Last summer, Toronto finally joined the list of world cities with a rail link connecting the city centre to the airport. Several months into the service, ridership is dropping, with many trains running at 10% capacity. During the Family Day weekend, the trains ran free of charge, which resulted in lineups and over 10,000 passengers per day using the service.
Novelty aside, the weekend experiment demonstrated that people are willing to use public transit - if the price is right. In a bid to stem the loss of ridership, Metrolinx has voted to slash (I think that is a reasonable term to use) the Union Pearson Express fares by more than 50% in the hopes of attracting more passengers, not just to the airport, but also to form a commuter base using the intermediate stations. You can read about the new fares in the following newsletter: Think Forward – February 23 board meeting (special edition).
The reasons I bring up the plight of the UPX is to draw a comparison with the Northlander, which was cancelled in 2012. When its ridership numbers were less than ideal (although not actually in decline, as the government of the time claimed), the train was simply cancelled and the additional bus service promised to fill in the void never materialized.
Fast forward four years and we have a frequent airport shuttle running virtually empty. However, unlike the Northlander (which was primarily serving Northern Ontario), the UPX serves Toronto. As a result, we see fares cut in a move which will undoubtedly mean greater government subsidy. As I, and many other people, have been pointing out for years, there are two Ontarios - Toronto and the rest.
There were a variety of options which could have helped the Northlander, including a reduction in frequency (although six times a week was hardly extravagant - in contrast, the UPX runs four times per hour) or lower fares, but cancellation appeared to be the only option the government was willing to try.
Given the current fiscal tension, one has to wonder (albeit with tongue-in-cheek), whether it might not be time to begin the divestment of the Union Pearson Express. After all, it seemed to fix the government's little Northlander problem.