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Metrolinx to Toronto YYZ

On many measures, the Toronto YYZ $456-million Union Pearson Express (UPX) is a success. It has excellent on-time performance, generates good customer feedback and offers a welcome antidote to traffic. The black spot is ridership, which is lagging well below expected levels.

The fares - set deliberately high enough to avoid crowding on the train, according to a senior figure in transit planning - appear to be doing that job too well.

The train was the brainchild of David Collenette, federal transportation minister from 1997 to 2003. His original concept was for the private sector to build and run the service for a profit, with no subsidy from taxpayers. For this to be possible, however, the train would need a steep fare.

In late 2003, two years after issuing a request for proposals, Transport Canada chose a subsidiary of SNC-Lavalin to finance, build and operate the line. The train was to start running by the end of last decade and cost $20 each way.

But the project was more difficult than SNC expected. For one, some residents along the route, particularly in Weston, objected to having local streets shut down at level crossings and demanded changes, such as tunnels and more stops.

For another, SNC couldn't find the financing it needed.

"Its lenders did not feel that they had sufficient protection from 'no market' risk (that is, from a situation where, despite all reasonable efforts to attract riders, the service does not generate enough revenues to be a viable business)," Ontario's Auditor-General wrote in a 2012 report. "The group proposed that the province assume the lenders' risk by purchasing [air-rail link] assets if the 'no market' scenario arose. The province rejected this proposal, so the group walked away from the project."

The train is running at less than 10 per cent capacity and may not hit its first-year ridership target this summer. The goal of day-to-day operations being paid out of the fare-box seems far off.

"You're never going to break even if people aren't using the service," Steven Del Duca, Minister of Transportation since 2014, acknowledged in an interview.

"To have that aspiration, I think, is a good thing, because I think the people of Ontario would support the idea that we would try to develop transit services that would break even, and perhaps do better than break even at some point. But when your ridership numbers are chronically as low as the UP Express numbers have been over these last eight months, something's got to give."

Metrolinx has repeatedly said the train needs time to build ridership. But with political pressure coming down from Mr. Del Duca and Premier Kathleen Wynne, change is coming. There will be more promotions - including free rides this weekend - and efforts to make the train easier for passengers to find.

It should also become more affordable. The one-way fare is $27.50, though there are various discounts and it costs $19 with a Presto card. Monthly tallies since the launch show roughly half the passengers have paid the full fare and one-fifth to one-quarter used Presto. In the first eight months, an average of 2.25 per cent of passengers were airport workers taking advantage of their discount. Over all, the average fare paid has been $22.50.

Fares are expected to drop as the train becomes some sort of hybrid between airport service and commuter option.


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