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Editorials How Toronto got a ‘world-class,’ gold-plated, half-billion-dollar empty train

A passenger has her ticket scanned on the new Union Pearson Express airport rail link in Toronto on Saturday, June 6, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Michelle Siu

Michelle Siu/The Canadian Press

Toronto's high-end airport express train is a failure. A city that urgently needs better transit has been saddled with a deluxe boutique rail service that cost $456-million to build and runs nearly empty, 19 1/2 hours a day.

The Union-Pearson Express (UPX) takes just 25 minutes to make the trip between Toronto's Pearson Airport and the Union Station transportation hub at the heart of the downtown. That's where the good news ends.

This publicly funded line was inexplicably designed as a premium service for business travellers, with a one-way fare of $27.50. That makes it a pointless option for the average commuter. But just to emphasize that point, UPX incorporates only two inconvenient stops along its route.

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Even business travellers aren't exactly thronging to UPX. Not all of them are heading for a single-downtown destination, it turns out, and few of them are sacrificing the door-to-door convenience of a cab or limo. Trains are running at under 10 per cent capacity and carrying about 2,200 riders a day, and falling – aggravating the frustrations of ordinary Torontonians who badly want and need transit to and from downtown, but whose tax dollars were arbitrarily redirected to this white elephant on wheels.

UPX never made sense as a business model. A product of political imperatives, it was powered by political choices, not a careful analysis of where the greatest number of underserved commuters are, and what would be the most cost-effective way of serving them. Canada's busiest airport and largest city badly needed a better transit connection, but it should have been neatly integrated into an expanded mass-transit network, not hived off into a boutique line designed to look good in international business brochures and Olympic bids.

Metrolinx, the Ontario agency that operates UPX, is under pressure to reduce fares and broaden the line's appeal to local commuters by integrating it more closely with Toronto's broader transit network – belatedly and imperfectly, but better late than never.

Governments find it almost impossible to admit mistakes – Metrolinx is stubbornly pinning the blame on poor signage and low public awareness – but UPX is a case where it is imperative to acknowledge failure and shift to Plan B. A restaurant as empty as UPX would have closed long ago, or shifted from artisanal foie gras to burgers, instead of blaming the patrons who never showed up.

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