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Union Pearson Express raises big questions for larger transit projects

The UPX story is not just an embarrassment. It raises questions about the whole regional transit strategy.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Toronto commuters have complained for years that governments never come through on their transit promises. Again and again, they have seen plans for big flashy transit projects come and go.

The Union Pearson Express is an exception. In this case, government actually delivered. The project came in on budget and on time. When it opened for business last June, whizzing from Pearson International Airport to Union Station, it seemed a minor miracle.

Unfortunately, not many people are taking it. Despite the plush ride and reliable service, only 2,200 people a day were riding in November and December – well short of the target of 5,000 by the end of its first year and a small fraction of its 17,000 maximum capacity. On Tuesday, after months of insisting that their plan for a high-end service was sound and that the train just needed more time to catch on, provincial officials slashed prices by more than half in a desperate attempt to attract customers.

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The UPX story is not just an embarrassment. It raises questions about the whole regional transit strategy. The provincial government under Premier Kathleen Wynne and the municipal government under Mayor John Tory are proposing to spend billions increasing service on the GO Transit rail lines that radiate out from Union Station. Ms. Wynne's goal is to create an express rail system that would whisk commuters around the region; Mr. Tory's to create a "surface subway" system, SmartTrack, on the GO tracks and take pressure off the Toronto Transit Commission.

What if transit planners are wrong about those projects, too? If their ridership projections for the UPX were so badly off, who is to say their expectation of big demand for regional express rail and SmartTrack are justified? To have a little airport train run mostly empty is one thing. The express rail and SmartTrack projects are on another scale of magnitude.

The man in charge, Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, says not to worry: The UPX is a whole new service that has to attract a whole new set of users; GO has been running for years and so has an established customer base to build on as it expands its service. True.

But, as provincial officials acknowledge, the UPX experience also shows that it is hard to get people to change their travel patterns. How do you persuade people who usually get to Pearson by car, cab or TTC to ride the UPX? The next wave of new projects face the same challenges. How do you get commuters who travel by car or TTC to switch to SmartTrack? Recent studies suggest they would do so only at a low fare that would make the service very costly for governments to run. How, for that matter, do you get car-dependent suburban commuters to switch to regional rail?

Government should invest first where there is a proven need. Building more rapid transit into Scarborough makes sense by that logic because the old Scarborough RT is well used and we can be reasonably certain that the subway and light-rail lines that are supposed to replace it would attract lots of riders. The same can be said of the Finch West light-rail project, which would replace a very busy bus line.

Then there is the long-awaited downtown relief line, which has been pushed down the priority list by SmartTrack and regional rail. Under the most recent proposal, it would run in part along Queen Street, already a heavily used transit corridor with a busy streetcar.

Toronto built its first subway on Yonge because the streetcar line was overcrowded. Just look at the old photographs of full streetcars lined up on Yonge. Planners back then could be sure that if they built a subway, it would draw lots of riders.

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Authorities were right to want a rail link to the airport. In time, it may prove its worth. They are right to want to expand regional rail, too. Many major world cities have rail networks to complement their urban transit services. But when they are handing out the dollars, they should make sure that lines that we know will attract lots of riders on the first day stand at the front of the line.

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