The UP Express celebrated its first anniversary on Sunday, and Metrolinx released some ridership numbers to the CBC.
The good news: ridership is up. Way up. The bad news: the train is still losing money.
About 8,200 people ride the train every weekday, Metrolinx says, and sometimes the train is standing-room only. According to my rough calculations, that level of ridership should bring in about $50,000 in revenue per day.
However, the train costs about $160,000 a day to run—so the train is still losing about $110,000 per day, or about $13 a passenger.
Anne Marie Aikins told the CBC that Metrolinx expects to have the line subsidized, but that is a gob-smacking subsidy. Most municipalities recover about 50% of their costs at the farebox. Metrolinx and GO recover about 75%.
The UPX, by contrast, is covering only about 30% of its costs.
In the short term, nothing will change. Metrolinx is very used to hand-waving, procrastinating, and denial. They will assert that ridership is still increasing, and that it’s a premium service.
Bullocks. The math won’t work. Ever. The UPX is losing money because it was massively overbuilt as a premium executive-class line. Everyone knew, long in advance, that it was a dog. Everyone except, perhaps, Metrolinx.
Something will have to change. The UPX just keeps bleeding. Sooner or later, the losses will reach a nice round number—$100 million say—and the media will have a peg to hang their stories on. Metrolinx should be working in the meantime to staunch the spray.
They could raise fares, but they won’t. They just had an expensive lesson in supply and demand; I don’t expect them to soon forget it. It wouldn’t work if they did.
Instead, they will have to cut costs—and they will be loathe to. They would have to admit that the dopey uniforms, in-
flight ride magazines, and complimentary WiFi were very bad ideas. Metrolinx can’t say sorry.
They could cut service. That, though, would offend everyone involved: the public, Metrolinx, and the Liberals, who demanded that this work as a commuter line.
The answer, though, obvious, at least to me. There should be railcar classes. Standing-room trips are lousy, especially if you’ve just arrived off a plane or are departing our beautiful city. Seats should be reserved for our first-class guests, and they should pay a touch more: say $15. In exchange, they can have all the amenities¹ and a cabin all to themselves.
The rest of us can ride in the back, in two of the three-car trains. We’ll stand, if necessary, and be perfectly happy with grumpy staff wearing green golf shirts and only our phones to read.
Honestly, this is a great idea, if I do say so myself. Call it soaking the rich, if that’s what you want. Call it price discrimination, to be a little more neutral. Or, if you are Metrolinx, call it a “reminiscence of the golden age of rail travel”. That too.
Or call it a face- and money-saving idea.
¹ Except for that magazine, which just screams “vanity project!”. That has to go.