The Ontario government's new airport express train is running 90 per cent empty, with ridership slumping since its launch in June.
The Union-Pearson Express (UPX), which costs $27.50 one way, is only attracting about 2,500 riders per day, provincial transit agency Metrolinx has revealed. That figure is down 750 from the daily ridership during its first week in service.
The dismal numbers are reviving questions about the value of having the train – which cost $456-million to build and now $68-million annually to operate – at a time when Toronto's regular subway system is overcrowded and a long list of other transit projects remains unbuilt.
Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, however, rejected calls Wednesday to lower UPX's fare to attract more riders. He argued it would be "rash" to make changes just three months after the line opened, and said he is confident ridership will be up to 5,000 per day by the train's one-year anniversary.
"Every new service that we introduce experiences some degree of people having to get used to it to adjust their travel opportunities," he told The Globe following question period, where he came under fire from both opposition parties. "I'm confident, because the team at UP Express and Metrolinx will continue to work hard on getting the message out."
Mr. Del Duca conceded there was "a dip" in ridership over the summer, but said once more people find out about the train, they will start using it.
"Anecdotally, speaking to people right across this region who've taken it, they love it," he said.
UPX runs between Union Station in downtown Toronto and Pearson International Airport every 15 minutes, with two stops along the way at Dundas West and Weston. It makes the trip in 25 minutes. The train is the only rapid transit connection to Pearson. A TTC trip to the airport, which costs $3 and attracts 5,000 riders per day, involves taking a bus from the end of the subway line.
Transit advocates have long criticized the decision to build a premium-fare train targeted at a niche market of business travellers, instead of using the money to add more service to the regular TTC or GO systems.
TTCriders, one transit activist group, is calling for the province to drop the UPX fare to $3, add more stops and integrate it with the TTC.
"When the TTC is overcrowded and breaking down and fares are going up again, we have got to get our priorities straight," said Mary Breen, a spokeswoman for the group.
Added Steve Munro, a transit advocate and blogger, "[UPX is] a serious diversion of resources from general transit service."
The TTC wants to build a downtown relief subway line to alleviate the crushing congestion at its Yonge and Bloor subway interchange, but does not have the funds. Smart Track, Mayor John Tory's planned cross-city surface rail line, is also not fully funded.
The UPX is modelled after airport express trains in London and Shanghai. But in those cities, the airports are also served by the regular subway systems as well.
Even Vancouver, which has a metropolitan population less than half that of Toronto, has connected its regular rapid transit system to the airport. A SkyTrain ride from downtown costs $6.75, according to TransLink's trip planner.
Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris called on the government to slash UPX fares. He dubbed the train the "Pearson ghost express" and a "white elephant on rails." Mr. Harris argued the government overspent on UPX by contracting a blue-chip design firm to create the train's branding and opting for such touches as retro uniforms for train crews.
"Three months after this Premier launched the UP Express luxury ride to Pearson, ridership is going anywhere but up," he said in the legislature. "After spending taxpayers' millions on unnecessary boutique terminal facades and retro uniforms, the Premier and her transportation minister have opted for fare pricing out of reach for most to pay for their luxury access."
NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo added, "How much will Ontarians pay to subsidize this luxury service for only a few business-class travellers that regular people can't afford to access and can't afford to take?"