Rapid transit rail lines are serving Canada's airports, now and in the future

Aug 16 2019, 3:59 pm

One of the defining traits of a world-class airport is its public transit linkages, specifically a rail rapid transit line that moves passengers from the terminal facilities to the city centre.

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Exactly 10 years ago, about half a year ahead of the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, Vancouver’s Canada Line — the third line of the city’s SkyTrain metro system — was the country’s first rail rapid transit line reaching an airport.

This was followed by the opening of Toronto’s Union-Pearson Express (UP Express), which began serving its first passengers about two months before the 2015 Pan American Games.

As for rail connections to the airports of Canada’s next two largest airports, construction is underway on Montreal’s new rail connection as part of a larger city-wide new train system, and both Ottawa and Calgary are in the early stages of planning rail connections to their respective airports.

Here is a rundown of the country’s two existing, one upcoming, and two planned train lines that serve major international airports:

Canada Line serving Vancouver International Airport

The Canada Line has been an immediate success since its first day of service on August 17, 2009. Its break-even ridership target of 100,000 riders per weekday was hit by the end of its first year of operations — three years ahead of forecast schedules.

Average ridership in 2018 was close to an astounding 150,000 per weekday, with the 19-km-long line tethering downtown Vancouver with Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and the suburb of Richmond in just 25 minutes from end to end. This is faster than driving most times of the day, and no transfers are needed.

Canada Line SkyTrain YVR Airport Station

YVR Airport Station on SkyTrain’s Canada Line. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

The uptake by air passengers has been huge; the Vancouver Airport Authority’s most recent data, based on a survey, shows 21% of air passengers are using the Canada Line. In fact, as a result of the Canada Line, YVR’s transit modal share is the highest of any airport in North America.

At YVR Airport Station, the walking distance to the airport terminal building is just over one minute, with an elevated covered walkway providing the connection to both the domestic and international terminals.

This $2.05-billion line has a total of 16 stations, serving other key destinations, attractions, and public transit transfer nodes. Like the rest of the SkyTrain system, it is completely driverless, as it uses computer-controlled full automation technology.

Canada Line SkyTrain YVR Airport Station

YVR Airport Station on SkyTrain’s Canada Line. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Trains travelling from downtown Vancouver have alternating final destinations, with trains ending at either YVR Airport Station or Richmond-Brighouse Station.

The service runs for about 20 hours every day. The first train leaves downtown at 4:48 am and the last train at 1:05 am, while the first train leaves the airport at 5:07 am and the last train at 12:56 am.

Relatively high frequencies are operated throughout most of the day: Trains serving the station next to the terminal building depart for downtown Vancouver every six minutes during peak hours and mid-day service. Frequencies are lower during other hours, with trains leaving every 12 minutes in early mornings and evenings, and every 20 minutes late at night.

There is also a $5 top-on fare for only inbound journeys from the airport towards the city centre; for an adult rider on a single-trip fare, it will cost $8.45 to reach the city and downtown, including the $5 top-on.

Canada Line SkyTrain YVR Vancouver International Airport

SkyTrain Canada Line trains near Vancouver International Airport being tested before opening in 2009. (Vancouver International Airport)

With luggage-hauling passengers in mind, Canada Line trains are wider than others on the SkyTrain system, but the station platform lengths are short (40/50 metres) and currently only allow for two-car, 334-passenger capacity trains. Technical challenges with extending the platforms, many located underground, beyond 50 metres will likely constrict the Canada Line’s long-term capacity to 15,000 passengers per hour per direction (pphpd), rendering it underbuilt.

As the Canada Line has a trio of functions — airport service, local service, and regional commuter service — the trains can become quite packed throughout the day, reaching overcrowded conditions during peak hours.

Over the short term, the capacity can be increased by acquiring more trains to increase scheduled frequencies. The train fleet will increase from 20 two-car trains to 32 two-car trains starting in January 2020, resulting in a capacity uptick from about 6,000 pphpd to over 8,000 pphpd.

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South Vancouver skyline and a Canada Line train. (Shutterstock)

Although it has its design shortcomings, the Canada Line is considered an incredible success, and has been a catalyst for immense urban redevelopment around the stations, which in turn generates even more ridership.

The Canada Line’s ridership is now about 60% higher than its first year. A relatively high year-over-year growth rate is likely to continue in the years ahead, especially when the Millennium Line Broadway Extension opens in 2025, turning Broadway-City Hall Station into a major regional transit hub with the intersection of two SkyTrain lines.

Growing airport traffic is also anticipated to be another factor; when the Canada Line opened, the airport saw 16 million passengers annually, and this traffic has since grown to about 26 million in 2018, with forecasts calling for as many as 31 million by 2022.


A Canada Line platform in downtown Vancouver. (Shutterstock)

UP Express serving Toronto Pearson International Airport

When the UP Express‘ first opened, ridership was absolutely abysmal.

The airport express train line opened on June 6, 2015, and connected Toronto Pearson International Airport with Union Station in downtown Toronto. Its end-to-end travel time with a total of just four stations along the 23-km-long route is just 25 minutes, far faster than a car. Trains run between 4:55 am and 1 am daily every 15 minutes.

Toronto-Pearson International Airport station for the Union Pearson Express. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Inside a train on the Union Pearson Express in Toronto. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

And this is truly a premium service, with creature comforts such as padded and wide seating, free Wi-Fi, electrical outlet, luggage racks, and real-time flight information screens. This is certainly not a local subway standard of service.

During the UP Express’ design process, project proponents believed there was sufficient critical mass at Canada’s busiest airport and downtown Toronto to support an express train service for air passengers, particularly business travellers.

But they were very wrong; trains were running nearly empty weeks later during the Pam Am Games, even though the line was built to help handle the influx of visitors during the two-week event. According to Daily Hive Torontoist, with an average of just over 3,000 riders per day in July 2015, trains were running at only 12% of the maximum train capacity of 173 seated passengers — an average of 21 riders per train.

Inside a train on the Union Pearson Express in Toronto. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Ridership continued to fall as the year progressed, and this downward trend went on into the new year. Average ridership hit a record low of 1,967 passengers per day in January 2016, including a day that saw just 1,174 riders.

At this point, there was a mounting outcry that fares for the service were far too high, even for business travellers, and as a result the $456 million investment in the new train line was a white elephant. Some other critics also charged that a more conventional transit service, with airport, local, and commuter functions, similar to the Canada Line, would have been a more practical investment with greater benefits.

Inside a train on the Union Pearson Express in Toronto. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

In March 2016, provincial transit authority Metrolinx merged UP Express with the GO Transit commuter rail service, and slashed fares to far more palatable levels.

A one-way, single-trip fare was lowered from $27.50 to $12, and from $19 to $9 with the Presto smart card. Fares between Union, Bloor, and Weston stations were also reduced to match the GO Transit fares for the same trips, opening up UP Express to regular commuters between the terminuses making non-airport trips.

A positive effect on ridership was experienced immediately, with average daily ridership for March 2016 reaching nearly 4,500 passengers per day, doubling the previous month.

The upward trend continued over the following months, and by June 2016 — a full year of UP Express service — ridership had soared to an average of 7,657 passengers per day, equivalent to 49 passengers per train.

Union Pearson Express ridership

Union Pearson Express ridership from June 2015 to June 2016. (Metrolinx)

The change in fare structure had not only attracted more air passengers, but also airport employees and opened up the UP Express as a commuter rail line for destinations in between. At the time, 80% of ridership was generated by rides to and from the airport, and the remaining 20% between Union, Bloor, and Weston stations as a commuter line and for leisure trips, such as shopping, sports games, and special events.

With that said, UP Express’ annual operating costs are highly subsidized, which is expected to continue over the long term, although the gap will narrow from growing ridership. During the first fiscal year, with the first half of the period dragged down by exceeding low ridership levels, the average subsidy of running the service was $52.25 per boarded passenger.

In the fiscal year between April 2016 and March 2017, the service had an operating cost of $63 million, but only $32.4 million was covered by fare revenue.

Metrolinx’s annual report for 2017-18 indicates UP Express ridership averaged at approximately 10,000 passengers per day, representing a 27% increase over the previous year. And with limited variables on its fully grade-separated route and only a handful of stations, the service’s reliability is fairly high, with a 98.02% on-time performance rating.

Union Pearson Express train platform at Union Station in downtown Toronto. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

Despite the high operating shortfalls due to the reduced fares, additional capital investments to expand the service’s passenger capacity may be required over the coming decade, as the system is now operating at close to half of its capacity of roughly 1,000 pphpd.

There are plans to eventually install an overhead catenary to electrify the UP Express, which uses hybrid trains that currently run exclusively on diesel.

In 2021, a fifth station — Mount Dennis Station will be added to the system, creating a connection to the under-construction Line 5 Eglinton Crosstown and providing the UP Express with a new additional ridership source.

Union Pearson Express train platform at Union Station in downtown Toronto. (Kenneth Chan / Daily Hive)

According to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, a total of 49.5 million passengers travelled through Toronto Pearson during 2018, an increase of 2.4 million passengers over 2017.

Continued growth in air passenger volumes at the airport should also translate to a corresponding increase in UP Express ridership. In 2018, the airport clocked 49.5 million passengers — an increase of 2.4 million over 2017, and about 16.1 million more than 2011.

REM to Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport

Montreal is just a few years away from experiencing a public transit renaissance.

The comprehensive new Réseau Express Métropolitain (REM), also known as the Metropolitan Express Network, is being funded by the Quebec government in partnership with the Quebec pension fund as a public-private project.

REM Montreal train network

2023 route map of the REM train network in Montreal, with the station for Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport highlighted. (REM)

Plans for the 67-km-long rail network with 26 stations were first unveiled to the public in 2016, and ever since the $6.3-billion project has been progressing at a breathtaking pace. Construction officially began in 2018, with the system slated to open in phases between 2021 and 2023.

For context on the significance of the REM, the route length of the REM is roughly equivalent to the entire Montreal Metro, Toronto subway, or Vancouver SkyTrain.

REM Montreal train network

Artistic rendering of the interior of trains for the REM in Montreal. (REM)

As a driverless, fully-automated train network, REM is modelled after the SkyTrain system. In fact, the pension fund’s high and predictable level of return from its investment in the Canada Line, another public-private project, greatly influenced its decision to engage in the REM as one of its largest ventures to date.

REM platform lengths of 80 metres will be identical to SkyTrain’s Expo Line and Millennium Lines. All stations will feature platform screen doors, which is a first for a public transit rail line service in North America.

But with stations spaced further apart, and with much of the route being built on existing commuter rail right-of-ways, REM is intended to be a commuter rail service that connects with STM services at key interchange stations.

REM Montreal train network

Artistic rendering of the underground REM station for Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport. (REM)

REM will also include span that reaches Montreal–Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, with the station serving the terminal building located underground. Construction on this $250-million station, designed with wide platforms to account for luggage-hauling travellers, began in July of this year.

When this airport-serving span of the REM opens in 2023, air passengers and airport employees will be able to travel from the airport to downtown Montreal in just 20 minutes with a one-train, transfer-less ride. Airport-bound trains will run every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours.

Fares are expected to be similar to current STM fares for comparable distances, but planners have indicated that fares for travel to the airport may be higher for one-way trips, similar to the Canada Line.

REM Montreal train network

Artistic rendering of the interior of trains for the REM in Montreal. (REM)

In 2018, the airport saw 19.4 million air passengers — up by 7% compared to the previous year.

REM’s total projected ridership upon the completion of all spans is 190,000 passengers per day.

Currently, the airport is served by the No. 747 Airport/Downtown express bus service, which runs 24/7 between the terminal building and the Metro’s Berri-UQAM Station, with end-to-end travel times of between 45 minutes and 75 minutes, depending on traffic. Fares for this express is $10, and it also provides unlimited travel across the STM subway and bus network over a 24-hour period.

STM ridership figures in 2017 indicate the No. 747 currently averages about 4,000 passengers per day.


Artistic rendering of a REM station. (REM)

Future driverless train to Calgary International Airport

A planned future rail link serving Calgary International Airport is also modelled after Vancouver’s system.

In June 2019, City of Calgary planners released their route and technology recommendations for the proposed service — a standalone driverless, fully-automated line, with planners explicitly highlighting the Canada Line as their model example.

The approximate 10-km-long route would have six stations, running between two LRT lines — the future Green Line extension’s 96 Avenue NE Station and the future Blue Line extension’s 88 Avenue NE Station.

Proposed Calgary Airport Line route. (City of Calgary)

“Between the three options, we’re recommending the Automated People Mover. This option is based on what we would use for the medium- to long-term time frame, based on the ridership that we’ve forecasted,” Alex Saba, a senior transportation engineer with the City of Calgary, previously told Daily Hive.

“This system provides a faster turn-around time at the airport station, allowing for more frequent service and saves about 25% in travel and wait times, compared to a system that requires drivers. It’s also a better customer experience. There are no local emissions and reduces impacts to the environment.”

As a result of automation, frequency during peak hours could reach as high as every four minutes.

However, unlike the airport train systems serving airports in Vancouver and Toronto and the under-construction system for Montreal, passengers using the proposed Calgary service would have to transfer between train services to reach the airport from downtown Calgary.

Calgary Airport Line

Preferred station interchange concept at the 96 Avenue NE Station between the future Green Line and Airport Line. (City of Calgary)

The municipal government does not have a timeline for the construction of this new airport line, and the project still requires funding. However, the city has noted that it could be built in two phases, with the eastern half built first given that the 88 Avenue NE Station on the Blue Line will be completed before the 96 Avenue NE Green Line Station. This span is also less expensive to construct, and is supported by ridership forecasts.

Both phases have a combined estimated construction cost of between $900 million and $1.8 billion.

The airport is currently served by the Route 300 Airport/City Centre express bus, running between the terminal building and downtown Calgary. This bus route has a ridership of about 900 boardings per day, with end-to-end travel times of about 45 minutes, depending on traffic.

Last year, the airport recorded 17.3 million air passengers, a year-over-year increase of 6.6% compared to 2017.

Calgary airport line

Possible Calgary Airport Line and potential ridership, as well as ridership comparisons with Toronto’s Union Pearson Express and Vancouver’s Canada Line. (City of Calgary)

O-Train extension to Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport

The City of Ottawa is proceeding with a second-stage, $4.6-billion expansion of its O-Train LRT network, which will entail constructing 44 km of new rail lines and 24 new stations.

This includes the recent green-lit project of a $663-million, 16-km southward extension of the existing Trillium Line diesel LRT, including a three-km-long spur line reaching Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. The complete extension entails eight additional stations for the Trillium Line.

Trillium Line O-Train Macdonald-Cartier International Airport

Trillium Line extension map, with the airport station depicted. (City of Ottawa)

Trillium Line O-Train Macdonald-Cartier International Airport

Artistic rendering of the Trillium Line extension station for Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. (City of Ottawa)

To reach downtown Ottawa from the airport, passengers will need to travel on three separate trains, transferring twice.

This includes the Trillium Line airport spur train, the Trillium Line mainline, and the new Confederation Line, creating a combined travel time of about 35 minutes — slower than the 22-minute travel time by car in optimal driving conditions.

Trillium Line O-Train Macdonald-Cartier International Airport

Artistic rendering of the Trillium Line extension station for Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport. (City of Ottawa)

The airport terminal station will be attached to the terminal building, which saw 5.1 million air passengers in 2018. Both the Trillium Line mainline extension and airport line spur are slated to open by 2022.

Embattled Quebec construction and engineering giant SNC-Lavalin is involved in the design and construction of the Canada Line, REM, Confederation Line, and Trillium Line extension. An early concept for the UP Express also involved the company.

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