one, some residents along the route, particularly in Weston, objected to having local streets shut down at level crossings and demanded changes, such as tunnels and more stops.

For another, SNC couldn't find the financing it needed.

"Its lenders did not feel that they had sufficient protection from 'no market' risk (that is, from a situation where, despite all reasonable efforts to attract riders, the service does not generate enough revenues to be a viable business)," Ontario's Auditor-General wrote in a 2012 report. "The group proposed that the province assume the lenders' risk by purchasing [air-rail link] assets if the 'no market' scenario arose. The province rejected this proposal, so the group walked away from the project."

The project could have died at that point. But sources with knowledge of the government's thinking said Queen's Park didn't want to renege on its Pan Am promise and also thought the project fit with Metrolinx's mandate to build regional transit connections.

The government also argued the UPX would relieve pressure on a congested corridor. Because it mostly used an existing rail corridor, it would also be faster to build than most other projects on the province's wish list.

Mr. Collenette is now an adviser to Mr. Del Duca on a high-speed rail proposal, expected to be paid up to $91,260 for about five months' work, and reimbursed for expenses related to his role. He refused to answer questions for this story.

"I'm certainly not going to talk on the record about this at all. I'm sorry. I'm just not going to talk about it," he said when reached by phone. In an e-mail, he wrote that he was "proud" to have promoted the air-rail link project and "delighted" the province built it. "I believe the UP Express is a first class service and one I use frequently," he wrote.

Although the province took over the project, it still hoped fares would cover at least the operating costs. A 2010 news release shows how, from the start, Queen's Park was continuing with the SNC vision of "a premium express rail shuttle service."

The price kept rising, though. The estimated $30-million in annual operating expenses cited in the auditor's report turned out to be about half what it is costing now. The train now needs 7,000 riders a day to break even on operations, a number that assumes the current fares.

Now those high fares are deterring riders and dashing pre-launch expectations. The hoped-for boost around the Pan Am Games – which had been projected to add 4,000 riders a day to the normal ridership – didn't materialize, with the train carrying a total average of about 2,500 a day. November and December, the latest months for which the public has ridership figures, were the worst months yet, sinking to an average of less than 2,200 passengers per day.

The low ridership has exacerbated the central criticism of UPX – that public money shouldn't subsidize a train openly aimed at well-heeled riders. The discomfort has reached even into the ranks of senior Metrolinx executives, with one saying privately that the train's construction costs couldn't be justified on a social-equity basis without it being more broadly useful. To critics, the train is an example of what happens when elites design transit around their own ideas and desires.

Author and transit expert Jarrett Walker observed on Twitter: "If you're wealthy, you're unusual, so your personal tastes are a poor guide to what will make good transit."

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