At its recent meeting, the Metrolinx Board approved a GO Transit fare increase taking effect February 1, 2015.
A separate, but important topic, and one noticeably absent from the meeting agenda, is the question of regional fare integration. Another related matter is the relative roles of GO as a regional operator and the TTC as a local one to accommodate demand to the core area. The hybrid SmartTrack proposal is a bit of both — a GO Transit corridor running with station spacings more like a subway in spots, but at TTC fares.
The problem has always been that GO simply does not regard itself, or at least not until quite recently, as having a role as part of a unified network. Critically, the fare structure is rigged against short distance trips, and this has been getting progressively worse for a decade.
We hear all about a “fare by distance” system, but in fact, GO fares for short trips have consistently risen at a greater percentage rate than for long ones. Here are the last decade’s worth of fare increase.
|Date||Fare Range||Fare Increase|
|2012||$4.20 to $5.50||$0.30|
|$5.51 to $7.00||$0.35|
|2013||$4.50 to $5.80||$0.35|
|$5.81 to $7.35||$0.45|
|2014||$4.85 to $6.15||$0.35|
|$6.16 to $7.80||$0.45|
|2015||$0.00 to $5.20||$0.10|
|$5.21 to $6.50||$0.35|
|$6.51 to $8.25||$0.45|
Until 2012, fare increases were a fixed amount across all trips regardless of their length and cost. If the formula, as claimed by Metrolinx, is that the fare is made up of a fixed component and a distance one, then a flat increase changes only the fixed component and distance becomes less important. Fares for short trips go up, as a percentage of their value, more than fares for long ones.
Starting in 2012, a tiered increase was adopted so that higher fares would see a larger jump, but the implementation contained a basic flaw. The “top tier” is open ended, and includes fares where the percentage increase is much lower than the claimed system average (which for 2015 is 5%).
Even with “tiered” increases, the effect is that fares for the longest trips are rising much slower than for short ones, and this progressively makes short trips less attractive to riders (never mind the basic problem of just finding space on a train).
The difference in the increases is quite striking depending on which “tier” of fares we look at. (In this table the “2014” fare is the starting point. Equivalent fares for 2011 and 2003 are obtained by working backwards through previous fare changes. The 2015 fare is based on the recently approved change.)
|2003 Fare||2011 Fare||2011:2003||2014 Fare||2014:2003||2015 Fare||2015:2003|
Because the fare increases from 2003 to 2011 were a flat amount, the effect was to raise all fares by $1.15 regardless of the base fare. The result was that short trips (with 2014 fares at the $5 level) went up 40% while long trips (2014 fare of $15) went up only 9% during this period. The situation is even more beneficial for trips with 2014 fares over $15.
With the introduction of tiered increments, the problem was not quite so bad, especially for those in the very bottom tier (represented within Toronto only by Exhibition and Bloor Stations), but there is a long-standing inequity from the many years of low increases for long haul trips. Moreover, the highest increment for 2015, $0.50, is 5% of a $10 fare, but many fares are substantially higher and therefore receive a lower percentage increase.
The cumulative effect is that long distance GO riders have seen much lower increases in fares over past years, and this is showing no sign of stopping if Metrolinx continues its pattern of fare changes. At the same time, the short trip fare has gone up quite substantially. In 2003, the cost of an adult TTC token was $1.90, and today it is $2.70, an increase of 42%. During the same period, the cost of a short-haul GO fare has gone up by almost double this rate. Why are higher TTC fares attacked as a mark of profligate management and runaway labour settlements, while the skew in GO fares is unchallenged?
Any move to “integrate” GO services into the TTC network must address this inbalance. The following chart shows dramatically how the percentage increase in fares has penalized short-haul trips.
The “2015:2010” ratio shows the effect of the introduction of tiered price hikes with the value of the ratio staying in a band between 20-30%. However, once the 2014 fare goes above $9, the curve turns downward.
Turning to the question of “fare by distance”, if the formula really does contain a fixed and a variable component, we should be able to roughly work backward to determine what these were back in 2003 (presuming, of course, that the fares were not already gerrymandered then).
Both Hamilton and Oakville Stations have had GO rail service since the first days of the network, and we can assume that the fare structure for these two have evolved lock step over time. In 2014, the fares are $11.00 and $7.75 respectively, but back in 2003 they would have been $8.35 and $5.35. The difference in distance to the two stations from Union is about 30km, and so we must conclude that this was “worth” $3 back in 2003, or $0.10 per km.
The distance to Hamilton from Union is about 68km, making the distance portion of the 2003 fare $6.80 and leaving $1.55 for the fixed portion. (Note that without access to GO’s internal fare calculation mechanism, that’s the back of a well-informed envelope.)
There are many permutations of fares, and as GO’s network expanded, these became quite complex with a multitude of to-from pairs no longer concentrated at Union Station. GO’s network grew outward making it possible to take very long trips by rail or bus, and some fares are very much above the level where the maximum increase yields 5%. For example, a trip from Kitchener-Waterloo costs $16.10 today, and will go up by only 3.11% in 2015.
Another problem with distances (and I am not even going to attempt to unscramble this one) lies in the question of crow-fly measurements vs distances actually travelled. These could even be different depending on the mode where rail could take a more direct route than a parallel bus service, or the route forced by the network and service structure is longer than a motorist making the same trip would take.
In its review of regional service and fares, Metrolinx really needs to take the covers off of its fare model so that we can understand how it works, or if it even works at all. There is a good chance we will find that whatever calculations existed over a decade ago have simply been frozen in place with all of the fares going up by the prescribed increments. Unknowingly, the Metrolinx Board (and everyone else) has swallowed the claim that GO is a fare-by-distance operation, when in fact it is increasingly subsidizing long-haul riders while jacking up fares for shorter trips.
For example, it is about three times as long from Kitchener-Waterloo to Union as it is from Oakville, but the ratio of 2014 base fares is only 2.07. The political attractiveness of announcing new services distant from Toronto would be considerably reduced without a tariff that benefits long distance riders.
There may be a policy rationale for such an arrangement such as a recognition that longer trips are harder to woo, and if captured by transit, make a bigger contribution to congestion and pollution relief. If that’s the policy, then it must be clearly stated. The implications for short haul fares and any potential benefit for near-416 “relief” would require a fundamental rethink that would almost certainly cause short trip fares to drop. (The alternative, raising long-haul fares substantially, would not be politically acceptable.)
The obvious tradeoff is the benefit of greater GO ridership as an alternative to very expensive capital construction and operation on the subway network. This is not to say more subway capacity could be dropped from plans, but “slicing the top off of the peak” may be quite beneficial.
That is a clear part of the SmartTrack premise with its TTC level fares, well below current GO levels. Today, Milliken (the Stouffville line at Steeles) to Union is $7.10, or $6.39 with Presto. Providing the same trip for $2.70 (or even less to a Metropass holder) will require a huge subsidy that cannot be offset simply by added ridership. This is a challenge for SmartTrack not just in the operating subsidy needed, but that this would be above the very high capital cost now foreseen for this service.
Do Metrolinx and the City of Toronto want to have an open, honest discussion about fares, service and capital projects? Without them, we are doomed to political posturing uninformed by a real examination of how a new, unified network might actually work.