Metrolinx Fare Integration: Get Ready to Pay More For Subway Trips

One of the great mysteries surrounding the roll out of Presto on the TTC has been the whole debate about “Regional Fare Integration”. Now and then, discussion papers surface at Metrolinx, but folks at the TTC, especially the politicians, are strangely silent on the subject. “Wait and see” is the order of the day.

Well, folks, we have waited and now we are beginning to see the direction Metrolinx is heading in for a consolidated GTHA-wide fare structure. The results will not please folks in suburban Toronto or the inner 905 for whom long subway trips are a routine part of their commutes.

The Metrolinx Board will consider an update on this subject at its meeting on February 10.

The presentation is in a sadly familiar Metrolinx format: lots of wonderful talk about consultation and fairness, and philosophical musings about what a fare system should look like. One big omission is any evaluation of the relative numbers of riders who would be affected by various schemes, and even worse of any sense of calibration of the fares to produce different results.

This comes at a time when we know from SmartTrack demand studies the importance of fare levels in attracting ridership. It is important here to remember that we are not talking the relatively small differences between types of TTC fares, or year-by-year increments, but the much larger deltas between TTC fares and those on GO Transit.

The problem begins with the arbitrary segmentation of the travel market into “local”, “rapid transit” and “regional transit”.


This is a wonderful theoretical view of the world that might find a home in a sophomoric academic paper, but it ignores the very real world in which (a) “rapid transit” today only exists within Toronto and (b) Toronto decided over 40 years ago that “local” trips paid one fare regardless of the mode they used. The entire system is designed on this principle, one that has consistently evaded Metrolinx planners.

If only the world were so simple. Why is Bus Rapid Transit omitted from this list? Why is a streetcar (aka LRT) on right of way “rapid transit”, but not a bus? How close must subway or LRT stops be to each other for the service to drop back to a lower tier? Conversely, if someone slaps a “19x” route number on a bus, should it become “rapid transit”?

The basic problem with this world view is that transit modes, especially bus and streetcar/LRT, have a wide range of overlapping implementations.

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GO Transit Electrification Study Public Meetings

Metrolinx has announced a series of meetings for public participation in the TPAP (streamlined Environmental Assessment for Transit Projects) for their GO Rail Network Electrification Study.

Four of these overlap with sessions previously announced by City Planning for other projects under review:

  • Tuesday February 16: John Vanier school in Scarborough
  • Wednesday February 24: Metro Toronto Convention Centre in downtown Toronto
  • Wednesday March 9: Lakeshore Collegiate in Etobicoke
  • Tuesday March 22: Nelson Mandela Park school in Toronto

The area of this study covers only the trackage already owned by Ontario through Metrolinx.

Relief Line, SmartTrack, GO/RER, Scarborough Subway Consultations

Toronto City Planning has released a draft list of upcoming public consultations on various transit plans including:

  • The Relief Line
  • The Scarborough Transit Plan (Subway, SmartTrack, Crosstown East LRT)
  • The Western SmartTrack Plan (SmartTrack, Crosstown West LRT)


Additional meetings and information about Metrolinx plans (GO Regional Express Rail) will be organized by that agency.

Even more information will be available in March 2016 when the City releases a compendium report on all transit initiatives currently under study. These will include items listed above as well as the “Waterfront Reset” study, TTC Fare Integration proposals and a review of how (or if) Tax Increment Financing can contribute to the many transit projects under review. The intent is that this report will form the basis for public consultation and debate leading to recommendations at Council in June 2016. This is a very aggressive schedule, and there is no indication how consensus will actually be achieved in so short a time, especially with the usually-secretive Metrolinx as an essential player. At least the discussion will be at a network level, not ward-by-ward with a “relief” line for every member of Council, and there will be some filtering of various schemes based on engineering and operational realities.

What is sadly missing from all of this is a discussion of day-to-day transit operations and the backlog in the state-of-good-repair budget. We can blithely discuss billions worth of subway building to Scarborough and a Relief line, but Council won’t fund the basics of running a transit system.

SmartTrack: Now You See It, Now You Don’t!

Oliver Moore in the Globe and Mail reports that there have been major changes to the SmartTrack plan, to wit:

  • The western branch of the service to the Airport district will be provided by the western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT as originally proposed.
  • “SmartTrack” per se will operate as a heavy rail service overlaid on GO Transit with the initial phase running from Mount Dennis to Kennedy Stations.
  • The northern extension of “SmartTrack” to Markham will be a separate phase of the project.

The map from the Globe & Mail is reproduced below.


According to Moore, the cost of adding SmartTrack to GO under this configuration would be much, much less than the originally quoted figure for the entire line. In turn, this would free up substantial capital spending headroom in City plans for other projects.

SmartTrack service at 15 minutes (the level proposed in Tory’s campaign) is far too infrequent to attract much riding, and especially to make a dent in demand on the existing subway interchange at Bloor-Yonge. We saw this in the June 2015 Metrolinx demand projections that were far more favourable to a Relief Line operating north to Sheppard and Don Mills. However, getting SmartTrack service down to as close a headway as every 5 minutes will be challenging for Metrolinx and for the corridors through which this would operate. There are no details yet on how this would be achieved.

The Eglinton West LRT has always been the superior way of serving this corridor compared to the heavy rail SmartTrack scheme. ST foundered on major problems with constructibility and neighbourhood effects, issues that were dismissed in a stunning display of cavalier “expert” knowledge during the campaign. Planning by Google Maps from an office in the UK has its limitations, but Tory’s campaign relied on this “expertise”. One shameless professor even rated ST with an “A+” in the CBC Metro Morning interview.

Keeping the first phase of ST confined south of Eglinton on both branches limits the operating costs the City must bear if this to be truly a “Toronto” project with “Toronto” fares, and it avoids the complexities of building into the 905.

Indeed, SmartTrack began as a real estate development scheme to make commercial property near the Airport and in Markham more accessible from downtown in a series of studies that actually claimed the market for downtown office space was static and falling. Yet another expert should be eating crow pie from his perch on the Metrolinx board. It was never clear why Toronto should shell out billions to improve property values in the 905, and this task now falls clearly to Metrolinx where it belongs.

The eastern leg of SmartTrack, north from Kennedy, obviously competes with the Scarborough Subway Extension, and there is no need for two routes serving the same demand, especially when GO already plans substantially improved service in the rail corridor. The long-standing issue of SSE demand may be clarified by the absence of SmartTrack as a competing service.

It is no secret that my own position would be to revert to the LRT plan in Scarborough, but that train has probably left the station, especially if the City can “save” a small fortune by scaling back on SmartTrack.

These changes could also foreshadow a revised schedule for the LRT projects at a time when “shovel ready” projects are in demand to soak up new federal spending. Eglinton West’s LRT extension is relatively easy to build, and it could be started soon enough to complete concurrently with the main Crosstown route. There is also the matter of the Sheppard East LRT including its proposed service linking to UofT Scarborough campus.

Coming weeks may bring many sputtering denials, or possibly, much improved clarity and acceptance of an – at last – realistic plan.



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.

Metrolinx Fare Integration Survey

Metrolinx is running a survey of “fare integration”, whatever that might mean to you, until November 30, 2015.

This survey is striking in the way that it reinforces options and viewpoints commonly seen in Metrolinx analysis of fare systems. It is quite 905-centric both in the types of questions and options, and the view of how people might use a transit network.

The survey begins by asking about someone’s “typical trip” to establish an origin-destination pair. Of course, many riders within the city have many regular destinations, especially when their travel (like my own) is not dominated by commute trips to work or to school. After one gets through that section, another comes up asking about non-commute trips but with no attempt to quantify them or ascertain where they might occur.

Cross-border and multi-carrier travel figure prominently in the survey, something by which, self-evidently, a regular TTC rider using only that system is not affected. The following list of fare options reappears in different guises elsewhere in the survey. As a piece of design, it fails because some questions are in the “I can …” format while others are “would” or “should” questions. It is unclear how an “I can” question can have anything beyond a “yes” or “no” answer. Does Metrolinx want our opinion on paying one fare for all of a local transit system, or asking if I can already do this?

There is a big problem in that some options interact, but there is no provision for this. Metrolinx is obsessed with the idea of paying more for “better” service which could mean anything from a GO Train or a Highway coach, to a local express bus, the subway or even a new LRT line. One might agree with a premium for the GO train (although that would also relate to distance travelled), but not for other types of service. There is no option to distinguish between these.


The ideas reappear as a list of challenges to transit travel. For a monthly pass holder, many of these options don’t really apply although one could certainly complain about the cost (high fare multiples) and the fact that on some parts of even the TTC, transfers can be a big headache thanks to unreliable service.


Another set of options requires the choice of a top three issues and ranking them rather than using the 1-to-9 scale for all of them.


Later the survey asks about co-fares between systems including local-to-GO and local-to-local transfers, but is silent on the question of how new co-fares might be funded, indeed on the whole question of regional fare revenue and subsidy sharing. Similarly, questions about distance or zone-based fares give no hint of what the effect might be for different journeys. Time based transfer and return trip privileges are nowhere to be found, typical for Metrolinx that only grudgingly acknowledges them as an option within local systems, not for the network as a whole.

No doubt the results from this survey will be trotted out to support whatever fare scheme Metrolinx comes up with, but it could be strongly biased to “typical” Metrolinx riders who have a very different view of the transit world and fares than their (much more numerous) “local” network cousins. It would be amusing to see what a similar survey carried out for the population within Toronto would yield. The survey includes a request for one’s postal code, and so at least there should be some idea of the distribution of responses across the GTHA.

TTC Will Take Legal Action Against Bombardier, Demands Explanation

At its meeting of October 28, 2015, the TTC Board unanimously passed the following motion regarding the order for Flexity streetcars from Bombardier:

  1. Authorize the TTC General Counsel to immediately commence a claim or legal action against Bombardier for all damages sustained by the TTC relating to or arising from the schedule delays in the delivery of the streetcars and any other non-performance related issues.
  2. Direct the Chair to write to the CEO Bombardier requesting he appear before the Board at its November Commission meeting to explain Bombardier’s failure to meet past deadlines and its delivery commitments for streetcars going forward.
  3. Request TTC management to consult with alternative suppliers for delivery of the remaining TTC streetcars, should Bombardier be unable for whatever reason to fulfill this order within contractual timelines.
  4. Request TTC staff to report back on the financial and operational impacts on the TTC should Bombardier not be able to fulfill their contractual obligations to deliver streetcars.
  5. Request TTC staff to seek the advice of an outside business analyst to present to the Board on their assessment of Bombardier’s corporate outlook.
  6. Request TTC staff, in any negotiations on damages, liquidated or otherwise, to consider as a priority additional LRV’s as compensation.
  7. Direct the Chair to write to the Premier of Ontario requesting the Province’s support in facilitating the completion of the City of Toronto’s order for streetcars from Bombardier.

This motion came out of a confidential session of the Board which led to the text approved here. Point 1 was the staff recommendation in the report on the agenda, and the remaining points were added.

The story of constantly shifting delivery timelines and excuses from Bombardier has gone on for a very long time, and they have exhausted the TTC’s patience. Several comments in public session suggested that if Bombardier expects ever to be awarded work by the TTC in the future, they will have to try very, very hard to win their trust.

This is something of an empty threat, at least in the short term, because the TTC will not be ordering more subway cars until the early 2020s. Moreover, Bombardier has long been Queen’s Park’s vendor of choice for rail car orders that receive provincial funding, and it would take a major upheaval to dislodge them from this position.

Whether the Bombardier CEO actually shows up at the November 23, 2015, meeting remains to be seen. Indeed, it would be an odd situation should the TTC action have already been commenced to make such a presentation, let alone subject himself to questions he could not reasonably answer without compromising his own company’s position.

Chair Josh Colle noted that clause 7 recognizes the fact that he has already been contacted by the head of Bombardier Transportation in Germany, three Cabinet Ministers, the Mayor of Thunder Bay, and others, and that this is a politically high profile file. It will be interesting to see whether the union representing Thunder Bay workers shows up with tales of incompetence at their plant, or at least first hand descriptions of the quality problems with material received from Bombardier’s plant in Mexico. Such a move would be to establish their own credibility and fight for their jobs, a situation akin to what happened during the Canadian content debates when the contract was awarded.

Queen’s Park also has an interest through Metrolinx where concern about on time delivery of cars for the Kitchener-Waterloo ION line (whose cars will come from the Metrolinx share of teh Toronto order), and there are effects further down the line for other LRT projects if the contract completely collapses.

No doubt there will be updates on this story in the regular media in coming days.

A Smarter SmartTrack

The SmartTrack scheme was born of an election campaign, but it was John Tory’s signature project, one he is loathe to relinquish despite its shortcomings.

What’s that you say? I am just being one of those “downers” who cannot see our manifest destiny? What’s that line about patriotism and scoundrels?

At the recent Executive Committee meeting, Tory actually had the gall to say that during the campaign, he didn’t have access to a squad of experts and had to make do with the people he had. Funny that. This is the crowd that estimated construction costs on the back of an envelope, who “surveyed” the line using out of date Google images, who ignored basics of railway engineering and capacity planning to make outrageous claims for their scheme.

When the dust settled and John Tory became Mayor Tory, I thought, ok, he will adapt his plan. Indeed, it didn’t take long for a reversal on TTC bus service and the recognition that Rob Ford had stripped the cupboard bare and then started to burn the lumber at the TTC. A campaign attack on Olivia Chow’s (far too meagre) bus plan changed into championing the restoration of TTC service to the days of the “Ridership Growth Strategy” and beyond. Good on the Mayor, I thought, he can actually change his mind.

SmartTrack is another matter, and what Tory, what Toronto desperately needs is a fresh look at what GO, SmartTrack and the TTC could be if only the fiefdoms and the pettiness of clinging to individual schemes could be unlocked. That would take some leadership. I wonder who has any?

Inevitably comments like this bring out the trolls who say “so what would YOU do” (that’s the polite version). Here’s my response as a scheme that bears at least as much importance as a way of looking at our transit network as the competing visions in the Mayor’s Office, Metrolinx, City Planning and the TTC.

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Metrolinx Fare Integration Backgrounders

About a month ago, I reported on the Metrolinx Fare Integration Study. At the time of that article, the backgrounders to the Board Meeting presentation had not gone online. They went up a short while later, and now I’m getting around to discussing them.

There are three papers:

These make interesting reading if only to give a sense of what this study has been up to, and the direction it seems to be headed. As I wrote before, Metrolinx has shown a preference for distance-based fares because that is what they know. They are a long-distance carrier compared with any of the “local” transit systems in the GTHA, and developed in an environment where paying more for longer trips was a logical way to do things. (The question of how fairly those “distance based” fares are calculated is a separate matter.)

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A Frustrating Update on Transit Expansion Plans

The TTC Board received an update from City and TTC staff on the status of major transit expansion plans in Toronto at its meeting of September 28. The presentation was largely delivered by Deputy City Manager John Livey with backup from Mitch Stambler, TTC’s Head of Service Planning. Also at the table, but notable for her silence, was the Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat. A contingent from Metrolinx, another agency studying transit expansion, was in the public gallery, but they did not participate in the presentation or discussion.

This session was a prologue for a report coming to Toronto’s Executive Committee on October 20, 2015, but a great deal of detail remains to be fleshed out. This proved frustrating for the Board members on two counts. First, the lack of detail prevented the TTC from making informed comment on the plans, and second, the process itself has largely bypassed the TTC Board and concentrated work at the City and Metrolinx.

To some extent, the TTC has itself to blame for this situation. During the Ford/Stintz era, meaningful policy debates at the TTC were rare, and the TTC ceded responsibility for large scale planning to the City of Toronto under Keesmaat’s department. At the political level, staying informed about issues is a comparatively new desire by Board members (not to mention some members of City Council) when the issues are more complex than a dumbed-down subways-subways-subways mantra. They have a lot of catching up to do.

Detailed reports on four major projects will come before the TTC and Council over coming months, and these will inundate members with not only a great deal of information but force some hard decisions about just which projects, and at what scale, the City should pursue. These are:

  • The Relief Line
  • The Scarborough Subway Extension
  • Waterfront transit
  • GO/RER, SmartTrack and TTC service integration


The situation is complicated by parallel work at Metrolinx, an agency with very different goals from the TTC and the City, and by the inevitable political wrangling over the relative importance of projects. Whether any reports coming forward from staff will be trusted, especially in an environment where Councillors and the Mayor routinely dismiss “expert” advice that does not suit their biases, remains to be seen. Equally difficult will be the question of whether the reports are spun, in advance, to suit specific outcomes rather than presenting “just the facts”.

One difficulty already lurking in the wings is the question of demand modelling. The University of Toronto together with City Planning is developing a new model for GTHA travel. This is much more ambitious than current models in that it covers the entire region and models travel over the entire day, rather than focussing on AM peak flows. The model also allows for route and mode choice by incorporating considerations of fares and line capacity (crowding). At this point, the model is still being calibrated and validated, a process that uses known historical data (from the 2011 Transportation Tomorrow Survey) to confirm whether the model generates flows that accurately mimic what actually happened. (The TTS is conducted every five years by UofT on behalf of municipal and provincial agencies, and the next set of data will reflect demands in 2016.)

Draft results for the new projects and network will not be available until October 2015, and a report on details will not come to Council until the first quarter of 2016. One suspicion is inevitable given this delay: is the “calibration” intended to produce a desired outcome? That’s a tricky question both because it speaks to the independence of the process and also to the way in which the model is used. For example, a model may well reproduce past behaviour perfectly, but that’s a known target and the context for it (then-existing transit, road and land use configurations) are a matter of record.

Future modelling depends not only on the nuts and bolts of the model itself, but of the assumptions put into its configuration. A well-known example of flawed modelling was for the Sheppard Subway in which unduly rosy assumptions about job numbers and locations gave the subway a projected demand well above what it actually achieved. The further one goes into the future, the cloudier the view becomes, and the presumed distribution of population and employment can involve political as well as basic economic dimensions. If, for example, the concentration of jobs in the core area and the polarization of high and low income housing concentrations continues, this has profound effects on future demand. Moreover, such concentration may not suit politicians who view their own turf as the rightful place for future growth.

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