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The Union Pearson Express: Toronto's refined ride

The new Union Pearson Express train is a work of business-class-ready design.

You are a global businessperson, a member of the airline super-elite, well-shod and tightly scheduled. You have landed at Pearson International Airport and have business in downtown Toronto. How will you get there? In a limo, you would stop-and-start your way along clogged highways. But you have another option: a train that departs every 15 minutes straight for the city's Union Station, making a reliable 25-minute journey. The train has WiFi and outlets to charge your phone; its seats bear smart little crests; it is staffed by "guest service representatives" in military-inspired uniforms. Just as you do at Heathrow or in Kuala Lumpur, you will whisk your way downtown by rail.

This is the conceit of the new Union Pearson Express service, which opens to passengers June 6, a month before the opening of the Pan Am and Parapan Am Games in the city. It is not just a $456-million piece of infrastructure. It is an exercise in atmospherics – trying to create a fresh face for a city with the strategic use of design.

"We wanted to return to the heroic age of air travel, and rail," Kathy Haley, the CEO of UP Express, said while showing the system to media last week. "We wanted to put the focus on the guest experience."

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There's no question that the experience of a quick, quiet train ride is a good introduction to a city. And this one should succeed at its task of branding; the design of the user experience is exceptionally good. To oversee its design, the Ontario transit-planning agency Metrolinx hired Winkreative. This is the agency founded by the expat Canadian Tyler Brûlé, who also created Wallpaper and Monocle magazines; Winkreative has worked with British Airways and Swiss International Air Lines. They know what they are doing. The firm's focus was not on the 25 kilometres of track projects, but on the architecture of the stations and the interiors of the trains.

The design of the stations is credited to four firms of architects, but the Swiss architecture firm Hosoya Schaefer was Winkreative's "architectural partner" and collaborated on the design.

Last week, the two middle stations were still under construction. The architecture was strongest on the downtown platform, which is located adjacent to Union Station and is designed by Toronto-based Zeidler Partnership – also the architects for the station's "train shed," the most visible part of a massive $800-million renovation. The UP terminal is attractive and grand in attitude: Heroic Y-shaped concrete columns hold up the roof, while the upper walls and ceiling are lined by slabs of oak that filter the sunlight and views. (It is a mixture of wood veneer and fire-safe panels that mimic its appearance.) The wood is intended, Zeidler architect Tarek El-Khatib said, to lend a Canadian character to the space. Peek through this screen and you see the freshly built skyline of the city's new South Core district.

More attention has seemingly been paid to the details of what's happening on the platform. You have various options in how to spend your 15-minute wait – shopping, sipping coffee or drinking, all supplied by smallish local brands. This is a favourite tactic of developers and agencies running big projects: allowing local retailers to bring their edgy charm and provide a sense of place.

A retail kiosk is stocked by the Drake Hotel General Store, the retail arm of the independent Queen Street hotel; it offers a quirky, thoughtful mix of local flavour (maple syrup from Prince Edward County), travel-friendly clothing including a UP-branded railway cap, and hip souvenirs (the children's book Toronto ABC by illustrator Paul Covello. A is for AGO.)

Next door is a café belonging to the regional chain Balzac's. (If it's not clear to you how an espresso served by a café named after Honoré de Balzac represents Ontario, you can order a Café Canadien, a latte sweetened with maple syrup.) And upstairs on a mezzanine, a bar will serve the wares of the local Mill Street Brewery.

Down the platform are some things to grab the attention of the serious traveller: a departures board showing all flights at the airport and a pair of check-in kiosks that will, the train operators hope, allow you to check in and check baggage on several airlines. Air Canada and WestJet have already signed up. And next to that, a special ATM supplied by CIBC will dispense cash in five currencies – Canadian and U.S. dollars, pounds, euros and Mexican pesos.

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Once you get on the train, the design does not grow any less subtle. Large windows let you see the city's western outskirts, surprisingly pastoral from this perspective. The livery and the exterior paint job of the trains, led by Winkreative, are in shades of sage green, red, burnt orange and yellow-brown. They are intended to reflect the landscape of Ontario – and the same shades carry through to the staff uniforms, designed by local menswear designer Matt Robinson of Klaxon Howl. Drawing on 1940s military uniforms, Robinson has given the staff a range of garments that include a special UP Express crest. The four elements include a UP station, Ontario's provincial flower the trillium, a pine forest and "the keys to Ontario."

There is more. The signage and graphics on the trains and platforms include a vintage-chic graphic identity by Winkreative, using Canadian type designer Rod McDonald's Gibson face.

It's hard to argue with the quality of this work. And yet if you know the state of Canada's public-transit infrastructure – particularly that of Toronto – this level of refinement begins to seem a bit comical. Indeed the idea of a Toronto air-rail link has stirred controversy since it was first mooted by the Jean Chrétien goverment. The region is desperate for transit and this line is a niche product which will have a minimal impact on the region. It will serve 2.5 million riders a year, if the projections bear out; the Toronto Transit Commission moves more than 500 million riders a year.

Yet the UP Express has been very deliberately designed to not be transit for the masses, like Vancouver's Canada Line. Over several iterations it went from a public-private partnership to a public project; the current version, powered by low-emission diesel locomotives, has been realized by the province as a stopgap in time for the Pan Am Games.

Plans call for the line to be electrified and to fit as part of an overall plan for frequent-service regional express rail. At that point, Toronto will have something close to a real regional transit service, the kind of infrastructure that world-class cities take for granted.

With luck, the UP's high design standards may influence other major transit projects in the region; Metrolinx is currently overseeing the $8-billion construction of Toronto's Eglinton Crosstown LRT line; it's not clear whether they will be able to enforce a high level of architecture and urban design there, where it really matters.

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Not that you, as a visitor zooming toward downtown, will be thinking about such things. You will have the impression of a city and a country that understands design and how to make infrastructure work – at least until you get off the train.

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About the Author
Architecture critic

Alex Bozikovic covers architecture and urbanism for The Globe and Mail. He is also a staff editor at The Globe. He has won a National Magazine Award for his writing about design. More

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