Thursday, June 4, 2015

Did you get complimentary tickets to ride UP Express this weekend? Here's what you can expect, courtesy of my roving weekday reporter

Thanks to knowing some people who know some people who did some work for UP Express, I was able to score a 'preview' ride on UP Express. There was an all-day event held the day after the media briefing - all relatively low-key, with no presentations or 'special guests'. Judging by the numbers and conversations, UP had invited a lot of people with some connection to the project. Overall, it was probably far closer to the 'normal' customer experience then the special media-orientated tours.

Sadly, I had no means to take pictures. Metrolinx's Flickr page has plenty, as do all the various news reports. I shall just say it all looks just like the photos. (Really, these camera thingies are amazing!).

Union station
The UP Express platforms at Union are located just off the Skywalk. (From elsewhere in Union station, simply follow the signs). It feels slightly detached from the regular hustle and bustle of the GO/VIA facilities. This is more by accident than design - the trains require higher platforms, so are one end of the station to prevent conflicts with GO and VIA trains.

The station area has (or will have) a large opening to the SkyWalk - it doesn't feel closed off or separate - anyone can wander in if they like. It's a pleasant area, feeling light, warm, and airy - lots of glass and mid-toned wood. The whole thing feels up-market and comfortable, without being posh. The washrooms (round to the left) could be useful for those trekking from the rest of Union to the CN tower. (Sadly, I didn't see what they were like).

Union station has platform doors (like those proposed for TTC stations). This means the platform isn't open to the elements. Instead, the train sits outside the glass wall, carefully aligned so that the doors in the wall align with the doors in the train. The weather was pleasant that day, so I couldn't tell how much wintery wind will blow in. I suspect it won't be much. The net effect is that the whole area feels like you're indoors, with some doors that happen to lead a train. 

The station area has a few thoughtful features. There are flight departure display screens, so you can confirm your terminal and flight status in advance. No arrival status, however, which would have been useful for those meeting inbound passengers at Union. There's also an ATM that dispenses US dollars, Mexican pesos, Euros, British pounds (and another that does Canadian dollars). Certainly a cunning move by sponsor CIBC for the traveller who wants to skip the lines at the airport. There are big LED displays above each door, telling you the time until the next departure, so you know whether to rush for the waiting train, or have time to grab a coffee.

Coffee / tea are on sale (although they were free on preview day!). A glass cabinet implies pastries, etc. will be available for sale, similar to any other coffee shop, really. The prices seemed cheap to me - more "covering the cost of providing something passengers will value" than "making lots of money". Souvenirs were also available, so you have something to take home from your Toronto trip

Tickets can be bought from the information/sales counter (on the right of the entrance), or from the ticket machines (round to the right, past the counter), or on-board. There are also Presto card readers scattered liberally around. All tickets/Presto cards are checked on-board by the UP Express attendants. Given that UP Express users are 'guests', not merely GO's "customers" (and certainly not TTC's "passengers"!), I suspect there's a fancy title in there somewhere. (Regardless of titles, the staff I interacted with were unfailingly polite and helpful.)

However, on-board ticket purchases can only be made with a credit card (no debit cards or cash) and attract a $2 fee. The sales counters accept all the usual payment methods.

So, after getting my complementary beverage and taking a photo of a cupcake with the terrible camera on my phone (for posterity, rather than sharing), I boarded the train.

On the train

Firstly, a minor warning: there is a slight slope in the flooring beside the doors. You barely notice it getting on, but it caught me slightly unawares when I went to look out the door window during the journey. 

The seats are arranged 'airline style' - in pairs, rather than quads of a GO Train. Half face one way, half the other. Normally people prefer to face the direct of travel, but after a long flight, facing the other way may have novelty appeal. The seats come equipped with fold-down tables (complete with a handy recess for your beverage). The seats seemed comfortable enough - the seats (and train) are narrower than a GO train. The train is closer in width to a subway train, albeit with more headroom. Regardless, the seats certainly seemed comfortable enough for a 25-minute ride. Legroom was more generous than a plane (so those coming from the airport will be very happy!), and I could comfortably stretch out my legs underneath. (There's more room between your knees and the seat in front of you than is between your knees and the knees of the person opposite you in a GO quad.)

The ride quality was good: you could have an open cup of coffee on your fold-down table without it slopping over. It's certainly better than the middle level of a GO Train. The movements feel smaller but faster than a GO Train (which makes sense, as it's a small vehicle). The speed hit at least 60mph (100km/hr). If you haven't been on the Kitchener line in the past few years, you'll be amazed at the scale of works that were required, with multiple large, long under-passes. (At one point, I had a view out the front, and the train had to slow before going down the slope: it was like that moment at the start of a rollercoaster ride, just before you do that initial plummet...). 

A pair of power outlets is provided at each seat - handy for recharging your device before/after a flight. However, the wheelchair spaces have no dedicated outlet, and must use the ones for the adjacent seats (which are in a very awkward position for the person in the wheelchair).

Being an airport train, luggage facilities are obviously a major consideration. There are luggage racks for big suitcases, plus overhead bins above the seats. The luggage racks have a 'lip' at the bottom to stop stuff rolling out, plus a fold-down 'bar' to make sure nothing can topple out. Given the ride quality, this seems overkill. The net result is that it will be rather awkward to put your luggage in the luggage rack, and I suspect people will use the wheelchair spaces instead. Also, the doors on the overhead bins are hard to open/close, thanks to some weird hinges. There was certainly plenty of luggage space - but it will be impossible to say whether there's enough until the train is full of actual passengers. Certainly it wouldn't work if everyone has a large suitcase - but many passengers don't.

There are few screens scattered around, showing various adverts, as well as information about delayed/late flights. The free WiFi worked just fine, according to reports from other passengers. Like the luggage racks, there might be a different story with a full train.

There is one washroom on the train. It's in the middle car if you're in a three-car train, and in the car without a pointy nose if you're in a two-car train. (If it's a one-car train, something's gone terribly wrong, and your need for a washroom will suddenly be very urgent, then disappear.) If you're moving between the cars, then you'll get a first-class view of the track underneath whizzing past. (The floorway is fine, but you can see out at the corners.) 

Passengers - sorry, guests, are provided with an in-flight magazine - sorry, on-train booklet. This informs you of the delights of Toronto and other typical in-flight magazine things. Possibly not what you want to see before/after a long flight. There's a welcome from Kathy Haley (President of UP Express), who states it's an "indescribable pleasure" to welcome you on board. 

(Cj writes, I laughed so hard here... "indescribable" indeed!)

Bloor / Weston stations
The train stopped at both stations, but the doors didn't open for this test run. As the UP Express trains have much higher floors than a GO Train (closer to a VIA train, I would say), there's a raised section at the end of the platform at these stations, with a nice ramp up from the 'normal' platform level. I'd estimate they're about 1m above the track. These stations will be usable from opening day, but work is clearly continuing. I saw a pile of ceiling material (the same wood as used at Union) at one station, waiting to be installed.

Pearson station
We had a brief wait while the train was slightly repositioned after stopping, to align with the platform doors. The stopping point is all down to the driver's skill (unlike subways with platform doors). Practice will help, and I can't see it being a problem in the long term. The platform doors are considerably wider than the train doors, so there's a reasonable margin.

Pearson station itself has a similar feel to Union - glass and wood, light, warm and airy. The signs pointing you towards the terminals could be bigger - I missed them until after I'd spent some time wandering round. Those coming from the airport will see a top-up machine for your Presto card, and only about half-way down the platform will you find a ticket machine, which seems the wrong way round. I understand there's UP Express sales counters elsewhere, but access to the airport was still fenced off. You'll be able to buy a Presto card there - which saved you more than the $6 for the card, and be very useful for travelling round the GTHA. A useful feature for visitors to the GTHA! 

The station has direct access to T1, and you can access T3 via the LINK train. The LINK station is right next door - you literally walk out of one and into the other.

Prior to (re)-boarding for the trip back to Union, I noticed cleaning staff doing their thing. They obviously do a quick pass after each trip, keeping it all neat and tidy. All transit agencies should copy this practice - stuff can accumulate on any transit vehicle (bus or train), and frequent small-scale tidying would deal with 99% of it.

Is it worth the $19 for a Presto user / $27.50 for non-Presto users? Certainly there are many for whom it doesn't make sense (at any price), because of their point of origin. However, if the route saves you enough time over your alternative, then certainly it's hard to fault the quality of the service.


Warren Downe said...

Do train staff handle the luggage on and off those racks?

Anonymous said...

Excellent write up. Maybe you can ride it again after it's been in service a few months? Would be interesting to see how it holds up in the real world.

Bicky said...

Thank you, Weekday Roving Reporter, for the write-up and your assessment of the service.

I can't see me using this service unless I'm already downtown and need to head to the airport. Time will tell if the masses are willing to pay to travel that way.

Anonymous said...

The usage will be interesting to see. How easy is it for you to get to any of the 3 stations with your baggage to want to use the service? What areas would people need to live in to make it cheaper and quicker than a cab? I live downtown and it might work for me and the missus, but not if I bring the kids. I don't have a Presto card because I never use the GO. If I bought one could I keep it in a drawer for 3 years until I needed it again?

A Gardiner tear down would certainly expand the usage.

Right now I see this as mainly a tourist vehicle.

Anonymous said...

"All tickets/Presto cards are checked on-board by the UP Express attendants. I suspect there's a fancy title in there somewhere. (Regardless of titles, the staff I interacted with were unfailingly polite and helpful.)"

The on-board personal are called GSR's - Guest Service Representatives. They'll also work the counters at Union & Pearson UP stations.

J. Allan said...

Anon 12:31, I think in addition to tourists people from the outskirts of the GTHA may find this a useful service. While I was living in Barrie, I thought this would likely be the best way for me to get to Pearson. Taxi service to the airport from the northern edges of the GTA can be a little pricey. I imagine the same goes for most of the LSE line?

C.J. Smith said...

$90 flat from Courtice

J. Allan said...

$50 savings is pretty substantial. And that's assuming one is coming in from Courtice without a Presto card.

Barrie Taxi offers a flat rate of $120 (I can hire a Town Car for same trip, same price). By comparison, GO gets me to Union for $12.10, so Pearson would cost $32 with my Presto card, ~$45 without. Would the taxi be faster? Probably, if there's no traffic problems. $90 faster? Nowhere near.

Peter said...

Price is only one factor. If the flight departure requires one to be at PIA at 04:00, and one lives "in the 905", GO Transit / UPE cannot deliver.

Skin Man said...

I live in Hamilton, so this wouldn't be helpful...I too am curious about luggage on GO trains going into Union.

Squiggles said...

I agree with Bicky (with one exception). Unless I am already downtown, I don't see me taking this to the Airport. Spending $75 to have someone pick me up at home and take me to the airport is hassle-free and can be at 3am (which it normally is) and I do not have to worry about connections.

The Exception being: if I had a normal flight that landed me at Pearson at a reasonable hour, I would consider this to get me home.

Mark said...

When I originally saw the base price for one person I thought that there may be a struggle to attract riders. However, with a family plan ($55 one way from Union) and the discounts closer to the airport and the fact the equivalent Taxi ride is $53 to downtown, this is going to be a solid competitive model. While if you're already north of the city this is going to have no real appeal to you, From downtown (which is the target local) this is going to be something to consider. 25 minutes guaranteed to Pearson at any time of the day is nothing to scoff at. There are going to be situations where the train makes no sense, but I think it will find a ridership.

Anonymous said...

One can take the Canada Line from downtown Vancouver to YVR airport for $9 ($7.75 Monday to Friday after 6:30 PM, Weekends and Holidays). Even less for kids and seniors.