How Toronto Turned an Airport Rail Failure Into a Commuter Asset - CityLab

For years, arrivals to Toronto via its Pearson International Airport emerged into a sunless area beneath an overpass 14 miles from downtown.

Until recently, anyone without a ride waiting for them outside the terminal would have to settle for a taxi, rental car, or a city bus. With downtown cab costing a fixed $53 CAD before tip, many settled for the $3 bus.

Unlike Chicago, which wants a new rapid transit service between O’Hare and downtown—potentially courtesy of Elon Musk—Toronto doesn’t have a subway connection to its airport. As a result, the 192 Airport Rocket bus was just the first in a series of steps necessary to reach the city center as it dropped off passengers at the end of the subway, with a 30-40 minute ride and a transfer away from the city center.

That all changed for Toronto on June 6, 2015 when the Union-Pearson Express (UPX) opened to the public. Built and operated by Government of Ontario transit agency Metrolinx, the $456-million line was the first ever direct rail link between downtown Toronto and the airport.

It isn’t the “high-speed Loop” Musk’s Boring Company is proposing for Chicago, but it fills a similar gap in the market: A 20-minute service priced between the cost of a subway fare and a cab.

UPX originated in the early 2000s under then-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. The service was supposed to be privately built and managed without public funds. Named “Blue22” the service would use second-hand diesel trains from VIA Rail, Canada's national passenger train service. But by July 2010, plans for Blue22 had stalled. The project was taken over by Metrolinx with the expectation that it would open in time for the 2015 Pan American Games.

Compared to the 192 Rocket bus, the UPX is incredibly sleek. The stations, designed with input from style expert and Wallpaper* magazine founder Tyler Brûlé, are fresh and modern with exposed concrete and wood accents, the trains arrive on time, and the end-to-end journey takes about 25 minutes—much less time than by car.

The diesel train sets come with Wi-Fi, electrical outlets, and live flight information screens. There’s even a special travel magazine in the seat pockets. In the beginning, there was also a lot of extra room. The end-to-end fare on opening day was $27.90 CAD (discounted to $19 with a Presto fare card), about eight times the subway and bus fare. As a result, ridership was embarrassingly low. Only about 2,000 to 2,200 people were riding daily, well short of the 7,000 targeted by Metrolinx.

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