Arriving at Toronto Pearson Airport, you can’t miss the anticipation of the new airport rail service, UP Express. There is a lot of signage at the airport promoting the predictable journey time and high frequency.
Though the service doesn’t open until the 6th June, I joined the Global AirRail Alliance for a preview of the passenger experience that awaits.
Offering a 15 minute headway from 05:30 to 01:00 the service will take 25 minutes, calling at two intermediate stations. The journey time is roughly similar to an uncongested road journey; however the reliable journey time is one of the service’s main benefits.
Union Station’s UP platform is separate from the main concourse area allowing for a differentiated passenger experience. The modern, bright station design certainly adds a sense of calm to the journey. Entering the station, there is a very simple layout with one coffee stand and one small shop. For someone in a rush, the design guides you quickly through to board a train.
If you have spare time, facilities have been thoughtfully placed to allow a passenger to check in for their flight or withdraw foreign currency.
Platform edge doors maintain the station temperature and protect from extreme weather. When these open, level access is provided through to the rather narrow train doors. When the system is operational, these narrow doors may prove to be a pinch-point for passengers trying to board: There is no stand back space inside the vestibule area so passengers who are slow to move down into the train will block the door area. Further, there is no option to stand in this area for the journey.
On board, very large luggage racks are provided throughout the train – though I’ve observed in previous posts that not everybody chooses to use allocated racks. Passengers wanting to keep their luggage close can use overhead bins. Unlike many European rail systems, these overhead bins are enclosed: though this makes the train look neat and tidy, I suspect many passengers will entirely forget their luggage as they rush off the train to the airport. Be sure to check that you have everything with you.
Once you have funnelled through to take a seat, the facilities provided become obvious: the generous legroom means that you can sit easily with a small bag at your feet.
In a highly unrepresentative test of the Wi-Fi, I was able to achieve a download speed of 3.2 Mbps and an upload speed of 620Kbps (in the station, I was impressed to download at 9.7 Mbps).
Apart from the tip-up seats in the wheelchair area, all seats are arranged in an airline style: though not the target market, this would result in a family being split between different rows as no booth/table seats are available.
Many news articles have concentrated on premium one-way fare but the service has a clear premium offer that is reflected by the relatively high fare. So long as the reliability lives up to the premium price this seems to make for a clear product compared to the alternative taxi cost of approximately $60.
The UP Express is definitely planned to reflect an InterCity rail or airline journey – in a seat: I wonder how this will play out when the service is operational. If, like me, you prefer to stand on a short train ride so that you can alight first, the lack of stand back space by the doors will mean that you’ll be standing in the way at intermediate stations. I understand the focus on providing a premium on board environment but not all customers will want to sit down and the uniform train layout doesn’t really offer this flexibility.
Having segregated the premium market, the separate UP Express platform area at Union Station manages to isolate the airport passenger and provide a genuinely high-quality environment and service. With the high walk-up fare, the service needs to be exceptional – my experience suggests that service experience has been well thought through. With a current public transport mode share of only 5% there is definitely a market for extracting specific passengers off the highway – in the context of a quickly growing city this shift to public transport is essential.
Next month will see if the service takes off!
Author: Liam Henderson