Ridership of the rail link to Toronto's airport has flatlined since the summer, opening up the controversial service to renewed criticism.
The Union-Pearson Express enjoyed a small bump in ridership once summer ended, according to a new report. But the latest figures showed that the number of passengers in real terms was unchanged from September to October. Numbers for November are not yet available.
The UPX recently started offering a two-for-one deal as part of a series of special offers designed to entice new passengers. Children under 13 can ride free starting in January. And the round-trip fare without a Presto card is dropping this week from $53 to $44.
Most fares are not changing, though. And even as some adjustments are made, UPX president Kathy Haley pushed back at the suggestion the base fare might be too high.
"We just launched six months ago, and I think it'd be really totally premature to take a look at that," she said on Monday. "This value proposition is really compelling. It's compelling for businesses, it's compelling for consumers. So, you know, we will continue to listen and learn and modify, but our base fare, we think, is a very competitive and reasonable fare at $19 with a Presto card."
The service connecting Toronto's downtown train station with the airport in Mississauga launched in the summer. It was praised as one of the first new pieces of transit to be completed in years, even as critics said the price made it inaccessible to everyday commuters. Without the Presto fare card, the train costs $27.50 each way.
Blogger and transit authority Steve Munro said UPX officials might have backed themselves into a corner on fares. "Politically, it's very difficult for them to say, hey, it failed [and reduce the price]," he said.
The service was forecast to hit 5,000 passengers a day by next summer, about twice the current ridership. Ms. Haley suggested on Monday that the forecast might be flawed, because it predated Uber, and hinted that the ridership goal could be in flux.
"We're doing everything that we can to make sure that we're meeting those numbers," she said. "We're going to need to continue to calibrate; we'll continue to look and modify. But, you know, we're pretty confident that we'll continue to build the business."
Mr. Munro warned that UPX has a steep hill to climb to meet its ridership targets. "They're halfway to 5,000, but they started well above zero, so they basically have had not all that much growth," he said.
The report on Monday that revealed the latest numbers also cited a study acknowledging that rider behaviour is difficult to change. "This is consistent with what we have been told by other international air rail links – changing entrenched travel behaviours of both local and visiting air travellers takes time," it states.
Metrolinx, the regional transit agency that oversees the UPX, is keen to get to the point where fares cover the service's operational expenses. The service needs 7,000 riders a day to break even on operating costs – leaving aside the $456-million cost of building the line – and hopes to reach that in three to five years.