Updated September 24, 2015 at 11:30 am:
Metrolinx has released details of its daily ridership counts.
Although they claim via Twitter that ridership is going up, when the numbers are actually graphed, this is not true.
The chart below shows:
- The projected ridership rising from 3,000 per average weekday to 5,000 over the first year of operation (blue).
- The actual ridership from the Metrolinx stats (green).
- The moving average weekly ridership (red). For the first six days, these are the values for the operation to date.
It is quite clear that the ridership has settled into a regular pattern after a dip in early July. There is little evidence of a Pan Am Games effect on the numbers. As and when Metrolinx releases additional ridership data, I will extend this chart.
What is missing from the Metrolinx data is a statement of the average fare paid and a breakdown by fare type. This would reveal both the nature of ridership and the effect, if any, of promotional fares on demand.
The original article follows below.
The Metrolinx board meeting for September 22 includes an update on the Union Pearson Express (UPX) and the evolution of its ridership.
Union Pearson Express (UPX) Update
Metrolinx continues its rosy reports on the peformance of the link to Pearson Airport from downtown.
Ridership has been growing and management expects it will continue to increase as UP Express builds awareness as a fast and reliable option to travel between downtown Toronto and Toronto Pearson. Ridership increased overall between June and August, despite the slower summer period for business travel, which is consistent with summer travel behaviour. Given that UP Express is a brand new service in the region, we are very pleased with ridership so far. Average daily ridership since launch is approximately 2,500 and is expected to grow until maturity, in the next 3 to 5 years. As we increasingly understand our guests and the market, we anticipate that we will reach our daily ridership target of 5,000 riders by the end of the first full year of operation. [p. 1]
In other words, by next June, UPX expects to be at double its current average daily ridership. That’s a steep growth curve.
Notable by its absence from this statement is any reference to the Pan Am Games. UPX may have carried the Games’ Torch into the city, but the same does not appear to be true of the attendees. If we proved our ability to build a “world class” airport link, we actually demonstrated it to a very small world.
Also missing is a discussion of UPX operating costs, the distribution of fare types among users (and, thereby, the average fare actually paid per trip) and the break-even point based on actual rather than hypothetical numbers.
The history of claims for UPX performance is worth reviewing.
December 11, 2014 Board Meeting
During this meeting, Kathy Haley, President of UP Express, stated during her presentation that UPX would reach break-even on operating costs in 1, 2 or 3 years even though her own slide deck claims that the business plan is based on a 3-5 year break-even period. [See p. 10 of her presentation, and 1:35:25 of the meeting video.] This sentiment was not exactly echoed by CEO Bruce McCuaig who talked of a 3-5 year period to reach break-even [see 1:47:50 in the video].
There was even discussion of whether UPX would be overloaded [1:51 in the video] by airport workers getting on the line with a concession fare. The poor understanding by Board members of the demand situation was quite evident in this debate, along with shortcomings of some of the demand modelling. Of the 40,000 airport employees, only 3,500 live in the UPX catchment area. These were expected to generate 500-800 trips implying that only 250-400 employees would use UPX to reach their workplace. Yes, only 1%, at best.
The discussion continued with talk of the cost for such commuting on a $300/month pass. In a neat bit of gerrymandering, the comparison was made between the after-tax cost of such a UPX pass and the before-tax cost of GO fares over a comparable distance. Moreover the access time and cost to reach a UPX station via the TTC were ignored. Airport workers, unlike the business clientele for UPX, are not generally in walking distance of a station.
Riding was expected to be 5,000 per day which would translate to roughly 1.5-million annually. McCuaig described a growth from 1m rides in the first year’s operation to 2.5m in year 2 and 3m by year 3, the target for a mature state of demand.
In the report on pricing strategy, Metrolinx staff claimed:
Research and experiences in other jurisdictions showed that a new service will take time to build ridership from its initial launch. As is typical with any new start-up project, staff expect 65% of the total mature ridership in the first year of operation. Further, UP Express is projected to reach ridership maturity three years after service launch (by 2018). Three year ramp-up assumptions are a common assumption in transportation modelling given the time it takes for awareness to build and for travellers to shift from their previous modes. However, recent studies have shown that if there is heightened anticipation for this service, the ramp up period may be accelerated and ridership may reach maturity sooner than projected. [p. 5]
Whether there actually was any “heightened anticipation” for the service depends on whether you are a UPX acolyte desperate for the chance to ride a new train to the airport at a considerable cost premium over competing modes.
The UPX would by Metrolinx’ own estimate attract only about 6% of the air passenger market bound for Pearson. One fundamental issue is that a huge proportion of airport users do not come from the line’s catchment area, and so the potential market is a small portion of the total. Some auto trips may be diverted to transit, but at this scale the effect wouldn’t be noticed in the background effects of congestion and latent demand for road capacity.
March 2015 Update
This update contained no refinement of the ridership projections, but concentrated on the pre-launch activities in construction, training and business partnerships.
June 2015 Update
This update, on June 25, reported that the opening week saw average daily ridership of 3,250 “consistent with ridership projections”. The remainder of the report dealt with start-up activities and continued development of partnerships.
A related presentation included a chart of anticipated riding growth for year 1.
We now know that UPX is not achieving even its week 1 target, and it has a long hill to climb up to that week 52 projection of 5k riders, let alone the level needed to break even on operations.