What should the Air Rail Link to Pearson Cost?
First, the good news. After years (some might say decades) of delay, Toronto is finally getting its Air Rail Link (ARL). It may not be everyone's preferred route or technology but at long last the city will be joining the one-hundred-plus urban centres around the globe that already have dedicated rapid transit connections from their airports to their downtown core.
Now, the bad news. At the December 19th press conference, fares were ominously described as "well under the typical $50 price of a cab or airport limo downtown." Uh-oh. Given that Toronto is already tolerating one of North America's most expensive public transit systems, this was not a promising statement.
Since many American and Canadian cities now have airport-rail links, and given that all cities suffer from issues related to capital costs, operating costs, funding, local politics, etc., can one determine what should be a reasonable price to pay to get to the airport? And is Toronto once again headed for the title of "most expensive?"
The answer to both questions is: "almost certainly yes." Even if one makes the fabulously conservative assumption that the Pearson Air Rail Link will cost no more than the current private Airport Express bus ($24), that would still be almost double the next most expensive city (New York) and a far cry from the $3 to $9 fares in most other places. (On the plus side, if you fly from the Island, Toronto will still be home to the "least expensive airport link" via the free ferry.
What went so wrong to lead to such a predicament? Much of the problem lies in the choice of building an express airport link, as pioneered by the Heathrow Express in London. Even though this was downgraded after the takeover by Metrolinx to something more like a Heathrow Connect service, with local stops at Bloor and Weston, it still gives cover to high fares — i.e. it's not public transit, it's "business class!" All other cities in the US or Canada with mainline rail links simply treat them as commuter rail (at worst with slightly higher prices for the airport stop). The entire diesel-electric debate is a red herring, given that 13 other cities already use diesel locomotives for airport service; it was the choice of dedicated express service that should have been the controversy all along.
Another major factor was the decision to bury the Eglinton LRT. As originally designed, the Eglinton line would have been on the surface near its western end, providing for a simple and cost-effective future extension to the airport. This is exactly the way LRT airport links work in cities like Dallas, Seattle and Minneapolis and would have provided for a low-cost option for workers and budget travelers priced out of the express train service. However, with the Eglinton line now underground it will be outrageously expensive to complete the line to the airport via tunnel (meaning it should happen sometime around the 22nd century).
Finally, the GTAA flat-out missed an opportunity when building their new airport people mover. By opting for the cheapest, simplest technology — basically a ski-lift on rails — rather than using a technology capable of multiple trainsets and longer distances, the system is grossly under-utilized. Had the airport built a people mover out to Malton GO station, the airport rail link would have been completed to the existing commuter network years ago, no further hubbub required. This is exactly what was done at New York JFK, is under construction at Miami MIA, and is planned for Los Angeles LAX. The 3.5 km route to Malton would have required some extra funding to be sure, but is far shorter than the privately-built AirTrain people mover at JFK (5 km to subway, 7 km to commuter rail, $5 to ride).
Perhaps if Toronto had a more powerful regional transit authority, or better public transit funding, or fewer meddling politicians, all of the above could have been addressed. As it stands, Toronto looks to be well on track to claim "most expensive airport link" the day the ARL finally opens.
- As always in multi-city comparisons, certain assumptions had to be made to attempt an apples-to-apples showdown. While any of these could be argued in detail, they at least make for a McIntosh-to-Granny-Smith-quality study.
- Only cities in the US and Canada were included, since these are the most fair comparisons for Toronto. As nice as the many European and Asian airport rail links are, they live in a different political, economic and physical environment and can't be considered as relevant here.
- The focus of the study is "air-rail" connections. Many cities now have direct connections at the airport to rapid transit, either via rail people-mover or stations in terminals. Other cities, marked with an "S", employ dedicated free shuttle buses to connect to nearby rapid transit stations. BRT and ferries are included in the study since these are also reasonable rapid-transit options that are often viewed as equivalent to rail. Local bus service to airports, such as the Airport Rocket in Toronto or M60 to LaGuardia in New York, is not included in the study as these are typically neither express nor under 10 minutes in duration and therefore subject to traffic and discomfort. They are not true "airport links."
- Fare shown is from the airport to the downtown or equivalent major transit center for a single adult traveler. Where this requires a combination of air link fare and subway or commuter fare, as in EWR or JFK, it is included. In the case of airport links to LRT or subway systems with a single fare zone, this would of course also cover much of the metropolitan region whereas commuter trains only deliver to one or two central stations. But for the sake of this study, it is assumed the traveller is headed downtown. Suburban-destination travel would be a very different and interesting comparison but is too varied to include here.
- All of these airport rail links are either in service or under construction with an announced date. Some links that are planned but not yet under construction, such as LAX's new LRT connection or Las Vegas's monorail extension, are ignored.
- Some cities are served by multiple airports. Airports within an hour and 20 minutes were included, such as Boston to TF Green Airport in Providence. Longer connections, such as Chicago to Milwaukee's airport or New York to Philadelphia's airport, were ignored.
- All commuter rail fares are calculated for peak travel times. In some cases they are significantly less off-peak or with smartcards. Where two services overlap, i.e. Amtrak and a commuter service, the commuter fare is used.
- Not all of the air-rail links listed here are frequent service. (The ARL is planned to run every 15 min.) However, the emphasis of this study is on physical infrastructure and fares, not service levels, which can always be modified to suit demand.
- Airport links under construction are marked with "uc". Since fares are not yet known, the current fare for the equivalent service (such as the public transit SkyRide express bus in Denver) is used as an estimate.
- Canadian and American dollar considered at par.
Guest contribution from Larry Green / Lead image via Metrolinx