Chicago wants its own UP Express

Screenshot from Chicago Tonight.

It’s an interesting tale of two cities, almost identical in size on opposite sides of the Canada / U.S. border. Chicago, which already has a commuter rail link between its O’Hare Airport and downtown wants to build an express rail service that would be built by the private sector with tickets cheaper than an equivalent Uber fare. Sound familiar?

In the article, Chicago TV Station WTTW reveals the cautionary tale of Toronto’s UP Express, getting most of the facts correct. Read the article and watch the video here.

As an aside, Metrolinx wants to investigate building a passenger rail connection to Pearson Airport by way of the Kitchener line (which runs through Weston) or the Crosstown that will run along Eglinton. In response to Adam’s article on speeding VIA trains, Mike Sullivan pointed out that Metrolinx refuses to allow VIA Rail trains to stop at Weston.

Via desperately wants to stop in Weston. Their trains come from Sarnia, London and Kitchener, and patrons who want to go to the airport have to go all the way to Union and double back, adding about an hour to their trip.

Metrolinx refuses to let them. There are 4 trains per day (two in each direction) and Metrolinx says their dwell time (the time it takes to unload and load passengers) is too long and would interfere with the UP express schedule. They did suggest that when the 4th track is in place maybe things would change.

It may also have to do with the Kitchener part of the trips. Metrolinx wants to be the train of record from Kitchener, and VIA is in competition.

If you aren’t depressed enough, read this Star article about GTA transit planning.

 

UP Express to start earlier from April

The UP Express at Weston Station. (file)

The UP Express is Weston’s rapid portal to the Airport (11 minutes) or downtown (14 minutes). Metrolinx has announced that beginning in April the service will begin earlier by adding two trains to the beginning of the current schedule. The first train to the airport will leave 35 minutes earlier at 5:09 instead of 5:44.

Likewise, trains to Union Station should begin earlier with the first leaving Weston for downtown at around 5:03.

The service has become wildly popular with an average of 300,000 trips per month thanks to a dramatic fare reduction in March 2016 and a subsequent $1.50 fare subsidy announced last October for transfers to or from transit agencies such as GO or TTC.

Incidentally, in a 2013 report produced for Metrolinx, passenger numbers were never anticipated to reach their current levels. The report predicted it would take until 2031 before numbers would rise to 245,000 monthly trips.

High Speed Rail – bring it on!

I am going to take the opposite viewpoint to my esteemed colleague Adam on this topic. Here’s the ‘good cop’ version.

David Collenette was the man behind the UP Express, having first proposed it 20 years ago. His original vision was for a direct train that would offer a 22-minute ride from Pearson to Union that would cost $20. Without going into the details of what happened between concept and reality (read our back issues), the end result was that Weston in effect ended up with an all-day commuter rail service into Toronto for about the same price as a GO Train ticket.

Collenette has re-emerged as a ‘Special Advisor’ in a report outlining a vision of a high speed rail line joining Toronto and Windsor.

Lord knows how hard it is to get anything built in this neck of the woods. Collenette’s vision of the Air Rail Link (as it was then known), ended up as a huge gift for Weston’s commuters. Now on the wildly popular UP Express (since lowing prices), in rush hours, it’s standing room only.

What about the Toronto to Windsor HSR Line? It’s certainly needed. In fact, decent rail links all over Canada are needed. Part-way to Windsor lies Canada’s Silicon Valley in the Kitchener / Waterloo area. It’s too close to fly there (only 100 km) yet GO Trains take at best 2 hours. An HSR train would use much of the same corridor and cut travel time between the two city centres dramatically. Stops at Malton (Pearson), Guelph, Kitchener and London are proposed for the first phase.

The HSR route will use the UP Express corridor. Click for larger view.

What’s in it for Weston?

In 2021, the UP Express will add one more station at Mount Dennis and connect to the new Crosstown Line. Will this new station make the UP Express unacceptably slow? There is a rumoured possibility that Weston’s station will be too close to Mount Dennis and may be closed as a result.

The report itself recommends that existing services be ‘optimized’:

The Province should align provincial mandates to optimize rail services by directing Metrolinx and MTO to collaborate on the development of an Integrated Rail Strategy for the Toronto-Kitchener corridor, which would

•Clarify the mandates of GO RER, UP Express and HSR on the corridor.

•Assess ridership and service frequencies.

•Recommend how the Province might optimize GO RER, UP Express and HSR ridership to maximize the benefit to Ontarians.

One way around the two station dilemma might be to convert the existing UP Express into a commuter line and open new stations along the way. This could be a way of easing the burden on the subway system while preserving Weston’s regular and rapid link to downtown.

What will the cost be? Anyone who has done home renovations will know that estimated costs before a project begins are likely to end up higher in reality. What studies do show is that public transit adds value to a community if done well. No doubt changes and variations are up for grabs as they were with the original idea for the Airport Rail Link.

What about a high speed train running through our community? The train won’t likely be that fast in the city. Currently the UP Express hits speeds of up to 130 km/h between Bloor and Weston for an average of around 77 km/h. The report projects a somewhat faster average speed (just under 100 km/h from Union to Malton).

Travel times for the faster of the two HSR scenarios. Click for larger view.

The next steps will be more studies and consultations. This is just the beginning of what will be a long and ambitious project. While there may be pitfalls along the way, there will be opportunities and this proposed infrastructure holds huge promise and potential for Weston.

We do however need to be on top of this as a community and make sure that the people of Weston / Mount Dennis are heard loud and clear.

Body blow to SmartTrack

By nixing road tolls around Toronto, Kathleen Wynne failed to cauterize the arterial bleeding of a corpse-white SmartTrack plan that would have benefitted Weston and Mount Dennis. Wynne killed the tolls because she faces a tough reëlection fight next year.

The bill for the western part of SmartTrack was to have been roughly $2 billion. The province has promised to give Toronto $170 million a year in gas-tax money, short of the roughly already-inadequate $250 million tolls would have raised. The gas money will go to all transit in Toronto, not only SmartTrack.

Tory’s revised SmartTrack plan would have built an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT out toward the airport from the Mount Dennis station, connecting the west end to Etobicoke, Mississauga, and Pearson.

Tory did bring much of this pain on himself, promising a magical line that could leap deep valleys, tunnel far underground, and be built by 2021 without raising taxes. He complained to the press about being treated like a boy in short pants by Wynne—but boys do dream about trains.

 

 

The Future of UP Express

 

A UPX train. Note the difference between the UPX platform and the adjacent GO train platform. (File)
A UPX train. Note the difference between the UPX platform and the (foreground) GO train platform. (File)

Officials at Metrolinx are looking over their shoulders after the unprecedented intervention by the Premier in forcing a rapid and substantial revision of UPX fares. When the Premier has lost patience in your effectiveness, other questions from the top may follow, such as, ‘Where else are they screwing up?’, and, ‘How many people did it take to make that idiotic decision?’

It doesn’t take much digging to uncover their inadequacies. Whether it’s the inability to coordinate a VIA Rail stop in Weston or their continued insistence that UPX needs to recover its investment, management has shown that they have a tenuous hold on the idea of serving the people (watch the most recent Board Meeting to get the idea) while ignoring the realities of transportation in the GTHA. The lack of a unified fare structure between TTC, UPX and GO and the failure to connect the UPX Bloor Station to the Dundas West TTC Subway station also come to mind.

Even before the outrageous fares were set, the whole idea of a boutique rail line serving business professionals was simply a non-starter. Back in 2012, WestonWeb asked,

Can you imagine captains of industry schlepping their own bags along miles of platform at either end and onto a train?

Captains of industry want to be carried (preferably in a limo) from door to door and don’t care about the cost as long as they get a receipt.

WestonWeb was not alone in predicting a tough time for UPX. Mike Sullivan, the Clean Train Coalition and many others voiced their concerns but the experts knew better. One wonders about the high priced consultants (expert experts) that Metrolinx was tapping into. How did they all get it so wrong?

UPX President Kathy Haley (screenshot from February 23rd Board Meeting )
UPX President Kathy Haley (screenshot from February 23rd Board Meeting )

No doubt there needs to be a scapegoat and according to media reports it’s likely to be UPX President Kathy Haley who was given the impossible task of making an unviable service financially self-sustaining. Her cheerleading for the service rang more and more hollow in recent days as evidence mounted that while people would clamour for a free ride, they weren’t prepared to pay more than a TTC or at worst a GO fare. Metrolinx head, Bruce McCuaig and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca bear some of the responsibility for their stubborn expectation of the impossible.

What should be the future of UP Express?

The first should be a recognition that this is truly public transit and like all public transit should not be expected to recoup its cost. There are reports that the service will be pulled under the GO Train umbrella and that would seems likely given the recent fare alignment with GO. Regardless of the overhead, in this day of electronic fares, there are attendants galore and a ticket inspector on every train. Some re-deployment of staff to other GO positions would no doubt cut down on costs.

Will the lower price increase ridership? Probably, but the trains will not be full even at the new fare structure. Many people have suggested that the train be made part of the ever changing SmartTrack plan with additional stations along the way. An obvious site is Mount Dennis where a Crosstown Line station will be located. One problem needing a solution is the high platform of the UPX (see photo above). Regardless, many communities along the line would also welcome a quick commute to Union Station. That is likely the future for UPX but for now, Weston residents can bask in a fast (14 minute) service to and from Union every 15 minutes.

Metrolinx to VIA: No dice.

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 3.18.09 PM
Oh the possibilities! VIA Rail’s route (in blue) from Union to London.

VIA Rail trains pass (without stopping) through Weston twice a day in each direction on their way from London to Toronto’s Union Station. Some passengers from London, Kitchener, Guelph, Stratford and other stations along the route are headed to Pearson and it seemed like a no-brainer for those passengers to simply exit at Weston and hop aboard the airport train thus saving themselves time and money. Another plus, Westonians would have another way to travel westwards along that route and even catch a ride to Union in the other direction twice daily.

Enter Metrolinx. Metrolinx has said no. Apparently the arrangement is too hard to accomplish because of tight scheduling, passengers would only have 60 seconds to get off the train. Compared to regular UPX stops of 30 seconds, this seems like quite a generous allocation; especially since few will likely be getting off.

Why the foot dragging from Metrolinx? Well for starters, that’s a precious revenue loss if passengers can get a cheaper fare to the airport from Weston. Second, it’s an inconvenience to have a tight schedule to worry about. Third, why bother; it’s only Weston.

Bottom line: Laura Albanese, Ahmed Hussen and Frances Nunziata should be screaming from the rooftops for Metrolinx to add this (however small) amenity to Weston. Larger scheduling problems have been solved in the past. According to an article in the Star, this decision is not carved in stone. Let’s hope that our representatives can bring some pressure to bear; soon.

SmartTrack is at a fork

John Tory’s administration is releasing some of the proposals for the signature SmartTrack plan that pulled him into office. All of the proposals will affect Mount Dennis; some will affect Weston, too. There is a good chance, though, that none of them will come to pass.

The SmartTrack train will, according to Tory’s plan, run above- and under-ground in a U shape from roughly the airport, through downtown, and out to Unionville. Importantly, the original plan called for a sharp turn in Mount Dennis, and an impossible trip along Eglinton. It was a poorly thought out idea.Smarttrack

In February, City Council asked, among other things, for a rethink of the Mount Dennis section, and now that rethink has been released.

There are six proposals, each with deficits.

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The first proposals (1A, B, and C) run along the proposed (but not funded or built) Eglinton Crosstown route along Eglinton Avenue. They do not stop in Weston. They would have very serious, and sometimes deleterious, effects on Mount Dennis—including a train through the park at Eglinton Flats. They would also require adding two more tracks and a widening of the corridor from downtown.  On the other hand, Mount Dennis would get an excellent station that would connect cars, trains, LRTs and 12 bus routes.

In the second group of proposals, the original plan is abandoned, and the train instead runs north, through Weston, and out to the airport. These proposals are less disruptive to Mount Dennis, but would still require more tracks and “significant modifications to recent rail improvements in the Weston and Junction areas.”

There is also a lot of duplication in this plan. The UPX and GO Train already run all day from Weston to downtown, GO will likely run more often in the near future. SmartTrack through Weston, in other words, would provide a third way to get downtown on the same track corridor.