Every ride on the airport shuttle features a diverse roster of colourful customers – along with a cockapoo who steals some hearts.
There is no such thing as an ordinary trip on UP Express – the four-year-old rail shuttle that connects Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and downtown’s Union Station. Each new ride brings out an entirely different cast of characters and storylines.
On a recent Monday, the service saw a constantly changing collection of customers – and their many reasons are for using the line. On any given day – or even trip – they can be as varied as conventions, tourist attractions, sporting events, vacation schedules, business meetings and even those just going home.
The compelling backstories of the people themselves is a much longer list.
July 15, across Ontario’s Greater Golden Horseshoe, was a beautiful summer day where the 25C high would seem like a blessing to more humid days to come.
Pat Van Parys and her husband Craig had just flown in from Regina for a gathering of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. They had been regular users of UP Express, after getting a recommendation from hotel staff on a previous trip. The tip was a good one.
“Everybody has been so helpful,” Pat said.
Craig was looking forward to seeing a ‘Toronto FC’ professional soccer game during one of Pat’s meetings.
‘Bringing the world to Canada’ was the conference slogan and this proved to be true.
Gesiane Prezeres flew in from Brazil to attend. A regular business traveller, she compared the convenience of UP Express with airport links in other cities, saying it is “way better than New York”.
At the Union Station and Pearson platforms, travellers could see that an International Convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses was soon to start at Exhibition Place. Teams of volunteer wayfinders, with bright orange ties, scarves and signs were on hand to help attendees from across Canada, the United States, Brazil, Central America and eight other countries.
Of the 45,000 people that were expected to attend, 5,000 were from outside Canada, and 1,600 arrived on that Monday alone, giving them plenty of time to explore the city before the convention’s Friday start.
“People plan their vacations around it and take off work,” said David Spalding, a member of the convention’s hospitality committee.
Organizers worked with Metrolinx on ticketing and logistical arrangements ahead of time, Spalding noted.
“The UP is just the best way to get downtown,” he said.
Spalding also said some delegates stayed at airport hotels and used UP Express to go back and forth to downtown. On the trains, as the day moved along, groups of Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in friendly chatter, with some locals joining in to point out tourist attractions near the tracks, including the Rogers Centre, CN Tower and Ripley’s Aquarium.
While they were entering the city, other visitors were leaving.
The Honda Indy race had taken place on the day before and fans were out to reach flights at Pearson. This annual event has built up a following of regular UP Express passengers.
JoAnn Tyler has been visiting Toronto from the US during race week for many years. After learning about UP Express a few years ago, she said she will forever use it.
Litsa Trivlidis, of Montreal, uses UP Express each time she visits her aunt, who lives near Weston Station. She was on her way to Union Station to catch a VIA train back to la belle province.
“Oh my gosh, it was so easy,” she said of the pick-up arrangements for her family. “My cousins used to have to drive to Union Station and it’s a big help.”
She commented on the bilingual announcements, air conditioning and comfortable seats before summing up by saying: “Everything is really well thought out.
“It’s a wonderful service.”
Moses Saybe, who lives near Bloor and Dundas, was returning from New York City. He described UP Express as extremely convenient and then emphasised the point with a lip-smack – the kind of exaggerated gesture you’d make when describing the perfect meal at a fine restaurant.
While returning from the airport, he said his whole family also uses the line to get downtown.
It’s UP staff who have a front row view of the changing cast of customers who use the service.
Martha Angel, a guest services representative (GSR) at Union Station, said she gets “very excited to have people who speak my language – Spanish.”
She often senses that language can be a concern for travellers arriving at Union.
“They look stressed, so I tell them to relax and feel at home,” Angel said.
Toby Shields, a GSR who spent parts of the day at both Pearson and Union, picked up on the customer service theme.
“We’re basically a concierge for the city,” Shields said. “People expect us to know.
“I have am often calling hostels and calling hotels to see if any rooms are available,” she said before adding that: “Nothing is off limits.”
Staff face constant questions, including at Pearson, as passengers check to see if they are getting on board the UP Express to Union or the nearby Link to Terminal 3.
“I help people move in the right direction,” said GSR André Vatavalis.
As for local passengers, Shields said: “There’s a lot of airport employees utilizing the service so we’re constantly selling them tickets.”
The area around Toronto Pearson is the second-largest employment zone in Canada, directly employing 49,000 people, and UP Express helps to reduce traffic there.
As a Qualified Commuter Train Officer, Jason Simmons is proud to drive trains to the airport.
“Enjoy the best view in the city,” he said as the train turned towards Terminal 1, with several planes on the tarmac, framed by the sprawling Mississauga skyline.
Throughout the drive, Simmons and Erica Ling, a commuter train officer, were in constant radio contact with a foreman who kept them informed about crews working on track maintenance.
“All the tracks here have to be maintained at some point in different sections,” said Simmons, whose workday often begins at 4:20 am.
A couple of very brief stops ensured that the work continued safely.
Simmons is not the only one who takes pride in the views.
GSR Phil Gwilliams pointed to a green space, north of the tracks between Pearson and Weston, saying: “Lots of time in this area you can see deer.”
Of course, the cleanliness of the UP trains creates another great sight for passengers. In fact, the trains are cleaned on the platforms between runs. That makes for a lot of work with five trains working throughout the day – the first departing Union at 4:55 am and the last leaving at 1:00 am.
The long day requires people to work in two shifts, with staff gradually changing over in the afternoon.
Camille Bryan, the early shift supervisor, met with colleague Martha Georgiou at 3 p.m. to brief her on the first half of the day, before handing over the reins. Bryan explained they had started validating tickets on the platform early – this is normally done in rush hours – because it was busier than usual.
Sydney Craig is a GSR who’s worked the evening shifts on game nights.
While the Blue Jays were away in Boston that night, she noted events, concerts and big games get evening crowds going back to Bloor West. The post-game crowds tend to be friendly.
“You get a lot of people that spend a little more time talking about the game,” Craig said.
To nobody’s surprise, she also noted that Toronto Maple Leaf fans are more intense.
Today, the passenger that made her day was not intense or a sports fan.
“I had the cutest little puppy on my train,” she said.
While a three-month old cockapoo may have entertained passengers on one ride, UP Express employees are constantly thinking about the customer’s experience for each minute of every day.
“You always have people taking the train for the first time and you have to remember that,” said GSR Jermaine Brown. “I try to make it memorable.”
To find out more about UP Express, click here.