Via Rail and Pickering Airport – Harmony by the Numbers

Written by Ted Nickerson

An VIA graphic updated by the author showing where the Pickering Airport HFR station would be located.

Sorry Folks, the Via Rail project for Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City High Frequency Rail passenger service does not mean Pickering Airport is not needed nor can it be delayed.

As a supporter of Pickering Airport, I can honestly say that I am a supporter of the Via Rail HFR project too.  The most populous corridor in Canada needs fast, efficient passenger rail service as one important element of the total transit network.

Via Rail’s project would see annual passenger numbers on this corridor increase from 4.1 million in 2018 to 9.9 million in 2030.  Via Rail has recently received $71 million, to be spent over the next two years, to finalize the detailed business case and to complete the environmental assessment.

However, based on social media comments, some people think the Via Rail HFR project will eliminate the need for Pickering airport.  They think airline passengers (current and all future growth) travelling between Toronto and Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City could travel on the new HFR service, freeing up capacity at Toronto’s airports.

Is this wishful thinking by the airport opponents or is there anything that would support this position?

First, we need to understand how many people travel directly by air between Toronto and these three cities? Essentially, what is the scale of the opportunity for air travellers to become rail passengers?  As is standard practice, airlines regard this data as confidential information.

We have determined that an estimated 6.4 million people travelled by air between Toronto and Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City in 2017 though.  This is how we got this value.

  • There are 232 daily direct flights between Toronto and these cities.     Source:
  • The aircraft flown are Airbus A319/320 and Bombardier Q400 and vary by airline and route.  Source: Air Canada, West Jet and Porter Airlines websites.
  • There are an average 141 seats on the A319/320 and 74 on the Q400: Source: Porter website, SeatGuru.
  • An airport is typically designed to operate 310 days per year.
  • The aircraft passenger load factor is about 80 percent.

Using the GTAA’s master plan forecast of 3.1 percent annual growth means theoretically there might be an additional 5 million air passengers travelling between Toronto and Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City by 2036.

Will the number of air passengers between Toronto and these three cities cease to grow if this Via Rail Corridor HFR enters service?  

This would require Air Canada, West Jet, and Porter to forego the revenue and profits associated with the forecast 5 million air passenger growth between these cities.  That’s not going to happen.

Will some current air passengers use this Via Rail Corridor HFR service?

Probably some will but the number is certainly captured in Via Rail’s forecast of the more than doubling of weekly ridership once HFR is fully implemented on this new corridor.

Will the Via Rail Corridor HFR service mean Pickering airport is not required?

No, from several perspectives.  Pickering airport, practically or optimistically, could not enter service before 2028-2030.  By then, Via Rail would have achieved its program goal of 9.9 million rail passengers, and Toronto Pearson and Toronto Centre Billy Bishop airports would have captured most of the projected air passenger growth between Toronto and Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City.

Toronto region airports have been growing by over 2.5 million passengers per year for the last five years. So, a hypothetical 5 million air passengers switching to HFR rail amounts to less than a two-year delay in Pickering Airport entering service.  The reality is that the estimated 5 million air passenger growth is not going to switch to HFR rail service in any significant way and therefore Via Rail’s new HFR service isn’t a basis to delay Pickering Airport.

The opponents’ premise also ignores that people want to travel to many more places (domestic, transborder and international) than these four cities. The Via Rail HFRservice, or any rail service, isn’t an option for these travellers.

The Toronto region commercial aviation network will reach capacity by 2036 at the latest, even sooner if the 10-year air passenger growth rate continues.  Pickering airport must be in place well before network capacity is reached, and to address commercial air passenger demands beyond that.

Pickering airport and this Via Rail Corridor HFR project offer significant synergies.

A direct transit link between Pickering airport and downtown Toronto will become essential. The Via Rail HFR service on the CP line will be in service before Pickering airport is.  A Pickering airport station will be required.

The Via Rail Corridor HFR project, as part of its business plan, needs to reduce its financial risk and hopefully be able to eliminate the need for federal subsidies.  The direct transit link between a Pickering airport station and downtown Toronto could generate about 1.2 million rail passengers annually that are not in the current Via Rail plan.

In conclusion, both the Via Rail HFR project and Pickering airport are required.  They help each other. Build them both, starting now.

Ted Nickerson is an engineer, a friend of “Friends of Pickering Airport”, and a supporter of the economic development of the Pickering lands.


5 thoughts on “Via Rail and Pickering Airport – Harmony by the Numbers

  1. Thanks Ted. This is an excellent article and makes an awful lot of sense. I only question one statistic; if the growth of volume of air passengers in the Toronto region is estimated at 2.5M per year, that’s 8,000 a day, based on your 310 airport days per year. That seems a lot between three or four airports. However, I’m totally in agreement. Thanks for the article.

    1. This is the reply From Ted:
      “Clive, thank you for your feedback. The annual average growth number covers Pearson, Billy Bishop, Hamilton and Waterloo airports and was determined using data posted by these airports. In 2013, the total number of passengers at these 4 airports was 39.0 million. In 2018, it was 53.1 million, an increase of 14.1 million…an average annual increase of 2.8 million over the 5 years. Pearson accounts for 95% of that growth. My use of “by over 2.5 million” was a generalization more in keeping with the
      intent of the posting.”

  2. Is there anybody among you involved in commercial aviation? Because I see no mention of yield.

    Numbers without context is half the picture. As rightly pointed out, most of that 2.5 million in growth is at one airport. But that’s half the story. Most of that growth is at Pearson is from one carrier: Air Canada. And to go further, most of that growth at AC is from transborder to international connections. To extrapolate that 2.5 million, then, as reflective of regional demand is absurd.

    Taking this back to yield. Add 2.5 million pax annually without AC’s network and yields in the GTA would collapse for a lot of routes. If that didn’t take down airlines eventually, it most certainly would result in severe cuts in due course. So how exactly do you plan to build an airport on such unsustainable numbers? Low yield pax aren’t going to pay your development costs.

    On rail, there’s one route where VIA would do serious damage to air. Toronto-Ottawa. Let’s be generous and say Pickering has a pre-board burden of 45 mins (including travel to the airport). I’ll be more generous and assume gate to gate of 45 mins. With the travel from YOW to the core that’s about 2 hrs. VIA says 3.5 hrs from Union to Ottawa. So about 3 hrs from Pickering. With pre-boarding let’s say 3.5 hrs. And 15 mins on the other end to get downtown. In this absolute best case scenario, the time savings by air is 1.75 hrs. In reality, it’s going to be less. VIA’s fare is probably going to be less than the taxes and fees on your air ticket. I can’t see Pickering filling more than a handful of Q400s to Ottawa profitably per day in this scenario.

    The flip side is that YOW is dominated by AC and *A. And their other alternative airport is similar: YUL. Give low transborder and long haul fares and build the train station right into the terminal and you’d have plenty of Ottawa travelers would catch a train to Pickering to take a flight. And they’d all be higher yielding than the average GTA traveler.

    1. Ted Nickerson says:
      Kik, the more than 2.5 million annual growth covers all aspects of passenger growth (inbound, outbound, origin-destination, connecting, domestic, transborder and international). It’s this growth that consumes capacity at the region’s airports. The GTAA’s reaction to passenger growth is to increase Pearson’s capacity over the next 20 years. For those who actually live in this region (your “regional demand”), it’s about our propensity to travel…a different analysis and a different number from the 2.5 million. How much local people actually travel is a component of the overall passenger throughput and growth.

      Regarding Air Canada, they are anchored at Pearson and will continue to grow their hub business there. As Pearson passenger capacity issues grow, I anticipate that non-AC parties will be encouraged to curtail their growth or move to other regional airports like Hamilton or Pickering.

      1. Read AC’s annual reports. It’s pretty clear where the majority of that growth comes from.

        Which means that growth at YYZ is entirely policy driven. The airport could easily choose to limit AC’s growth to competition or insist that they cater more to regional travel demand. There’s plenty that can be done.

        The point here is that the 2.5 million is not at all indicative of substantive demand to support a new airport as Pickering proponents are implying. It’s an indication of how much AC has been able to grow their Transborder and South America to Europe business.

        The KPMG study will eventually tell us how much regional demand there really is. I would suspect actual regional demand for commercial aviation to be substantially less than 1 million per year. And the only other question is geographic distribution of that demand and its growth across the GGH. Closer to the East? Build Pickering. Closer to the West? Build up YHM. The KPMG report should make for a fascinating read.

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