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Thousands of people boarded the Union Pearson Express for free during a family day promotion by Metrolinx, in Toronto, on Feb. 15.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

For the first time since it opened, Toronto's troubled airport express was packed this weekend as passengers took advantage of free service.

Some 40,000 people waited up to three hours to take the Union Pearson Express over three days – many just going for a ride. Since the train opened in June, 2015, it has only attracted 65,000 to 75,000 passengers in total.

Anne Marie Aikins, spokesperson for provincial transit agency Metrolinx, said lines were up to 1,000 people deep waiting to take the $456-million train.

"We wanted to introduce as many people as we could to the service," she said.

The company has struggled to put the UP Express on the map, and Ms. Aikins said the promotion was one way to solve the problem. In November and December, for example, there were fewer than 2,220 passengers on board a day; the train needs 7,000 a day to cover the cost of operation.

The crux of the matter is the cost: Many people waiting in line during Family Day expressed sour feelings when it came to coughing up the regular fare of $27.50. Some said money could be better spent on taxis, subways, even limos when going to the airport.

Brampton resident Karyn Maunders came with her family on Monday to "see what it was all about." She said she was deterred from taking the train in the summer because of the high ticket price.

"If I was travelling on my own, maybe," she said, "but not with the family because there's six of us."

Sue Gracie, 45, said even though the ride was "fast and comfortable," she wouldn't take it again at its current cost.

Critics have said the train should lower its fare to attract both air travellers and commuters, an idea endorsed by Premier Kathleen Wynne.

"I think that $27 is not for a family, it's meant for one person only," said Asif Omar, 37, who was accompanied by his wife and three kids. "I don't want to spend $100 to go from here to the airport instead of paying for a cab. I'm only here because it's free."

Ms. Aikins said Metrolinx is exploring new fare models to attract more riders. She said there's been much interest from residents in the west end of the city who want to use it to get downtown.

The goal, said Ms. Aikins, is to get two million cars off the road every year to mitigate traffic congestion.