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Union Pearson Express looks unlikely to break even

Ontario pays about $11 for each passenger on the rail, while estimates say average fare for every rider is somewhere around $9.80.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

It cost the public purse about $11 for every passenger aboard the Union Pearson Express last year, a subsidy that has been whittled down by growing demand for Toronto's airport train but is still more than the fares paid by the riders themselves.

Ridership has boomed on the controversial train since fares were dropped a little more than a year ago. However, the lower amount now being paid by each rider suggests that the promise of a break-even service cannot be achieved.

Metrolinx was unable Tuesday to provide the average fare paid for each UPX customer, a minority of whom don't ride all the way to the airport. Based on an analysis of the available rider data, the average fare paid can be calculated at somewhere around $9.80 a person.

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Analysis: Blame the politicians, not Metrolinx, for UPX fiasco

The $11.04 UPX subsidy for the year finishing at the end of March was revealed by Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca on the eve of the Wednesday release of Metrolinx's annual report figures. At the same time, he said the total cost budgeted for installing the Presto fare-card system on the Toronto Transit Commission has climbed to $385-million, a 50-per-cent jump from the $255-million total promised when the project was approved in 2011.

In an interview at his office, Mr. Del Duca said the initial Presto estimate was based on incomplete information and part of the increase was owing to the decision, made under his watch, to install Presto on the TTC in stages. The idea, he argued, was to prevent potential problems of launching the whole service at once.

"The complexity of the project has grown," he said. "There were some bugs … there were some challenges. But those, I would argue, were relatively isolated compared to how it might have been if we'd gone with that all-at-once approach."

Mr. Del Duca also defended the UPX. He noted that subsidy had come down dramatically from the gargantuan one – calculated by The Globe and Mail at around $50 a rider – that was required in its early months, and said staff would continue to work on reducing that cost. But he argued the UPX is praise-worthy at the current subsidy.

"I consider the service to be a success right now," he said. "Even at $11 a customer, because at the end of the day it's providing more options for people in the west end. That doesn't mean that our work is done around the subsidy."

The current UPX subsidy is far higher than the public expenditure per passenger on GO Transit. It also far exceeds the per-rider subsidy on the TTC, and is roughly in line with the city transit agency's worst-performing express buses.

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The UPX was originally floated as a private venture that would pay for its own construction and operations. The private sector eventually backed out and the province, which included the train in its bid-book for the 2015 Pan American Games, took over the project.

The idea of the train paying for its own capital cost fell by the wayside but the province insisted the train be designed as a break-even service. Early pricing – as much as $27 for a one-way trip – was built around that assumption, only to have travellers stay away.

The service was losing huge amounts of money when the province stepped in and directed Metrolinx to lower the fare to $12 one-way, or $9 with a Presto card, starting in March, 2016.

Ridership tripled almost immediately and has continued to rise. The vast majority of the 2.8 million who rode last year took the full trip to the airport, according to Metrolinx, and most of them paid the full fare. The passengers using one of the two other stations were more likely to use a Presto card, reducing their fares.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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