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Toronto Union Pearson Express head to be removed from role

Engineer operating the Union Pearson Express train as it approaches Terminal 1 at Pearson Airport on Monday.

Patrick Dell/The Globe and Mail

The head of Toronto's struggling airport train is being eased out of her role as part of a Metrolinx reorganization.

The Globe and Mail has learned that plans are taking shape to move the Union Pearson Express under the direct control of GO Transit.

As president of the UPX, Kathy Haley was tasked with rolling out the airport train as an explicitly "premium" service. But a recent decision by Metrolinx to slash fares, in a bid to attract riders, has the effect of turning the train into more of a commuter option. A coming reorganization that would fold it into GO is expected to further that shift.

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It is unclear if this change would leave a role at Metrolinx for Ms. Haley. The regional transit agency said in a brief statement Wednesday that they are in the midst of an "organizational review," adding that they couldn't comment on plans "that have yet to be finalized."

"I would say [Premier] Kathleen Wynne and [Transportation Minister] Steven Del Duca are absolutely looking for a fall person … over at Metrolinx to shift the blame on the disaster rollout of UPX, and they may have found somebody," Progressive Conservative MPP and transportation critic Michael Harris said.

The Globe has requested comment from Ms. Haley.

Ms. Haley joined Metrolinx in 2011 as the first president of the Union Pearson Express. She made about $235,000 in 2014, according to the latest disclosure of government-funded salaries. So far, the UPX has operated as a distinct body within Metrolinx, raising eyebrows about the efficiency of having senior executives running the small-scale service.

"We could have the manager of the Rosedale and Forest Hill buses," Toronto blogger and transit-watcher Steve Munro said. "It is ludicrous."

Service on the airport train started with much fanfare last June. In several public comments since, Ms. Haley, who has a background in marketing, has noted that they succeeded in launching on time and on budget and creating a train highly regarded by its customers. They have also had high on-time performance. But ridership has been a perennial black spot.

The UPX was projected to reach 5,000 daily passengers by June, at the end of the first year of service. Ridership was slow to grow, gradually reaching about half that target and then dropping in November and December, the last months for which figures are publicly available.

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Throughout the early months, Metrolinx said that the service just needed more time and marketing efforts. They insisted that the price – $27.50 cash for a one-way trip, or less with a Presto fare card – was not holding back ridership. But public opinion was turning against the train, with polling showing that an increasing number of Torontonians were viewing it as too expensive.

Alarmed at the low passenger take-up, Metrolinx began doing quiet focus groups in January. According to information released recently by the transit agency, participants tended to suggest $10 to $15 as the right price for the train.

The latest round of ridership numbers, released in early February, showed declines at the end of 2015. The provincial government went public almost immediately with its desire that Metrolinx make the service act more like a commuter train. Within two weeks, the transit agency board had approved cutting the fares by more than half. Starting March 9, the train will cost $12 one way, or $9 with a Presto card.

The fare reductions left ticket prices aligned with the cost to take GO along the same corridor. Although the UPX-specific uniforms remain, as well as the Tyler Brûlé-designed décor, merging it with GO would mark the end to the premium business model associated with the train since it was pitched by the private sector more than a decade ago.

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