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Monday, June 08, 2015

Union Pearson Express is Open for Business

The first thing anyone visiting Toronto by air will notice is that Pearson International Airport is nowhere near the city. In fact, the airport is technically in Malton, a part of the City of Mississauga. If you are lucky enough to have family in the Toronto Area, they are probably waiting for you at the arrivals gate, and they will drive you to Toronto. If you don’t, you could either pay for an airport limo, or try the TTC’s airport shuttle to the Bloor-Danforth Subway. All of these options are at the mercy of traffic, as I have found on countless occasions. There are few things as frustrating as getting off a plane from the UK and being reunited with my family, only to be told that the traffic is especially bad and we are going to sit in arrivals for a few hours to wait for it to improve. As of this weekend, there is another option.

Looking at a map of the airport, it is quickly apparent that the CN Weston Sub (now owned by Metrolinx) is very close to the airport, yet Toronto has never had a passenger train connecting the city with Canada’s largest airport. The idea of a rail link to the airport has been around for decades, and plans to build one finally began in 2001. Several companies and setbacks later, the government-owned Union Pearson Express (UPX) finally began rolling this past weekend.

UPX 3002
UPX 3002 arrives at the Pearson station. The centre DMU cars are fitted with a driving cab, allowing the trains to easily run in 2 or 3-car formations.

The “UP” (as people call it) connects Pearson Airport Terminal 1 with Union Station between 5:30 AM and 1 AM, 7 days a week. Trains run every 15 minutes and the trip, which also serves the intermediate Bloor and Weston stations, takes 25 minutes, easily beating all existing transport links. The brand-new Nippon Sharyo DMUs, equipped with luggage space, electrical outlets and complimentary Wi-Fi, are sleek European-style trains which, according to rail staff, are a joy to drive. They are very similar units to the modern DMUs used in the UK, which brought back happy memories for me. Of course, all of these improvements come at a cost. A one-way ticket costs $27.50 (although PRESTO card users get a significant discount) and the entire project cost nearly half a billion dollars. However, when you consider the cost of flying these days, the cost doesn’t seem so bad.

Inside the UPX / A l'intérieur du train UPX
Inside the UPX.

The service officially began on June 6 and I decided to ride it. To save money, I started my journey on the Subway, opting to try the TTC option to the airport. After riding the Bloor-Danforth Subway to Kipling station, I boarded the 192 Airport Rocket bus, which whisked me to Terminal 1, where I promptly got lost. You see, I decided to ignore all the signs directing me to “Trains” and instead tried to find any UPX branding. Well, it turns out that “Trains” really did mean UPX after all. Having found the train, I bought a ticket and spent an hour looking around the new station and watching the new trains arrive and depart every 15 minutes.

Cake! / Gâteau!
Official cake-cutting for the UPX at Pearson Airport.

I arrived just before 11 and, quite by accident, managed to see the official cake-cutting ceremony. Lots of important-looking people took turns with the ceremonial knife for the media. Excitement over, I boarded a train and waited for my ride to begin. The coaches are quite spacious and the seats, complete with retractable armrests and tray tables, are comfortable. There is lots of luggage space in each coach and the whole ambience is a good welcome to the city. Soon, the train was off and slowly rolled along the nearly 3.3 km-long elevated section which connects the airport with the existing Weston Sub. Imagine: the only thing stopping trains travelling to the airport was this tiny stretch. That said, the elevated section is a feat of engineering. Reaching as high as 28 metres, it is the longest bridge in Ontario and gives you the impression that you are still flying.

UPX 1008
UPX 1008 on the elevated stretch approaching Pearson. 

Once the train joins the main line, you are treated to a view of Woodbine Racetracks, industrial and post-industrial wastelands and the shabby eclecticism of West Toronto. The train makes brief stops at new stations at both Weston and Bloor so that people don’t need to travel all the way downtown. Both of these stations are still being built (in fact, delays in station construction have pushed back the opening of the UPX, which had only committed to an opening date about a month ago). The train rolls under the West Toronto Grade Separation, which has seen the once-busy diamond transformed to allow trains to pass one on top of the other without delays. This was one of several construction projects needed to allow the UPX to work. At Strachan Ave., the level crossing has been replaced with a rail underpass to improve safety in what is becoming an increasingly populated part of the city. Beyond the underpass, the train rounds the curve past Fort York and coasts through the Union Station Rail Corridor to the new UPX station at Union.

UPX 1005 at Union / à Union
The new UPX Union station, in the heart of downtown Toronto.

The station at Union is the flagship for the entire service, featuring a gift shop, cafe and restaurant. Located in the Skywalk, it is a short walk from the main Union Station, offering a seamless connection to the TTC, VIA and GO Transit. The Pearson station is little more than an enclosed platform, while the Bloor and Weston stations are essentially tacked onto existing GO stations. 

Gare UPX Union Station
The UPX Union Station.

So often in Canada, new about public transportation is grim. However, I think we have a good news story for once in the form of the UPX. Of course, whether the UPX will succeed remains to be seen. The fares are high, especially compared to the TTC’s airport shuttle, and relying on more affluent travellers is a bit of a gamble. I don’t see anyone using it as a commuter route into downtown, so it will have to rely on air travellers and may not benefit ordinary Torontonians as much as has been advertised. With rising fuel costs and increased security, flying is more arduous than at any time in recent memory and all bets are off for the future of commercial aviation. Despite my reservations, this project shows that the current government is willing to built public transportation in Ontario (the south at least). For that reason, I think we should smile and praise the UPX for what it is - a step in the right direction.

Postscript: I am not a fan of the UPX’s new name. While the “UP” might be uplifting, the “uh” sound is also an expression of doubt. For what it’s worth, I would recommend a different name. To my mind, the Pearson Express Train (or PET for short) would be a more affectionate name and make it seem a greater part of Toronto. You can own a PET, but not an “UP”.

Post-Postscript: I am also not sold on the uniforms. They are a strange blend of rail, air and Soviet military. In fact, the one odd thing about the train is that it does try very hard not to be a train, but rather a continuation of the aircraft. Is this how you have to sell trains to North Americans?

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