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Toronto Metrolinx to cut fares in half for Toronto’s struggling Union Pearson Express train

Low ridership on the UPX has become an increasing political headache for the Ontario Liberals.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The province is moving to slash fares on Toronto's airport train and make it more of a commuter option, backing away from the "premium" business model amid mounting concern that it isn't attracting enough riders.

The Globe and Mail has learned from multiple sources that the shift would bring the base fare -- now set at $27.50 -- to $12. For people with a Presto fare-card, the cost would drop from $19 to $9.

Under the plan, riders using the Union Pearson Express (UPX) to travel between the three stations within the city – and not going to the airport – would also see their fares decline, to the same price as the corresponding GO fares. At less than $6, this would make it about double the cost of a Toronto Transit Commission token.

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"It's a step in the right direction but it's certainly not enough," said Jess Bell, head of the advocacy group TTCRiders, which is calling for the train to have the same fare as the TTC. "We think it should be as cheap as possible, because we need as many people riding public transit, that's the best way to deal with congestion."

The new commuter fares would answer a key criticism of the train – that it doesn't help the people whose neighbourhoods it runs through. The Kitchener GO line now has five commuter trains, each of which can carry about 1,800 people, arriving at Union station between 7 and 9 a.m. The airport trains are smaller, with space for only about 350 people each, but run more often than GO's commuter trains. The eight UPX trains between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. could, in theory, increase ridership along that section of the route by about one-third if all the trains were full.

The Minister of Transportation, who was not available for an interview Monday evening, is expected to unveil the new fares at an announcement Tuesday afternoon.

Anne Marie Aikins, spokeswoman for the regional transit agency Metrolinx, refused to confirm the specifics of the fare changes. "Since it launched last June, UP Express has been very popular with the people who use it and we want more people to use it," she said in an e-mail.

The new fares are subject to approval by the board of Metrolinx, which will hold a special meeting Tuesday evening. With pressure from Queen's Park to get more people on the train, they are not expected to push back.

Low ridership on the UPX has become an increasing political headache for the Ontario Liberals. They insisted on building the train after the private sector decided its prospects didn't look good enough, and have faced fierce criticism since it started running last summer.

The province retained the private sector's vision of a high-end train that would pay its day-to-day costs from the fare box. To break even, the train would need to carry about 7,000 people a day and, based on projections before the launch, Metrolinx believed this would take three to five years. Public take-up has been slow, though, and the train has been bleeding money since it launched.

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"To think that there are as few as six people [at a time] on a significant piece of infrastructure that cost taxpayers almost a half a billion dollars is really a shame," said Progressive Conservative MPP and opposition transportation critic Michael Harris.

"It's just unfortunate that they've taken so long," he added. "We've been bringing this up ever since they started this. I talked about it in committee, they were adamant that they weren't going to revisit it until at least a year, and here we go."

For months, Metrolinx has been pleading for the public to be patient, insisting that price was not holding back ridership on the UPX. But after limited rises in the early months, ridership dropped in November and December to around 2,200 a day, prompting concerns at the agency and at Queen's Park. A flurry of special offers began to appear.

A discount allowing people to do a return trip for the price of a one-way fare was used 10,000 times by Jan. 19, according to Metrolinx, the last date for which figures are publicly available. And a promotion offering free rides during the long weekend earlier this month attracted about 40,000 people, highlighting how much latent interest there was.

The train cost $456-million to build and was promised as part of the city's successful bid for the Pan Am Games.

These Games were touted, in the lead-up, as fundamental to the train's early success. A report from consultants Steer Davies Gleave called their first-year projections "conservative given the Pan-Am Games in July 2015, just three months after opening." The Games were projected to add 4,000 passengers per day to the regular ridership. The hoped-for boost didn't materialize, with the train carrying a total average of about 2,500 a day during that period.

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