The Metrolinx Board met on December 11. Items of interest on the agenda included:
- A proposed GO Transit fare increase
- The fare structure for the Union Pearson Express service
- A review of the Regional Express Rail project
- An update on the status of major capital projects
The GO Transit fare increase is designed to provide a 5% more revenue effective February 1, 2015. As I have already discussed in a separate article, the actual magnitude of the increase varies considerably with longer trips seeing a smaller increase than fares for short ones. This has been a pervasive pattern in GO fares for over a decade that is only partly redressed by a “tiered” approach to fare increases in recent years.
Union Pearson Express Fares
The fare structure is, to no great surprise, not “affordable” in the sense of day-to-day travel for the distance involved. Metrolinx makes virtue of this by positioning the UP Express as a premium service in a league with other cities:
With the launch of Union Pearson (UP) Express in
spring 2015, Toronto will join the ranks of other
world class cities with an express rail service
between downtown and the airport. [Report p. 1]
Missing from this statement is the acknowledgement that many “world class cities” also have lower-cost routes to their airports that provide better coverage for access along their routes at fares within the tariff of normal transit operations. Notable by their absence from comparisons with other cities are any North American airports because none of these offer a premium express service.
The basic fare was rumoured almost since the project’s outset to be over $20. An early name “Blue 22” referred both to the running time and the fare level. What we actually have is a compromise, of sorts:
- The adult single fare is $27.50. This can best be described as the “tourist” fare in that only the unsuspecting, inexperienced visitor would actually pay it.
- Presto users will pay $19.00.
- Lower single and Presto fares apply to students, seniors and children.
- Special fares apply to groups, airport employees and organizations with frequent travel requirements.
There is also a $55 “Family” fare, but it is not available on Presto, and Presto itself does not support charging multiple riders to one card so that a casual user could enjoy the Presto discount of a fellow passenger.
We will not know the actual “average” fare Presto receives until it has been in operation long enough to report passenger and revenue statistics.
Of course the magic question will be “can I buy a Presto card at the airport”, something that will be of greater importance as the local TTC network converts to Presto. Local fare options such as limited time passes should be available at the airport, not as a separate transaction when a rider first encounters the TTC.
In an unexpected show of common sense, the Greater Toronto Airport Authority has eliminated its planned $1.85 surcharge on fares, an amount intended to offset expected losses in parking revenue. The GTAA seemed unaware that a stated intention of the UP Express (and indeed of Metrolinx as an organization) is to reduce car travel.
Riders who are looking for reliable, frequent transportation to or from the airport should recognize that UP Express is a more appealing option than the alternatives, particularly in high-traffic times. UP Express should reduce car trips, benefitting both road congestion and the environment. [Report p. 2]
An ideal (if impossible) state would be one where nobody had to drive to the airport at all. Metrolinx regards Pearson Airport as one of its two most important “mobility hubs” alongside Union Station, but one would never know this from the leisurely progress on even a plan to serve that hub, let alone actual service.
Fares are adjusted by distance, with lower fares for trips of only 1 or 2 stops along the 3-stop line. These short trips will cost substantially more than a comparable GO Transit fare.
Presto fares to Union Station:
- UP Express from Bloor: $11.40
- UP Express from Weston: $15.20
- GO Transit from Kitchener: $16.10
- GO Transit from Guelph: $13.20
- GO Transit from Acton: $11.50
- GO Transit from Weston: $5.35
- GO Transit from Bloor: $5.20
Amenities specific to airport travellers are of little value to a non-airport rider, and the service from Weston or Bloor to Union is unlikely to draw much demand, notably at Bloor. The transfer connection from Dundas West Station involves a substantial walk outdoors just for the privilege of a high-priced ride that will almost certainly take longer (including walk and wait times) than continuing on the subway. In some circles, this is considered a marketing challenge and I look forward to the breathless copy in UP Express adverts. A “DRL West” it is not.
Meanwhile, the TTC will add its own 192 Airport Rocket to the subway map giving riders at least a hint that an alternate route to the airport exists.
- Total Pearson demand (annual): 40 million
- “In Scope” demand (catchment area of UP Express): 11.9m
- “Mature” ridership by 2020: 2.5m
The “in scope market” for this service is estimated at 11.9-million passengers annually in 2020 out of about 40-million total volume at Pearson Airport. At nearly 30%, that is considerably more than the 17% of Pearson users who are known to originate downtown. Clearly, Metrolinx is expecting a substantial contribution from areas beyond Union.
Looked at another way, if downtown is responsible for 17% of 40m trips, or 6.8m, then UP Express will capture less than half of this market.
Exhibit 2 on page 3 of the report gives some idea of how the passenger volumes expected on Presto were calculated. It shows the high percentage of airport-bound traffic UP Express is expected to capture, notably at the inconvenient Bloor/Dundas West connection. One wonders whether the authors of this projection have actually visited the location, or if, like the SmartTrack boffins, this is planning-by-Google-Maps.
Assuming 18 hour/day operation, the UP Express will provide 144 one-way trips between Pearson and Union. At a capacity per 3-car train of 180, this is a total capacity of about 26,000, but it is simply not possible to run at 100% all of the time, especially for counter-peak directions. The annual volume translates to about 8,300 riders per day (taking weekends as one “day” worth of demand). Metrolinx expects UP Express to begin at about 65% of the 2020 demand level and ramp up by 2018.
The UP Express will carry 6.25% of the trips to and from Pearson. That’s a start, but there is a long way to go before this will make any dent in traffic congestion or pollution.
Regional Express Rail Update
Much work is now underway looking at the details of all GO corridors including issues such as potential ridership, service levels and infrastructure requirements. This is long overdue, and will establish what is actually possible, what RER can achieve, and where the major roadblocks might be. This is well beyond the level of drawing lines on a map with little regard for feasibility or relative importance.
Part of the exercise is a “Business Case Analysis” that will include a full life cycle review of capital and operating costs, ridership and other benefits over a 60-year span. Because future years are discounted to a “present value”, they don’t weigh as heavily, but at least Metrolinx recognizes the long-term value of the major investment and change in GO’s operating philosophy that RER represents.
The analyses have not been published, and based on past efforts this can be worrying because much depends on the value assigned especially to “soft” items such as the value of future benefits and the assumptions built into ridership projections.
That said, Metrolinx hopes for:
- A three-to-four times benefit:cost factor
- GO ridership expanding from 200k daily today to 450k by 2031
- GO’s share of trips over 10km tripling from 3.6% today by 2041
- Congestion and crowding relief for roads and transit lines
The analysis to date is based on the existing network and fare structure. Future work will review the effect of adding stations and of fare integration with local systems.
With an eye on the political calendar, Metrolinx will structure the roll out of construction and new services so there is a new service to announce every year for the coming decade. Many ribbons will be cut. One hopes they have learned from Transit City what happens when entire projects go into limbo. Such a plan will also challenge Queen’s Park to commit to multi-year spending, not just vague promises of “billions” in the hopper for more transit.
In the first quarter of 2015, Metrolinx hopes to deliver the “service concept” for the RER corridors to Queen’s Park. Whether this will be done publicly is not clear. However, any discussions and planning for the future of RER depends on these concepts defining service frequency, hours, and projected ridership. In turn, these would dictate infrastructure needs for the corridors and fleet plans for the network as a whole.
The electrification component both affects and flows from the roll out plan. Certain parts of the network must be converted first simply to provide access to maintenance facilities. Some areas are critical because they are common to two or more corridors. At some locations, staging of major civil works such as rail-rail grade separations should precede electrification. This is all a complex juggling act.
Metrolinx plans extensive public consultation, and this really needs to engage affected neighbourhoods and groups at a level where real input is possible. Some works will be disruptive, and some nimbyism is to be expected. However, the way consultation is managed goes a long way to the success or failure of proposals. To that end, the more information is available early in the process, before designs and decisions are set in concrete, the better. There will always be a desire to move faster, to show “results”, but this can be undone by a sense that the bulldozers arrive tomorrow, and resistance is futile.
SmartTrack is part of this study in the sense that it partly duplicates RER requirements in two corridors — Stouffville and Weston. The word “congruence” is used to describe the two plans, although issues remain including how the RER and SmartTrack services would be integrated, including their fare structures, what stations would be added for either service, and what is to be done with the Eglinton West spur on the SmartTrack line.
There is a sense of delicacy at this point because some of the planning behind SmartTrack was, to be blunt, superficial. If the design must survive “as is” for political reasons, this will seriously interfere with the larger project. Staff from Metrolinx, the City and the TTC are already meeting to work out the issues, but until there is a public presentation, we will not know which options have been excluded.
The most obvious question is the future of the Eglinton LRT’s western extension which would be an equally valid way to serve the airport district while avoiding difficult construction challenges in Mount Dennis posed by SmartTrack. Also at issue will be the effect of RER/SmartTrack on demand patterns for the Scarborough Subway and on a future Downtown Relief subway line. There is a separate study for regional relief underway, but this is obviously closely linked to any plans for the GO network.
A further update will come to the March 2015 board meeting.
Major Capital Projects Update
The two separate teams managing capital projects within Metrolinx and GO have now been consolidated into a Capital Projects Group
The Eglinton-Crosstown tunnels are now completed from the Black Creek launch site east to Allen Road. A new launch shaft will be built east of the subway at Eglinton West Station, and the boring machines will relaunch from this location in March 2015.
Meanwhile, in Leaside, the launch site is under construction and the boring machines will be assembled for digging to start west to Yonge in the spring.
Both tunnel projects will reach Yonge Street in late 2016. The next stage will be station construction around the completed tunnels and outfitting the track, signals, power and other facilities needed to operate service. The contract award for this work is expected in mid-2015.
vivaNext Rapidway construction continues with phased openings planned through 2019.
At Union Station, work on the new trainshed atrium is substantially completed. Inside the station itself, Metrolinx expects to outfit the new west concourse with a target opening for “early 2015”. Once GO operations shift to the west side of the station, the east side will be free for demolition and reconstruction.
Much of the infrastructure expansion in the Georgetown South corridor is substantially complete as is work on the Union Pearson Express stations and airport spur. The first test UP train operated to the Pearson station on October 1, 2014.
Design work continues on the Finch West and Sheppard East LRT projects, but both of these have a low profile, and the future of their funding is uncertain given competing claims on available money and continuing political hostility to LRT. Whether Queen’s Park will forge ahead with these lines, or simply allow them to languish, remains to be seen. With early contracts scheduled to be awarded in 2015, clarity is required from all parties.
The Hurontario-Main LRT project is another that does not have a clear path forward. Although the recent election left council with a pro-LRT faction in Mississauga, Brampton now wants alternatives to be studied including underground construction.