The Union-Pearson Express

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A map showing the planned route of the UP Express train, in relation to other GO Train routes. Map courtesy Natural RX.

Text by James Bow

By the time visitors come to the Pan-Am Games in Toronto, in the summer of 2015 (barring unforeseen delays), passengers arriving at Pearson International Airport will be able to board a modern train at a station located on the roof of Terminal 1. Every fifteen minutes, trains will whisk them quickly southeast through Toronto’s suburbs and, twenty-five minutes later, they’ll arrive at Union Station, in the heart of the city’s downtown. If they wish, they can stop partway, changing to subway trains at Dundas West station, or strolling past the shops in the old village of Weston near Lawrence Avenue.

At the time of this writing (July 2013), that’s all we know for sure. Extensive construction is taking place to ensure the line opens on time. This multi-million dollar project has helped kickstart numerous improvements to GO Transit’s Kitchener line and, once it opens, it will represent the largest expansion of passenger rail in Toronto since the opening of the Spadina subway in 1978.

But what is most remarkable about the Union-Pearson Express is not the speed with which it was built, nor the service it provides, but how it began as almost an afterthought, and still managed to be built while various levels of government dithered on other transit projects.

Air-Rail Envy

Passenger rail and air travel are two modes of transportation with roots decades apart. When air travel became affordable for passengers around the late 1920s, these services operated in competition with the railroads at the time. In addition to this, safety reasons and the need for wide-open areas consigned most airports to the edges of cities. Railroads saw little reason to support these upstart competitors, so air terminals and rail terminals were generally far apart from one another.

Airlines surpassed passenger rail as the primary means of long-haul public transportation in the 1950s. Railroads underwent a long decline and, in North America, sought to get out of the passenger business altogether in the sixties and the seventies. In Europe, however, governments had a tradition of being more involved in the transportation business than governments in North America. With European governments more strongly regulating air travel and rail travel, some governments saw a means of combining the two into an integrated travel network.

It helped that Europe was investing in high speed rail, which could take passengers from city centre to city centre in short and medium-length runs faster than planes could (at least, once travel time to the airport and check-in times were factored in). Connecting these rail terminals with airports could combine the strengths of rail’s ability to serve short runs with the plane’s ability to travel faster over longer distances. France’s TGV and Germany’s ICE trains were the first to attempt this, building terminals in Charles de Gaulle’s International Airport and Frankfurt Airport respectively.

The concept of building mass transit connections to airports gradually caught on in North America as well. Boston was arguably the first to do this, when the Airport station on its Blue Line opened on January 5, 1952. Boston was likely helped by the central location of its airport. In 1980, the Chicago Transit Authority started work extending its Milwaukee-Dearborn line (later known as the Blue line) northwest to O’Hare airport, which opened on September 3, 1984. Chicago’s Midway Airport was similarly connected when the Orange line opened on October 31, 1993.

Other American cities followed with similar extensions. Atlanta’s MARTA connects to its Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Baltimore’s light rail network connected to Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Salt Lake City got a similar connection via the Green Line of its TRAX LRT. New York City did not have direct connections to LaGuardia or JFK, but they did get close enough to offer an express train called the JFK Express, which ran from the IND’s 63rd Street line to Howard Beach - JFK Airport (express buses provided the final link) from September 23, 1978 to April 15, 1990. The JFK Airtrain people mover opened on December 17, 2003, connecting that airport to the subway at Howard Beach and at Jamaica.

When Toronto lost its bid to host the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta, some politicians cited Atlanta’s investment in public transit infrastructure as a reason Atlanta fared so much better in voting. In particular, some noted the opening of its Airport subway station on June 18, 1988. The fact that Toronto’s Pearson Airport, despite being the busiest airport in Canada and one of the busiest in North America, had no rail connection with Toronto’s downtown core was cited as an example of how the city was being left behind on the world stage by American centres. Thus a push started to try and rectify this imbalance.

Previous Attempts to get to the Airport

It was true that Toronto’s Pearson Airport was far removed from Toronto’s downtown core. Before 1985, getting there by TTC required taking the subway and transferring twice on buses. It wasn’t until 1985 that the 58 MALTON bus was extended east from Weston Road to Lawrence West station, and it wasn’t until 2000 that the 192 AIRPORT ROCKET bus launched, connecting the Airport with the subway at Kipling. Gray Coach (and, later, Pacific Western) operated premium intercity coach connections from the downtown and from Islington station at rates far above TTC fares (the TTC accommodated these operations by installing special luggage rollers at the turnstiles at Islington and York Mills stations in the 1970s, although these disappeared during later renovations). Taxi cabs and limousines did a brisk business.

In the late 1970s, as Metropolitan Toronto considered building a light rail transit (LRT) network connecting the subway at Kennedy to parts of Scarborough (later changed at the province’s network to a high-tech intermediate capacity transit system (ICTS) network), a similar network was planned for Etobicoke. A light rail line would have connected Kipling station with the Airport via Highway 427. The only physical evidence that such a connection was planned, however, is a trench and an unused platform opposite the bus bays at Kipling station’s bus terminal.

The problem with serving the airport via public transportation was that it was so far away. Moreover, it had been largely built up in the 1950s when the automobile was assumed to be the primary means of access. The access road network at Pearson remains very unfriendly to pedestrians. Also, the manner in which passengers tended to arrive or depart from Pearson made these prospective riders difficult to serve via public transit. Most people travelling out of airports carry heavy luggage with them. Luggage racks are essential, and not a standard feature on most public transit vehicles (the TTC only recently set up luggage racks on a handful of buses dedicated to its 192 AIRPORT ROCKET service). For many passengers, it was more convenient to take a cab, or rely on friends or family to pick them up by car.

Around 2000, when proposals for an air-rail link between Union Station and Pearson reached a peak, only 17% of passengers arriving at Pearson were bound for destinations within Toronto’s city cores. Thus an air-rail link would not be very useful to 83% of arrivals. However, the proposal’s backers would be undaunted.

David Collenette’s Train

Around the turn of the millennium, the proposal for a rail link between Union Station and Pearson gained a major backer. David Collenette, Federal Transport Minister in Jean Chretien’s government, pushed hard for the proposal. At the time, the City of Toronto was negotiating with the federal government over the purchase of Union Station. The negotiation was part of plans for a major upgrade of the transportation hub that would allow for improved GO Train service, a new bus station and the proposed rail link between the station and the airport.

Collenette backed a proposal for the rail link to be a premium service. Passengers would pay $20 and board trains right on the track nearest the station’s waiting room. Passengers would check into their flights at the station, possibly even clear American customs there, and so would proceed directly to their planes at Pearson, offering a substantial time savings. The line would follow the Weston sub (the route of GO’s Georgetown line) to some point west of Etobicoke North station, and then break away, following its own path to the airport and a new station atop Pearson’s newly built Terminal One building (which would open in 2003). The only station en route, if any were to be built, would be at Bloor street, where connections could be made with the Bloor-Danforth subway at Dundas West station.

Collenette wanted the line to be built and running by 2006, where it could serve passengers arriving for Toronto’s 2008 Olympics. Again, international prestige had a significant role to play in the federal government’s backing of the line. At the time, the line was not a priority for the City of Toronto. Months before, the Ontario government had commissioned Joseph Fung to release a report on new public transit projects for the Greater Toronto Area. The air-rail link was not one of the proposals considered. Ontario premier Mike Harris said, “If there is an announcement on a rail link to the airport, that must be a federal project because it’s not in the Fung report, it’s not been brought to us as a priority by the TTC or the City of Toronto but it may be a federal project and so we’ll take a look at it when we get the details.”

Blue 22

Soon after Collenette’s proclamations, Toronto lost its bid to host 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing, but federal support for the air rail link did not diminish. On November 13, 2003, David Collenette announced the creation of the Union Pearson AirLink Group (UPAG), which would look into ways to finance, design, build, operate and maintain the air rail link. By then, this public-private partnership had a new name for the service: Blue 22. The name reflected the length of time — 22 minutes — it would take for trains to travel between Union Station and Pearson Airport. The announcement awarded the contract for the whole project to SNC Lavalin, as they were the sole owners of UPAG.

Through 2004 and 2005, work on SNC Lavalin’s “Blue 22” project continued quietly, which led to concerns that the deal was being sneaked past local communities. In particular, residents of the old village of Weston, around Lawrence Avenue, grew alarmed over reports that level crossings would be blocked off, and the neighbourhood essentially split in two by the rail line.

Weston Revolts Against Blue 22

In March 2005, this growing concern boiled over into community action that startled civic officials and backers of the project. Whereas public information meetings in the Parkdale and Malton areas had attracted just a couple dozen attendees, the planned meeting at the Bethel Apostolic Church on Weston Road had to be cancelled when the number of attendees exceeded the Church’s fire-safety crowd limit of 300. Attendees estimated that the boisterous crowd numbered as high as 600 or more. A new meeting was scheduled for April 28 at the much larger Faith Sanctuary on Jane Street (which could seat 2,200). On the night of the meeting, every seat was filled.

Local residents demanded that Weston’s Church, John and King Streets be kept open across the railway tracks. Blue-22 officials proposed that only John Street be closed to cars, and that a pedestrian bridge be built for access to the local farmers’ market. Other compromises included a new stop to serve Weston itself. However, the controversy continued to boil, until Blue 22’s backers backed down and agreed to a full environmental assessment of the line through Weston.

In 2006, some pundits believed the Blue 22 air rail link proposal was either dead or dying. On January 23, 2006, the Liberal government of Canada which had been the primary backer of the line was defeated by the Conservatives led by Stephen Harper. However, the air rail link was only sleeping. The provincial government still saw the need for improvements to Georgetown GO service (which many people, including residents in Weston, supported). GO’s proposals for the Weston Sub incorporated some of the compromises that had been offered to make Blue 22 somewhat more palatable to Weston residents, and the air rail link coasted along quietly in the shadow of these wider GO Transit improvements. GO Transit made the move to purchase the Weston Sub from Canadian National. The route that Blue 22 was to operate on was now under provincial, rather than private, control.

SNC Lavalin Bows Out, Metrolinx Takes Over

One party that was unhappy with these developments was SNC Lavalin itself. As the project came progressively under provincial control (and with relations between SNC Lavalin and the provincial government strained over criticisms of SNC Lavalin’s ownership of Highway 407), there was disagreement over how the project should be funded and run. Finally, on July 30, 2010, the provincial government announced that the task of building the air-rail line had been given to Metrolinx. After two years of negotiations, SNC-Lavalin had pulled out of the agreement, citing financial difficulties.

With Metrolinx fully in charge of the project, they continued the work building the line (this time with a deadline near the opening of the 2015 Pan-Am Games, which Toronto had successfully applied to host), and set about rebranding. Blue 22 was no longer an accurate monicker, as the addition of a stop at Weston added three minutes to the line’s travel time. On November 29, 2012, Metrolinx announced that the project was now officially to be called the Union Pearson Express, or UP Express, for short.

Controversy over Electrification

In November 2010, Metrolinx entered into negotiations with Sumitomo Corporation of America to buy special Diesel Motor Units (DMUs) to ply the line. These diesel powered cars, based on a design created for the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system in California, are powered by a six-speed automatic transmission motor with regenerative braking. The cars conform to FRA Tier 1 emissions standards. Eighteen DMUs were ordered, for a cost of $75 million.

The purchase upset Weston residents, along with others living near the route. With service scheduled to operate every fifteen minutes, this meant that trains would be passing at an average of every seven-and-a-half minutes. As low as the emissions were, they were not zero, and residents worried that the significant increase in traffic would mean an increase in pollution. They demanded that electric units be used instead.

Their case was bolstered by Metrolinx’ own reports that said that while conversation of the line to electric operation would have much higher capital costs, there would be savings in fuel and in improved performance. However, Metrolinx argued that converting the line to electric operation now would delay the opening past the opening of the 2015 Pan Am games. In any event, they promised that the DMUs could be converted to electric power at a future date. The environmental review claimed that the human health risks of the DMUs were negligible, especially compared to the background air quality. The grassroots group known as the Clean Train Coalition appealed this decision, but were turned down by the Ontario Divisional Court on November 21, 2012.

A Premium Express Service or a Downtown Relief Line

Even while construction continued on the UP Express, Metrolinx refused to clarify the focus of the service. Would it cater to airport passengers only, or provide some real rapid transit between downtown Toronto and its northwestern suburbs? It was hinted that the fare to travel on the UP Express from the Airport to Union Station could be anywhere from $20 to $30. While that compared favourably to what airport taxis charged, this was substantially higher than the $3 cash fare to take the TTC, or the standard $6.35 GO Transit fare. What fares would passengers boarding at Weston and Bloor have to pay to go downtown or to go the airport?

The UP Express won’t be the only air-rail service that requires a premium to go to the airport. Vancouver’s Canada Line charges the base Skytrain fare to travel between any two stops on its route, except for the stops on Sea Island where Vancouver’s international airport is located. There, to board or detrain at these stations requires a $5 surcharge. But whether such a surcharge would apply just to UP Express passengers going to or coming from Pearson Airport, and not those travelling between Weston and Union, was not confirmed even as the final construction contracts were announced.

Toronto City Council shared this frustration over the apparent narrow focus of the UP Express, calling through two resolutions for additional stations to be built on the line (including at Eglinton, at St. Clair, Queen Street, and at Etobicoke North). Metrolinx rebuffed these calls. At present, only the Eglinton station is planned, to open once the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is built.

Gathering Construction

On October 24, 2011, Metrolinx awarded AirLINX Transit Partners Inc the contract to build the three kilometre long spur line that would break away from the Kitchener GO tracks and run to the airport. The connection started just west of Highway 427 and follow the sides of highways 427 and 409 before rising onto an elevated guideway weaving through the Pearson access roads to a new stop atop Terminal 1. Construction began the following spring, and concrete pillars were soon rising through the airport.

Construction also began throughout the Weston Sub as a part of a series of improvements expanding capacity on the Kitchener GO Train route. Changes included the elimination of a number of road crossings (especially Strachan Avenue, Denison Road, and Weston’s King, John and Church streets), the elimination of the rail-to-rail crossing between the Weston sub and the Canadian Pacific tracks near Dupont Street, the construction of a tunnel between Lawrence Avenue and Weston Road to deal with noise concerns in Weston, rebuilt and expanded bridges over the Humber River, Weston Road and Black Creek, and rebuilt stations for Weston and Bloor to accommodate both GO Trains and UP Express trains.

The last piece of the puzzle was a contract with EllisDon Corporation to build the UP Express platforms at Union Station. On June 27, 2013, the $23,804,296 contract was officially awarded covering “a fully enclosed platform dedicated to UP Express service, a platform edge protection door system, customer service desk, ample seating, automated ticket vending machines, fare card validators and accessible washrooms.”

The Route

When it opens in 2015, passengers at Union Station will board UP trains at a newly constructed platform in the old Skywalk to the west of York Street. Passengers leave Union Station and cross above York Street where they’ll encounter a spacious mezzanine level. Stairs, escalators and elevators will take them up to the platform level where they can purchase tickets, scan fare cards, and wait to board the next train.

Upon departing Union Station, UP trains head west, threading between the GO service tracks and the Bathurst North storage yard, following the Weston Sub northwest to Bloor-Dundas Station. There, a renovated terminal provides connections with Bloor Street, GO Trains on the Kitchener line, and a connection to the Toronto subway at Dundas West (via improved sidewalks along Bloor and Dundas Streets) in 2015; as of 2013, Metrolinx was still negotiating with local property owners for sufficient easements to develop a direct Dundas West-to-Bloor connection between the TTC and GO/UP Express, and such a connection may not be ready for the opening in 2015).

Proceeding northwest, the line passes over a bridge over Dupont Street before diving into a tunnel beneath the Canadian Pacific rail tracks and Old Weston Road before rising to the surface again and crossing St. Clair Avenue on another bridge. The line continues northwest, passing over new bridges over Black Creek and Black Creek Drive and across an expanded bridge over Eglinton Avenue. Just south of Lawrence station, trains pause at Weston station, which will offer connections for local residents, as well as 52 LAWRENCE WEST TTC buses.

The trip through Weston proceeds through a tunnel before rising over Weston Road and an expanded bridge high over the Humber River. After passing beneath Highway 401 and past Etobicoke North station without stopping, trains will cross beneath Highway 427 and then turn south. There, trains will follow a three-kilometre-long guideway that will rise above Highway 409 (rising to a maximum height of 28 metres above the ground) and weave past the access roads of Pearson Airport. The final station will be a single track terminal located beside the roof of Terminal One, at the current site of a cable-powered people mover. Passengers can connect to the people mover to be taken to Terminal 3 or to the long term parking facilities near Viscount Road.

The Future

It seems likely that the UP Express will open in 2015 to considerable fanfare. This is understandable, as it will be the result of years of construction, millions of dollars of investment, and decades of planning and political activism. Whether it will contribute significantly to Toronto’s public transportation network, or become a white elephant, remains to be seen. Much depends on how Metrolinx operates the service, whether it focuses on providing a premium airport express, or if fares to Bloor and Weston are more reasonable.

But in 2015, the UP Express will become the first major addition to Toronto’s rapid transit network since the Sheppard subway opened in 2002, and the longest newly built rail line to open in Toronto since the Spadina subway opened in 1978. This feat is remarkable given how the project was snuck in under the radar, and the controversy it sparked during the planning stages.

Hopefully, Metrolinx will realize that the UP Express cannot be allowed to fail, as it would become a millstone around the neck of other public transit projects. To succeed, the line must see use, and its focus cannot be so narrow as to cover the airport alone.


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