Union Pearson Express Continues Unimpressive Ridership

At its Board Meeting on December 3, 2015, Metrolinx will receive an update on the ridership for the Union Pearson Express. Previous statistics released by Metrolinx to mid-September were not encouraging with a fairly flat ridership in the mid-2000 range once the initial burst of “try outs” and free rides passed.

The new report only extends the published information by about six weeks to the end of October, and the numbers are presented in a way that masks what is really going on.


This looks like wonderful upward growth, but there are two problems:

  • The base of the chart is 60,000, not zero, and so the slope of the chart is more impressive than might otherwise be the case.
  • The ridership is reported on a monthly basis with no correction for the length of each month.
    • June was a short month with only 25 days of operation, and this included two promotional days with unusually high ridership.
    • October has one more day than September.

Plotted as daily averages with a zero base line, things don’t look quite the same. There was a drop off in the summer with July and August relatively flat, and a slight increase for September and October, roughly 7% but over a two-month period. The real question is where do things go from here?


To reach the target of 5,000 riders/day at the end of the first year’s operation will require almost a doubling of daily ridership over the period from November 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016, or a sustained growth of about 14% each month.

After many rosy accounts of the initial reception of UPX, we now read of the problems of getting people to adopt a new mode of travel:

Metrolinx just completed an airport ground transportation survey this fall which found that 70% of all travellers make decisions about ground transportation modes based on past habits or they have the decision made for them. This is regardless of whether they are flying to or from a home airport. Only 20–30% of travellers did research or saw/heard information prior to departure and this was mostly related to the destination airport. The findings underscore how deeply engrained travel habits are and the significant work required to successfully change these behaviours. This is consistent with what we have been told by other international air rail links – changing entrenched travel behaviours of both local and visiting air travellers takes time.

Before UPX launched, Metrolinx did extensive reviews of the air-rail link industry, and yet somehow this basic principle, the difficulty of getting people to change habits, escaped their notice.

Marketing efforts include a UPX presence at the terminal stations, trade shows and special events.

Additional marketing initiatives over the past few months have included:

  • Refreshed wayfinding & signage at Union and Pearson
  • Installed additional ticket sales & servicing kiosks inside the Terminal 1 baggage claim area and the T3 counter
  • Increased presence of UP Express Ambassadors at Pearson
  • Revised on-site advertising to complement wayfinding

Metrolinx has tinkered with the fare structure on UPX, although the trips are still quite expensive. An appendix setting out the recently modified structure is missing from the online report, but the fares can be viewed by wandering through the website for standard, employee, and group/corporate tariffs (although the latter contains no information about the discounts actually available).

By listening to, and understanding our customer needs we are continually evaluating our suite of fares and investigating new structures to respond to demands including:

  • Family Long Layover to complement the individual long layover
  • Family Meeter & Greeter to complement the individual fare product
  • Increasing the age for free child fares from 6 to 12 years of age, to align with other global air rail links
  • Changing the return fare costs to attract repeat usage

In an article by Oliver Moore in The Globe & Mail, we learn:

The service was forecast to hit 5,000 passengers a day by next summer, about twice the current ridership. [UPX President Kathy] Haley suggested on Monday that the forecast might be flawed, because it predated Uber, and hinted that the ridership goal could be in flux.

The possible effect of Uber, let alone the idea that the goal of 5k/day in ridership, does not appear in the report to the Metrolinx Board. It is hard to believe that a service, routinely promoted as a premium quality line with fares to match, should be at the mercy of lowly Uber. Is the market is not quite so upscale and immune to price as we have been led to believe? Are there not enough of that class of traveller to make UPX pay?

Metrolinx has yet to release any financial data on the line’s performance, and we are unlikely to see this until their next annual financial reports (which subdivide results by operation division within the agency) due in mid-2016.

The explanations, the excuses, for poor performance of UPX have all the earmarks of a service that was over-hyped from the outset to justify its design and cost. One question Metrolinx must answer is why they need so many staff, so much marketing, to attract riders to a line that was supposed to have demand come to it so easily. This route is on a par with a minor TTC bus route. 126 Christie has roughly the same daily demand, but it does not command an army of greeters, let alone its own President.

Remember when the airport link was to be a private sector project with no public money?

Pearson Airport is a major regional hub, second only to Union Station for daily passenger volume. Transportation to the airport and surrounding districts should address travel from a wide variety of origins, not just downtown. Service and fares should reflect that the majority of this travel is a combination of ordinary commuting and air travellers, each with their own needs that the network must support.

Metrolinx should concentrate less on its showcase, premium fare service to Union, and more on making the airport a major transit destination for the GTHA.

48 thoughts on “Union Pearson Express Continues Unimpressive Ridership

  1. Tino wrote:

    UPX should be folded into the Kitchener GO Line. 15 minute service to Etobicoke North station … Run the people mover from the airport to Etobicoke North station.

    The current cablecar system could never be extended to meet the rail line, at Malton, or Etobicoke North.

    It has two tracks. They are independent. Each of those tracks is capable of running just a single cable car.

    The cable cars aren’t fast. If the cable cars’ routes were extended to Malton, wouldn’t that triple or quadruple the length of the routes? And, since we can’t add more vehicles, wouldn’t that triple or quadruple the time people would have to wait for a train?

    Another problem with extending the cable-cars’ routes is that they couldn’t run along the elevated track the UPX runs on. Their design requires the route to be a single line, and the UPX arrives at the middle of the cable-car’s three stops.

    Could the cable-car system be replaced with something better?

    The cable-cars, and the UPX, have nice big windows, and passengers provide a nice view. But I wonder if the spur from the main rail right of way shouldn’t have been tunneled. That would have allowed placing a station directly below each terminal.


  2. “UPX arrives at the middle of the cable-car’s three stops.”

    The interchange is at Terminal 1, the southernmost of the three cable car stops. Only a minor quibble since your other points are sufficient but I thought I’d mention it.

    I always thought the Eglinton and Finch LRTs should overlap within the airport, providing no-fare service between the airport stations and a station on the GO line. This would provide both a replacement for LINK train service and connections to off-airport destinations all in one. They could opportunistically interline too — if an Eglinton and Finch LRT vehicle both arrived near the airport at approximately the same time, they could both switch routes and continue on rather than both reversing. There would be pocket tracks at either end of the airport segment for reversing.


  3. @arcticredriver,

    The Doppelmayr Cable Car system could be reconfigured as a pinched loop, allowing headways below a minute, if desired. The system is capable of operating at 50.4 kph with an acceleration of 0.55 m/s² and deceleration of 0.8 m/s².


  4. Now surely there has to be some way ridership could be increased. In most businesses, there is at least some effort to try to build up business when a product or business is not doing well.


  5. Minor point that might be worth being aware of… The cable-car technology used at the airport does support a mid-point passing track for two trains on each track…

    This would allow the airport to operate up to four trains, which might be just barely sufficient for an extension to the rail corridor. It’s probably a larger issue that the station at Viscount has no provision whatsoever for extension to the north. At the same time a shuttle heavy rail service seems perfectly feasible with barely any additions beyond a station near Woodbine.


  6. As we’re now talking about an Airport Circulator, I also find myself agreeing that the existing cable car system will not be adequate, but let’s add a couple of points:

    1. Improved access to and from the Airport is Big Move #2.

    2. There is a barely used bus terminal at Viscount which was supposed to be for GO, MiWay, Brampton Transit and TTC. The expectations for type of service (e.g. express vs. Local) are very unclear, but if all bus services were shifted to Viscount, the cable car would probably not be able to move the number of people who bus in.

    3. The exploration for the Finch West LRT extension to the airport may have to consider multiple routes. One wonders if this might include a route via Malton GO and Airport road.

    4. I point this out because in Bonnie Crombie’s campaign plan she proposed a spur of the Hurontario Main LRT line that would run along Derry to Pearson via Airport Road. I’m not sure who the campaign consulted on this proposal but there was a view that the LRT on Derry Rd. East would improve access to jobs. A connection to the subway via the Finch West LRT wouldn’t hurt.

    5. It seems that with long term plans to extend the Crosstown and Finch West LRT lines to Pearson, an expanded Airport circulator would really make more sense as some kind of local streetcar system using standard gauge off the shelf light rail vehicles rather than TTC streetcars.

    6. If the GTAA wants it they can pay for it. I’m sure Metrolinx will happily procure and operate on their behalf though.

    Cheers, Moaz


  7. The Doppelmayr Cable Car system could be reconfigured as a pinched loop, allowing headways below a minute, if desired. The system is capable of operating at 50.4 kph with an acceleration of 0.55 m/s² and deceleration of 0.8 m/s².


    By “pinched loop” should I assume you mean that the two parallel tracks of the currently independent cable cars should be joined, to make a route that is, topologically, a torus?

    Cables on this system can go as fast as 50.4 kph? Do you know how fast the cables go now? I know how the San Francisco cable cars work. I don’t know if this system is set up to work the same way. The trainset doesn’t have a motor. The motor is at one terminus of the line. It could fire up only when the trainset is in motion, and slow down and stop when the trainset is dwelling at a station. It could change direction when the vehicle needs to change to the other direction, for the return trip.

    This wouldn’t work if the system is torus shaped, and has multiple vehicles sharing the same cable. SF cable cars have pliers that reach down into slots in the street, and grip cables that are in constant motion, when the vehicle wants to leave a stop. I doubt those SF cable cars are traveling anywhere near 50 kph.

    A round trip on the current routes takes about ten minutes, including dwell times. How many trainsets would be needed if the extra track made the route four times as long? And if we make the trains twice as frequent?

    Steve: The cable cars in San Francisco run at 15.3 km/h.


  8. @arcticredriver,

    The Doppelmayr system is quite versatile. The cars can share the ‘track’, but are not required to run on the same cable. For larger/longer systems, supplemental motors can be used (i.e. in a three-motor system the ends and midpoint) giving operational flexibility.

    For your suggested frequency, it’d be 16 trainsets (2 current * 4 times length * 2 frequency) without modifying any other factors. However, really it’s a matter of distance between stations for average speed. I use Doppelmayr specifically as I’ve worked with them in the past on Toronto-specific designs and know their system capacities and rough order of magnitude construction/procurement costs.


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