The Surprisingly Useful White Elephant
(On the Union-Pearson Express)

(This editorial was crossposted to my personal blog, where you can comment, if you wish. This is my opinion, only, and not necessarily that of Transit Toronto as a whole.)


(The photographer Secondarywaltz snapped this picture on May 22, 2013, of the temporary hoarding placed over the area where the Union station platform of the UP Express would be built, along with its art. This image is used in accordance with his Creative Commons License.)

For the past four years, I've been travelling from Kitchener to Toronto, watching fascinated as work crews tear down and rebuild the line through the city. They have been hard at work building the Union Pearson Express - a high speed shuttle service that will ferry passengers from Union Station in downtown Toronto to Pearson Airport at the west end of the city in 25 minutes.

The UPExpress has been controversial for years. There has been a lot of debate between the province of Ontario, the city of Toronto and various interest groups in between regarding who the line should be for and what it should accomplish.

Earlier this week, Metrolinx announced the long-anticipated fare structure for the service. Passengers travelling the whole line can expect to pay $27.50 if they buy tickets, or $19 if they pay by Presto card. Fares to the interim stations of Weston and Bloor are cheaper, but are still well above $10 for adults. The announcement coalesced complaints by many that the line was a white elephant, a rich man's toy train, a major piece of infrastructure where much has been spent but from which few will benefit.

So, is the UPExpress an expensive toy train? Is it a useful piece of infrastructure? Is it a vanity project? Or is it a surprising survivor in a graveyard of transit proposals that have been made but not acted on over the past two decades?

How about all of the above?

I won't bore you with the full history of the UPExpress, especially since I covered it in this article that I wrote for Transit Toronto. If you don't want to read the whole thing, the important elements to take from the UPExpress history are the following:

  1. It was conceived by federal transport minister David Collenette, and was largely seen as a legacy project. It was proposed from the get-go (around 2003) as a high-priced luxury airport shuttle that would have provided a flashy gateway for tourists arriving for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
  2. It somehow survived several changes in government, and was initially a largely privately-driven investment, before it somehow found its way into the lap of the Ontario government. When the conditions required by the McGuinty Liberals caused the private partner, SNC Lavalin, to walk away, Metrolinx was given the task to build the thing.
  3. It's capital costs were largely rolled in with a major investment in the purchase and upgrade of the railway tracks from Union in the southeast to Bramalea in the northwest.
  4. Initial plans and a lack of serious consultation caused the residents of the old village of Weston to rise up in revolt. Residents strenuously objected to plans to completely shut down up to three level crossings en-route, effectively cutting the community's residents off from the area's commercial core. Literally hundreds of angry people turned out to demand answers, forcing public meetings to be shut down and rescheduled in larger venues. Local residents are still angry over a number of issues, and continue to demand that the line be strung with wires and electric trains used instead of "dirty diesels".
  5. To soothe angry residents, a number of measures were taken to reduce the impact of the new line. The tracks were buried in a tunnel through much of Weston, and two level crossings were kept open; the third remains as a pedestrian bridge. In addition, a station was added to the UPExpress run at Weston, adding three minutes to the trip.

In my opinion, $19 is not an unreasonable price to pay for a quick trip between the Toronto's airport and it's downtown, especially when you compare it against the cost of taking a taxi, or using long-term parking. And am I the only one to catch a slight inconsistency in the criticism, here: that this line is somehow a waste of money with fares that are too expensive when, in theory, those same fares are designed to ensure that the line operates without government subsidy at all? If fares were lower, wouldn't that make the line an even bigger waster of money?

I admit that It would have been nice if we'd built a subway charging TTC fares, but the UPExpress was designed from the start as a luxury airport shuttle, as seen in a number of cities worldwide that the proposal was clearly designed to mimic. It is not built to function as a commuter service. It is years too late to complain about the high fares of the line, since it's not designed to be anything else but a luxury service.

That said, I can understand the frustration that's out there. With the province of Ontario and the cities of the Greater Toronto Area arguing constantly over which subway or LRT project should get funding, and begging for assistance from the federal government, it beggars belief that this project should be the one the federal government decides to kickstart -- neither the province nor the city asked for it and, when pressed, both said they would have preferred to see an expansion of regular GO Train service to connect with a shorter (and cheaper) people-mover into the airport. However, largely due to the dogged support of... I'm not sure who, but a bunch of people starting with former federal transport minister David Collenette, the UPExpress pushed through. Why couldn't the Sheppard LRT or the Downtown Relief subway line have received similar support?

Then there was the long and turbulent history of public consultation with the communities surrounding the line. Here, we have the mix of arrogant designers presenting a controversial plan as almost a fait accompli, a beleaguered community responding with the loudest and best organized response this side of the Spadina Expressway, and politicians and planners making some good and some questionable decisions in order to try and tame the hornets' nest.

In my opinion, the most illustrative example of the best and the worst of the planning design of the UPExpress train is the stop that was built at Lawrence Avenue to serve the residents of Weston. Although Weston is served by the GO Train, when the airport express was originally conceived, there was no stop planned for there. That one was built is the boldest statement made by the line's designers that the line was supposedly built as much for the benefit for the residents of Weston as it was for downtown travellers. Where the old station used to be a single platform eked out beside a single track, the new station has multiple platforms (for GO Trains and UPExpress trains), a tunnel beneath the tracks, better connections with the TTC, and it promises to be a major transportation hub for the community

Except that the idea that the UPExpress should stop there is ludicrous. The fare between Weston and Pearson on the UPExpress is $11, assuming you have a Presto card. They don't even bother to list the fare to travel between Weston and Union, strongly suggesting they don't expect Weston residents to make such a trip.

Weston residents did not ask for fast access to Pearson Airport; they already have it in the form of Highway 409 and the Lawrence West bus. A taxicab could get them to the airport about as fast and about as expensively as the new train. What Weston residents really wanted was better transit access to the rest of the city, including the downtown, and they didn't want it to break the bank. UPExpress fails in all those respects.

Two kilometres to the south, the UPExpress line crosses over Eglinton Avenue. In 2020, the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT will open, with a stop beneath the tracks and trains ready to whisk people through a tunnel across the city. That would be an excellent stop for the UPExpress line (and there are suggestions that such a stop will open when the LRT does). Does it make sense to open such a stop and increase travel times between Union and the Airport from 25 minutes to 28? Or will an Eglinton stop cause the underused Lawrence UPExpress stop to close, even after all that money was spent to build a specialized platform that could handle the UPExpress trains?

But to truly understand and appreciate the contribution the UPExpress makes to public transit in Toronto, you have to look not at what's running on its rails, but what's happening beside its rails. Metrolinx did not spend its money building tracks for the UPExpress alone. The entire Weston Sub was torn up these past four years, and the investments are about to come on stream.

The UPExpress will run on two tracks that were strung between Union and Pearson Airport. The railway bridges over the Humber River and Weston Road used to be single-tracked; now they have four tracks. Bloor station, which used to have two modest platforms and primitive facilities, will now have a modern station building and four platforms for passengers to access. At what used to be the Strachan Avenue level crossing, four tracks are becoming eight, passing unimpeded through an underpass. That's in addition to many other widened bridges and new underpasses, and the elimination of a level crossing with the busiest Canadian Pacific railway line in eastern Canada.

More than that, Metrolinx has purchased all of the tracks running from Union Station to Bramalea and from Georgetown to Kitchener. Before construction began in 2011, GO Transit used to operate three trains in both directions between Union and Bramalea. It's likely that this service will be restored once the UPExpress is up and running. Indeed, every obstacle to operating half-hourly train service, seven days a week, between Union and Bramalea has been removed. The only question about setting up such a service is if GO Transit can find room in its budget for it.

A GO train operating through Weston station every half hour, seven days a week, able to whisk residents to Union or Brampton within 20 minutes, all for a fare of just $5.65, is far more useful a service than a $11 shuttle operating every fifteen minutes going just to the Airport. I think that if Weston residents were told that the former is what they could expect to receive by the end of 2015, they would have been a lot happier. And, ironically, they would not have needed a stop on the UPExpress to make this service a possibility.

The history of how the UPExpress came to be should be examined in every school of urban planning around the world, as it shows some of the bizarre twists and turns that planning can take. You can see the arrogance of planners who thought they could ram a service through a community without consulting them. You can see the force an aggrieved and motivated community can bring to bear. You can see how political agendas can cause some proposals to grow while others whither on the vine, and some of the silly ideas that can result from desperate attempts to placate opposition.

And it also shows that, through it all, something good can be built, quickly and relatively on budget. It shows that change can happen for the better even in all of the confusion. In the end, there is some progress and growth, even if it does sometimes seem to get lost in all the weeds.