The Metrolinx Board met on December 5, 2012. Most of its business was conducted in private, an unfortunate habit of this provincial agency, but some items emerged on the public agenda.
I have already reported on the “Next Wave” of transit projects and the amendments proposed for The Big Move regional plan. In other news …
A fare increase is an integral part of planning for system enhancements:
“Sufficient funding is required to maintain the high levels of reliability and customer service that have been accomplished over the last number of years.
“Without the fare increase, GO Transit will not be able to move forward with the planned service improvements.
“The fare increase assumes that the Provincial subsidy will remain at its current level of support.”
Among the improvements GO hopes to implement are 30-minute off-peak service on the Lakeshore corridor, midday service on the Barrie corridor to Aurora and additional 12-car trains.
The increase has several components:
- The base adult fares will be increased by
- 35¢ if they now lie between $4.50 and $5.80,
- 45¢ if they now lie between $5.81 and $7.35, and
- 55¢ if they are greater than $7.35.
- The Presto discount will be increased from 7.5% to 8.75% for the first 35 rides each month.
- The Presto discount will be increased from 87.5% to 87.75% for rides 36-40 in each month.
Metrolinx estimates that overall the increase will be about 31¢ per ride. If we examine this in more detail, we can see how the change affects different type of riders. [The figures in the following table are taken partly from the Metrolinx report, partly from the GO Transit online fare calculator, and partly by application of the new rules to existing fares.]
The table begins with the existing tariff for single adult fares, monthly passes (to be discontinued in 2013) and Presto. The Presto 40-trip value shows how there is already a price advantage built into that card to encourage migration from passes.
The 2013 figures show the combined effect of the single fare increase and the higher Presto discounts.
The ratios between 2013 and 2012 figures illustrate the side effects of Metrolinx’ methodology for applying fare increases.
Because the uplift is based on a fixed amount applied to a tier of fares, the percentage change is greater for fares near the bottom of a tier than near the top. The upper tier is open ended, and this means that the percentage change for very long trips is quite small. A very short trip within the 416 will see the single fare rise by over 6%, while long trips such as Kitchener or Niagara Falls go up by less than 4%.
The single fare increase is partly offset by the higher Presto discount so that a 40-trip Presto user will have roughly a 1.5% lower increase than the bump in the single fare. The carrot-and-stick approach for pass holders continues because someone who converts from a monthly pass to a Presto card now will see the combined effect of all discounts.
Most passholders will see a fare increase of under 2% if they are 40-trip riders. A 35-trip passholder does even better on the conversion because they no longer pay for trips they don’t use, and their monthly cost will go down, or rise only marginally in 2013. This is a one-time gift to GO Transit riders that we will not likely see when Presto comes to the TTC where savings, if any, from the conversion will be directed to paying off the cost of implementation.
During the post-meeting press scrum, Tess Kalinowski from The Star asked about the provision of free parking and the fact that riders who do not drive to a GO station are paying for something they don’t use. CEO Bruce McCuaig replies that free parking has always been part of GO’s business model, and he implied that those who ride in by transit enjoy an equivalent benefit with the lower cofare arrangements with local transit operators. Whether Metrolinx will decide to mine parking as a future revenue source remains to be seen.
Comparing the situation at GO and TTC proves interesting. Both systems are starved for operating funding by their parent governments. In GO’s case, there is a clear desire to provide some new service, especially by getting more out of existing assets, and a recognition that the brand will be hurt if it cannot accommodate strong growth in demand. In the TTC’s case, decisions about fares are taken in a political context where any increase is considered to be outside the political orthodoxy of holding the line on costs in a public agency. I will return to the TTC’s budget problems in a separate article.
Improvements in any system that depend on fare revenue are limited to those that can be implemented at low marginal cost relative to the new fares they generate. Policies that would require service to be expanded on a “loss leader” basis simply are not affordable. This is a fundamental contradiction of the goal of making transit a viable choice for many trips and for travel demands that don’t coincide with the heavily-used peak corridors and times. Metrolinx and Queen’s Park have yet to engage this vital part of system planning, and prefer to concentrate on big ticket capital programs without operating funding to support a more extensive menu of services.
GO continues to experience strong ridership growth with a 6% increase for the year ended September 2012 over the previous period. Growth is strongest on the bus system, although in absolute numbers it carries far less people than the trains. Bus demand is up 16% on weekends.
The train service guarantee (no more than 15 minutes late or it’s free) started on November 14, and to date riders on 62 trains have been refunded about $50k. The problems occur mainly on the outer ends of lines according to Gary McNeil, GO President, and so the number of refunds does not reflect the total ridership on the late trains.
This begs a question about GO’s on time performance stats which achieve an impressive 94%. Like the TTC, GO has leeway in the definition of what is “on time”, and the measure does not necessarily reflect the experience of riders on problem sections of routes. If there is a problem with reliability on the outer ends of lines (or specific hours of service), the exceptions should be broken out rather than being hidden under overwhelmingly positive averages. If nothing else, this would maintain credibility with what riders actually see rather than presenting a rose-tinted view for the Board members.
McNeil was asked about his biggest concern for GO, and replied that it is the risk of keeping up with growth. Indeed, GO is unable to meet its passenger comfort targets because of overcrowding on trains, and this is unlikely to change soon.
Use of the Presto smart card continues to grow although the rate is partly masked by the low initial volume, the force-feeding brought on by withdrawing older fare media, and soon by the uptake of Presto on its first major local transit system, Ottawa. As with ontime stats, the numbers would be more meaningful if broken out by system and if expressed as a percentage of market share, not simply a raw count of cards issued. Similarly, the dollar value of fares paid is meaningless without either a timeframe or the total value of fare revenue as a comparator.
Presto has a bad habit of trying to make its numbers look as good as possible. One wonders why the private sector representatives on the Metrolinx Board don’t ask questions about getting more meaningful data.
Metrolinx claims that the technical problems with the Ottawa rollout have been solved and a solution is being implemented. The proof will come with the deployment beginning in 2013.
The report includes customer feedback comments talking about the wonders of Presto, and including two unkind remarks about how behind the times the TTC is. Toronto’s problems lie in the lack of support for implementation costs, and the dubious viability of the technology while Queen’s Park blackmailed the TTC into adopting the provincial system with threats of cutting off all subsidies. For Metrolinx to publish comments slagging the TTC is, putting it mildly, in very poor taste, but it probably plays to their masters at the Pink Palace.
Presto’s rollout plan now includes a move toward the sort of “smart card” support the product badly lacked. Some of these are requirements to meet TTC specifications, but more generally Presto’s credibility would be under fire in a few years without greater flexibility.
What’s in the pipeline?
- Acceptance of bank cards for fare payment (depends on rollout of NFC (Near Field Communication) capability in credit and debit cards.
- New types of fare “products” (required to support TTC implementation and fare structure).
- Support for NFC-capable mobile devices.
- A Presto mobile app.
What is not yet clear is whether we will see a model where the actual Presto “card” is substantially replaced. Bank cards and mobile devices would be linked to central customer accounts, and a proprietary card would not required to get the fare schemes and discounts now available only through Presto itself.
Construction in the Kitchener corridor and on the airport spur continues, and the recently rebranded Air Rail Link now has spiffy renderings of its various stations.
At Union, the UP will operate from the west end of Track 1 outside of the existing train shed with access via the PATH link west from the main station.
Bloor Station will see renovations to give more than a bare-bones GO platform for airport travellers. What it won’t have is a direct connection to Dundas West Station, and a rather long open air walking transfer along Bloor Street will be required. This is another problem where Metrolinx staff slagged off the TTC for a failure of provincial funding. The Dundas West connection is not a priority for Toronto and why the city would divert scarce capital dollars to serve a Metrolinx project is a mystery.
The station at Terminal One will have a direct connection with the people mover to Terminal Three. What it will not have is a good distribution system for people who work in the airport neighbourhood, not right at the terminals.
UP President, Kathy Haley, mentioned that Metrolinx is talking to airlines about providing transportation for crews staying in downtown hotels. Leaving aside the question of what proportion of crews this represents, it also implies that some sort of discount structure might be provided for high volume corporate customers. Is Metrolinx beating the bushes for riders other than the business class travellers?
Metrolinx loves to point to many cities around the world with rapid transit links to their airports. What they neglect is that these lines are commonly part of a local system, not a purpose built, full cost recovery facility that only serves a fraction of the airport market.
Bruce McCuaig made a strange comment that UP has a “strategic value beyond rider counts”. Are we preparing the ground for lower-than-expected demand?
Once again, we had a public Metrolinx Board meeting overwhelmingly concerned with pumping the great accomplishments of Metrolinx and its divisions. The more difficult questions of policy, one hopes, get discussed at the much longer and more frequent private sessions, but there is little indication that the Board actually contributes much or if hard questions about funding and service growth are on their agenda.
Metrolinx could do the GTAH a world of good by bringing such debates out into the open if only to educate politicians, media and citizens in general about the context for transit support and expansion. Unrelenting good news is suspect if only because the rest of the world doesn’t work like that.