Atlantic Transport News – January 2021

Happy New Year! Welcome to the January edition of Atlantic Transport News!

Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:

MOTORCOACH SERVICE IN NEW BRUNSWICK UNDER THREAT

Thousands of New Brunswickers are about to lose their only remaining public transportation link. With the provincial government unwilling to extend a helping hand to assist it through the COVID-19 crisis, Maritime Bus has announced indefinite closure of its services between Moncton and Campbellton and Fredericton and Edmundston, effective January 15.

Company founder Mike Cassidy, who came to the rescue after Acadian Lines abandoned its service in the Maritimes in 2012, has been providing line-haul motorcoach service ever since. However, he says, his passion for “public transit on provincial highways” has to be balanced with available financial resources. In April 2020 as the first wave of the pandemic took hold, Maritime Bus carried just 650 passengers – a dramatic plunge from 14,500 in the same month of 2019. The three provincial governments provided a one-time grant at that point to help offset the company’s losses, and indicated a willingness to negotiate an ongoing agreement for the duration of the crisis. The tentative deal to help cover the May to December was concluded with officials of all three provinces, but New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs refused to endorse it, citing his government’s policy of not subsidizing for-profit companies.

“Unfortunately, one province didn’t want to play in the same sandbox as the other two,” Mr. Cassidy said in a CBC interview. “The only way to reduce my operating costs is to travel less kilometres in the province of New Brunswick.”

The Higgs government decision ignores the reality that Maritime Bus lost over $3 million in 2020, and has continued to provide an essential public service on all its existing routes throughout the pandemic – albeit at a reduced level. Transport Action Atlantic has urged the Province to reconsider this regressive policy, which will leave residents of the North Shore and the Upper Valley without any public transportation options.

New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon also called on the premier to come to the rescue and keep the bus routes operational. He said the service loss will, among other things, deprive residents in the affected areas of vital access to healthcare services, adding that the buses are essential for people who cannot afford a car or are unable to drive.

For his part, Mike Cassidy says he’s committed to maintaining passenger and parcel service throughout the three Maritime provinces, noting that his company has a proven record over eight years, with no public funding except for the one-time contribution from the three provincial governments last spring.

“I want to take the high road by staying in business and keeping a base of bus service for our region until we are back to the new normal of people travelling again sometime this year when certain stakeholders and political decision makers are in a better place and a better frame of mind to make impactful social community decisions,” he said, adding that “it goes without saying Maritime Bus optimistically hopes public bus transportation will be a key strategic component in future community connectivity discussions.” 

ATLANTIC BUBBLE STAYS DEFLATED AMID NEW TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

Don’t expect to see the Atlantic Bubble return anytime soon. That’s the clear message emerging from provincial premiers and health authorities in the aftermath of a relatively subdued and travel-restricted holiday season across the region. But all the precautions and restrictions were clearly not sufficient to keep the pandemic’s second wave contained. New Brunswick in particular recorded a dramatic upsurge in COVID-19 infections in the first week of the new year, prompting a return to the more restrictive “orange level” throughout the province effective at midnight on January 5.

While per-capita case counts remained low in comparison to Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, the region’s leaders were taking no chances. Nova Scotia, which had continued to allow other Atlantic Canadians to enter without self-isolating after the other three provinces had suspended the bubble in November, imposed restrictions at the border with New Brunswick on January 8. Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey announced that his province would remain outside the bubble at least into February. And, New Brunswick announced that owning property or having family members in the province would no longer entitle non-residents to visit under the latest travel restrictions. All provinces were actively discouraging “non-essential” travel, but there appeared to be a variety of interpretations as to what that actually meant. One obvious complication is the relatively high number of residents who travel outside the region to find employment.

As of noon on January 10, the total reported active case count in the region stood at 212, over 80 percent of which were in New Brunswick.

Alerts continue to be issued about possible COVID exposure aboard flights into Atlantic Canada, while travel companies and some airlines appear to be flouting the advice of political leaders and public health officials by actively promoting offers to lure people onto planes and into resorts.  Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was clearly not amused, telling Brunswick News in a recent interview that he views the practice as “absurd”. The minister added that the Government of Canada won’t be interested in helping airlines financially if they aren’t interested in restoring regional routes.

ANOTHER SETBACK FOR AIR SERVICE IN THE REGION

In what one airport CEO described as a “massive blow”, Air Canada is implementing further flight suspensions throughout Atlantic Canada, effective January 11. The move includes a total shutdown until further notice of all scheduled passenger operations at Sydney and Saint John, as well as suspension of four routes serving Charlottetown, Fredericton, Deer Lake, and Halifax.

Derrick Stanford, president of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, said the latest round of cuts has whittled down service to an unsustainable level, adding that this is the third significant round of service reductions in six months. It follows hot on the heels of major cutbacks implemented in November by WestJet that wiped out most of that airline’s presence in the region.

“Our industry cannot survive and operate in these conditions, and we are seeing the worst-case scenario playing out here today,” Mr. Stanford said. “This will have a huge impact on our region’s economy, on the ability of families to reconnect, on the movement of essential workers, and on airport employees and businesses.”

Meanwhile, St. John’s-based PAL Airlines is adjusting its services from Moncton to Newfoundland and Labrador to accommodate the latest round of travel restrictions as best it can. The airline has abandoned its service between Charlo NB and Wabush NL, and combined it with a new route linking Moncton with Deer Lake. And, until interprovincial travel restrictions are eased, non-stop service between YQM and YYT has been temporarily eliminated. Effective January 10 until further notice, a tri-weekly DASH-8-300 flight will run St. John’s – Deer Lake – Moncton – Wabush and return. PAL’s Janine Brown says a daily St. John’s – Moncton – Ottawa routing is still their post-pandemic objective, with a separate service planned for Deer Lake and Wabush.

ST. JOHN’S WALKS BACK A LITTLE ON METROBUS CUTS

Metrobus users in St. John’s will not have to deal with schedule cutbacks during the worst months of winter after all. Faced with mounting criticism, City Council has backtracked somewhat on its plan to implement the reduced summer schedule in January, in an effort to meet a severe budget crunch. The 2021 transit subsidy will still apparently be hit by the intended cut of $800,000, but the savings will now be achieved by deferring planned service improvements, rather than cutting back on frequency during the three most severe months of the year. The reductions will now begin in April. Frequency changes in summer are a normal response when student ridership drops substantially and more people are biking or walking.

Meanwhile, service is back to near-normal schedules on most urban transit systems in the region, although ridership, and consequently revenues, remain a long way below pre-pandemic levels.

CAMPOBELLO FERRY GETS ANOTHER EXTENSION

The Campobello ferry normally runs only in summer, and was not designed for operation under winter conditions. PHOTO – Maurice Haddon

The normally-seasonal Campobello Island ferry has received yet another extension. The New Brunswick government will now continue its financial support until February 7, 2021, to enable service four days a week (weather permitting) between Campobello and Deer Island, which is in turn connected with the NB mainland by year-round ferry. The only permanent access for the island’s 700 residents is through an international bridge to Lubec, Maine – a circuitous connection complicated by COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The Campobello ferry usually operates only during summer, and the privately-owned vessel is not well suited to sea conditions often encountered at this time of year. The schedule is therefore a bit of a moving target, and the operator, East Coast Ferries, is using social media to keep its customers informed.

Meanwhile, Campobello’s plight has found its way to the pages of the Toronto Star.  This detailed item was published on January 3: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/01/03/cut-off-by-geography-and-covid-19-this-canadian-island-is-calling-out-for-a-link-to-the-rest-of-canada-to-no-avail.html

Atlantic Transport News – December 2020

Welcome to the December edition of Atlantic Transport News!

Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:

The historic VIA Rail station in Halifax is usually starting to look quite festive by this time of year, and would soon be alive and bustling with holiday travellers; but as the pandemic continues, it is instead filled with an eerie silence, with the ticket office dark and closed. The train status screens remain lit, but haven’t had a train to report on in 9 months.

PASSENGER CARRIERS IMPACTED AS ATLANTIC BUBBLE BURSTS

The Atlantic Bubble was the COVID-19 success story of North America for summer into autumn of 2020, with our region not having more than five active COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents on any day over the twenty-week period from when the effective date of July 3rd until November 20th. Meanwhile, residents of the four Atlantic Canadian provinces were free to travel between the provinces without being subject to the 14-day self-isolation required for individuals arriving from outside the region. 

But by November 23rd, the number of active cases in the region had ticked up to seven per 100,000, with 85 percent of those located in NB and NS. The upward trend in cases resulted in the Atlantic Bubble collapsing – at least temporarily – with NL and PEI announcing they were suspending the arrangement for at least two weeks. On the same date, each of the other six Canadian provinces had between 90 (Ontario) and 580 (Manitoba) active cases per 100,000 residents. Three days later, NB followed suit in leaving the bubble, and PEI later extended its withdrawal for an additional two weeks to December 21st. 

As of December 4th, ten days after the bubble burst, Atlantic Canada had 11 active cases per 100,000 residents, with 88 percent being in NB and NS. That number of active cases has remained steady over the past week, and at this writing there is no one hospitalized from COVID-19 anywhere in the region. It appears unlikely the Atlantic Bubble will be restored until case numbers decrease in the region and the disparity in case numbers between the four provinces decreases.  

Not surprisingly, there was an immediate and detrimental effect on inter-provincial carriers in the region. By the end of November, Maritime Bus was reporting a 50% drop in passenger loads on its scaled down schedule, in comparison to a month earlier. Although owner Mike Cassidy isn’t optimistic the bubble will be fully restored before the new year, he’s still determined to operate daily service between December 20 and January 6 (except Christmas Day). He reports that ridership had gone down to between 100 and 150 per operating day, whereas last year at this time the service was averaging about 500 passengers daily. The one bright spot was parcels, which were running well ahead of the volumes from a year ago, and helping to offset some of the lost revenue.

“We just can’t leave the communities without the important services we provide,” says Mr. Cassidy, who takes great pride that Maritime Bus has maintained a reduced schedule without interruption throughout the pandemic. “We’re still operating, and we still have a brand throughout the Maritimes that we’re very proud of.”

 Meanwhile, PAL Airlines is also feeling the pinch on its new route between Moncton and St. John’s. The non-stop direct service had been operating five days a week since its launch in September, but has now been temporarily reduced to tri-weekly. Janine Brown, the airline’s director of business development, says they will evaluate later this month based on the limitations imposed by both provincial governments. When travel in and out of Moncton was restricted earlier in the fall, there was an immediate and significant increase in bookings when the restrictions were lifted. The company is anticipating a similar uptick in demand when the current situation improves.

Eighteen passengers boarded the 50-seat DASH-8 PAL Airlines flight to Moncton at a mostly-deserted terminal in St. John’s on November 16

Meanwhile, the airline was recognized by the St. John’s Board of Trade in a unique virtual “Business Resilience Awards” ceremony on December 2. PAL took home the Opportunity Seeker Award, for launching the new YYT-YQM route.

“We saw that there was a gap in Atlantic Canada and that there was a great demand to connect Newfoundland with New Brunswick,” said Ms. Brown in accepting the award. “That required a lot of hard work and dedication from a lot of people during a very challenging time.”

-James Fraser/Ted Bartlett

RESUMPTION OF VIA’S OCEAN POSTPONED ONCE AGAIN

Dried weeds of late fall are evident on the VIA station track at Moncton, while the darkened ticket counter remains idle as the usually-busy holiday travel season looms. The Maritimes haven’t seen a passenger train since March 13.

There’s been yet another delay in the projected return to service of VIA Rail’s Ocean. As reported last month, there will be no passenger trains at all east of Quebec City for the 2020 holiday travel season – no great surprise, given the ongoing resurgence of COVID-19 and the continuation of various travel restrictions. Despite initial plans to resume some form of service between Montreal and Halifax as early as November, VIA has continued to shift the resumption date, first blocking the sale of tickets through November and December, and then cancelling trains through the end of the year. As of the time of writing, VIA has now cancelled all Ocean departures through the end of January 2021, and suspended bookings for February and March. This shifts the earliest possible service resumption to February 2021, but it is looking increasingly likely that the train will not resume until COVID-19 concerns recede and travel restrictions ease – perhaps, we can hope, with the roll out of vaccines in early 2021.

With a second wave of the pandemic affecting the Atlantic provinces and renewed travel restrictions in place, there likely won’t be much travel happening over the holidays either way – and various health authorities are certainly discouraging travel even within the region, for all but essential purposes. So the absence of the train won’t be felt as acutely as it would be in more “normal” times, but its ongoing absence highlights the important role it does play in providing connections within the region and to the rest of Canada. TAA will continue to put pressure on VIA to resume this service as soon as it is safe and reasonable to do so, and to make the investments required to support its long-term future.

VIA REPORTS DISMAL 3RD QUARTER; FEDS PROVIDE EMERGENCY FUNDING

The pandemic has not been kind to transportation providers of any form, and VIA has been no exception. Even with many of its services suspended or scaled back and operating expenses significantly reduced, the drop in ridership has had a devastating impact on the railway’s financial performance over the course of this year. In their recently released Q3 report, VIA reported passenger miles down 83.8%, passenger numbers down 82%, and revenue down 83.9% compared to the same quarter in the previous year.

Fortunately, the federal government has stepped in to provide at least bare-bones support for VIA’s bottom line, earmarking $188 million in the fall fiscal update to “…cover operating shortfalls in 2020-21 resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic”. As welcome as this is, it remains only the minimal investment required to keep the railway afloat through this crisis. As highlighted in their recent corporate plan, the federal government will need to do much more to ensure that VIA’s operations can continue (let alone expand) in the future.

VIA’S CORPORATE PLAN PLEADS FOR NEW EQUIPMENT

VIA recently released the summary of their 2020-2024 Corporate Plan:

https://www.viarail.ca/sites/all/files/media/pdfs/About_VIA/our-company/corporate-plan/Summary_2020-2024_Corporate_Plan.pdf

As usual, this provides a good look at the priorities of the railway over the coming years, and valuable insight into ongoing performance of the corporation. This latest plan has a few positive highlights – there continues to be optimism about the future of VIA’s High Frequency Rail proposal, a new reservation system seems to be finally on the way, and for this end of the country, there is a further acknowledgement that VIA has settled on an operating model for the Ocean to continue service beyond the loss of the Halifax rail loop, even if the new bidirectional train may be a significant downgrade from what came before. There’s also an acknowledgement of plans to return service to the Gaspé once track upgrades by the province of Quebec are complete – potentially within the period covered by this plan.

Unfortunately, any of the optimistic highlights are overshadowed by a more stark analysis of the state of VIA’s operations outside the Corridor. Ongoing struggles with the host railways (primarily CN) have caused continued challenges with on time performance (OTP), especially in the west. On the Canadian, improvements in financial performance stemming from the introduction of Prestige Class several years ago have been wiped out by the OTP struggles, lengthened schedule, and accompanying reticence among tourist operators to book travel.

The British-built Renaissance equipment shown here is the VIA rolling stock in most urgent need of replacement, but the latest Corporate Plan finally acknowledges that the 70-year-old Budd stainless steel cars are now also reaching the end of their useful life.

Undoubtedly the most significant concern in this plan is the acknowledgement of the dire state of the equipment serving on VIA’s non-Corridor and long-distance routes. While VIA had previously committed to further refurbishment of the nearly 70 year old HEP equipment, structural issues discovered earlier in 2020 have cast doubt on the longevity of this fleet and options for further refurbishment – even forcing the cancellation of the comprehensive overhaul of a group of HEP1 coaches to modern accessibility standards.

To quote from the corporate plan: “VIA Rail recognizes that despite the inherent quality of construction and intrinsic longevity of the stainless steel used, it is no longer reasonable to expect an extended service life from the Budd manufactured rolling stock equipment (HEP cars) that is approaching or has exceeded 70 years of age. At some point the effectiveness, usefulness and maintenance costs of any product will reach a point where replacement must be considered and unfortunately this also includes the HEP cars.”  

With this in mind, the plan states that “VIA Rail will explore the replacement of its Long-Distance and Regional fleet”, requiring $14.6 million per year to maintain current state of good repair until a renewal program is approved.

The one silver lining here is that VIA is finally, publicly, acknowledging that there is a dire need to start the process to replace the non-Corridor fleet – something advocates like TAA and TAC have been emphasizing for years. With VIA now acknowledging this fact, there is potential that a case can be made to the federal government that new, modern, accessible, and reliable trains are important for every part of the country – not just the Corridor.

We can just hope it won’t be too little, too late.

-Tim Hayman 

ST. JOHN’S BUDGET CUTS TAKE AIM AT METROBUS SERVICE

The City of St. John’s is facing a major deficit, partly because of the CIVID-19 pandemic, but also due in part to the massive “Snowmageddon” onslaught earlier this year. As a result, more than $18 million will have to be shaved from the 2021 budget being finalized this month. One of the most conspicuous targets is Metrobus – the transit system that serves the provincial capital and the adjacent communities of Mount Pearl and Paradise. Next year’s subsidy will see a planned cut of $800,000, which means a deferral of plans to increase frequency on several core routes that had intended to increase ridership. More seriously, the service reductions normally in effect each summer when student ridership drops substantially and more people bike or walk will begin in January for 2021– meaning users will have to wait longer for their bus during the year’s worst weather.

Councillor Maggie Burton is strongly opposed to the cuts to transit service in St.John’s.
PHOTO – Jeremy Eaton, CBC

The plan didn’t sit well with several councillors. Coun. Ian Froude was sufficiently disgusted to resign from the Transportation Commission. His replacement, Coun. Maggie Burton, told TAA the City needs to find other ways to meet the budget shortfall.

“I’m OK with a temporary delay in increasing service levels,” she said, “but cutting service in January is not a smart thing to do. If we reduce service now, ridership will only continue to drop.” She pointed out that half of current Metrobus users are people using the provincially-funded transit pass for lower income residents – the most vulnerable members of society.

“These are difficult choices to make,” said Coun. Dave Lane, Council lead for Finance and Administration who admits to being torn on the issue, in a written statement. “City Council and the St. John’s Transportation Commission remain committed to enhancing our public transit service.

Once we begin to emerge from the pandemic, we will adapt our transit service. We will review the goals and strategies identified during the Public Transit Review process to pursue a long-term recovery plan to improve transit service and attract new riders.”

But Coun. Burton feels that’s cold comfort to transit users left shivering on a bus stop in the midst of a Newfoundland winter.
 

-Ted Bartlett

TAA RENEWS CALL FOR REDUCED NL FERRY RATES

Transport Action Atlantic is calling on the new premier of Newfoundland and Labrador to initiate discussions with the Government of Canada on Marine Atlantic ferry rates. The issue has been one of growing concern to TAA as the cost recovery level dictated by Transport Canada has far outstripped the national inflation index over the past two decades.

“Without doubt, ferry rates are crucial to the entire population of Newfoundland and Labrador,” says a letter sent to Premier Andrew Furey in mid-October. “In particular, during the pandemic recovery period – with many would-be travellers understandably still apprehensive about flying – affordable Marine Atlantic fares will be critical to rebuilding a healthy and vibrant hospitality industry. We urge you to pursue this vital issue at the earliest opportunity.”

The letter notes that as leader of the opposition, Justin Trudeau obviously concurred with TAA’s view when he wrote to then-premier Paul Davis during the 2015 federal election campaign. He committed that a Liberal government would address this issue, noting that the ferry service “is not only a vital part of Newfoundland and Labrador’s economy, but also serves as an extension of the Trans Canada Highway.”

Five years later, there has been no sign of any action on this pledge. In fact, the province’s six Liberal MPs prefer to pretend the commitment was never made, as annual ferry rate increases have continued unabated. The letter to Premier Furey acknowledges that there are undoubtedly many other areas where federal financial assistance is being sought for the cash-strapped province. But that should not be a factor, TAA maintains.

“More than 70 years after Newfoundland joined Canada, the level transportation playing field envisaged by the latter-day Fathers of Confederation who drafted the Terms of Union has been severely compromised. Term 32 is a constitutional matter, and its intent has been clearly distorted under successive federal governments. The Province should not have to remain silent on this issue as a condition for obtaining help from Ottawa on other pressing financial challenges.”

TAA has not yet received any response from the Premier’s Office on the matter.

 -Ted Bartlett

SEASONAL CAMPOBELLO FERRY EXTENDED TO YEAR-END

New Brunswick’s Campobello Island continues to face difficulties in securing access to goods and services taken for granted on the mainland. The island’s 700 residents are connected by an international bridge with the town of Lubec, Maine, but their only link to the rest of the province is via a seasonal ferry to nearby Deer Island. With border restrictions and provincial registrations required up to five days in advance to perform tasks like accessing a bank or gas station, the privately owned and operated barge has continued a four-days-per-week service into the fall with a subsidy to the tune of $60,000 per month from the provincial government. Unfortunately, due to the lack of proper vessel and landing infrastructure, the service has been unreliable.

Since September 21st, East Coast Ferries has had 48 scheduled operation days. Of those 48, only 26 days were fully realized as 11 days were partially lost and another 11 were totally lost due to weather and mechanical issues. A larger, more capable vessel and adequate landing infrastructure would likely have reduced the lost days to zero. The federal government has offered to contribute to the project, but Premier Higgs has evidently backed away from his May 2020 promise to pursue a year-round service plan for submission to Ottawa, and Transportation Minister Jill Green has not returned calls and e-mails requesting a conversation.

-Justin Tinker

HARDLY A PROGRESSIVE PLATFORM!

And a parting shot across the bow of Nova Scotia Liberal Party leadership candidate Labi Kousoulis. The former cabinet minister surely isn’t going to make many friends among environmentalists – or even the progressive wing of his own party – with campaign promises like one he released just the other day.

Mr. Kousoulis says he will embark on an ambitious road-twinning program if he wins the party leadership and becomes premier in February. His plan would eventually see four-lane highways all the way from Yarmouth to the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. How’s that for spending money Nova Scotia clearly doesn’t have on so-called “assets” that the province couldn’t afford to maintain?

Hopefully his opponents in the leadership race hold more progressive views on sustainable transportation!

Atlantic Transport News – November 2020

Welcome to Atlantic Transport News!

TAA is pleased to announce a new communications effort for our members and the general public – a monthly online summary of transportation news from around our region! This feature is intended to supplement our printed publication, The Bulletin, which is mailed to members twice a year, and also archived on our website. As Atlantic Canada’s leading advocacy voice for convenient, affordable and sustainable public transportation, by making news available on a more timely basis we’re also aiming to become the go-to source for up-to-date information.

MORE BLEAK NEWS IN AVIATION SECTOR – BUT ONE POSITIVE STORY

Faced with plummeting revenues and rising costs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, WestJet has drastically slashed its service offerings in Atlantic Canada. The airline announced on October 14 that it would be indefinitely suspending operations to Moncton, Fredericton, Sydney and Charlottetown, while significantly reducing service to Halifax and St. John’s. The decision eliminates more than 100 flights weekly or almost 80 percent of seat capacity from the Atlantic region starting November 2.

“It has become increasingly unviable to serve these markets,” said WestJet CEO Ed Sims. “Since the pandemic’s beginning, we have worked to keep essential air service to all of our domestic airports, however, demand for travel is being severely limited by restrictive policies and third-party fee increases that have left us out of runway without sector-specific support.”

Mr. Sims’ statement clearly pointed the finger of blame at the “Atlantic Bubble” which has been widely credited by both epidemiologists and the general public for the low rate of virus infection throughout the region.

In announcing the unwelcome news, the company noted with some justification that they have successfully brought competition and lower fares to the Atlantic region through new service and routes, while driving tourism and business investments. As of 2019, the airline had added more than 700,000 annual seats to the region since 2015, while creating the opportunity for travel to, from and within the region on 28 routes. The airline said it has also worked to grow Halifax as the Atlantic gateway to Europe through the introduction of successful nonstop transatlantic service to London-Gatwick, Paris, Glasgow and Dublin.

“We understand this news will be devastating to the communities, our airport partners and the WestJetters who rely on our service,” Mr. Sims acknowledged. “While we remain committed to the Atlantic region, it’s impossible to say when there will be a return to service without support for a coordinated domestic approach. Our intent is to return as soon as it becomes economically viable to do so.”

As of November 2, the only remaining WestJet service to or from Atlantic Canada is Halifax-Toronto twice daily, Halifax-Calgary nine times weekly, and 11 weekly Halifax-St.John’s turboprop flights.

PAL Airlines is now offering direct service between St. John’s and Moncton five times weekly.

On a more positive note, St. John’s-based PAL Airlines is encouraged by the response to its new direct service between St. John’s and Moncton. The Dash-8 flight launched on September 21, and operates five days a week.

Janine Browne, PAL’s director of business development and sales, says they are pleased with passenger numbers using the service so far in comparison to their forecast for the ramp-up period, and are looking forward to continuing to grow this volume in the coming months. A minor and short-lived Coronavirus outbreak in Moncton put the area back in the orange alert level for two weeks and had a brief negative effect on traffic growth. However, bookings recovered swiftly when the COVID threat subsided.

The airline has declined to release ridership figures. However, the service concept is apparently proving attractive to passengers who are uneasy about flying during the pandemic. Because the routing is point-to-point within the Atlantic Bubble and avoids major hubs, the risk of sharing the cabin with international travellers or those from outside the region who may have been exposed to the virus is quite low.

PAL has plans to expand the service to Ottawa once Atlantic region travel restrictions have been lifted.

MARITIME BUS RUNNING EXTRA SERVICE FOR HOLIDAY SEASON

Maritime Bus has continued to operate a reduced schedule throughout the pandemic.

Although Maritime Bus has still not reached the point where it is ready to resume its full operating schedule, the intercity carrier has announced that it will offer additional service on all its routes during the Christmas and New Year holiday period. Beginning on Sunday, December 20, and running through until Wednesday, January 6, daily schedules will be maintained throughout the three Maritime provinces to meet the needs of travellers over the festive season. The one exception will be Christmas Day, when none of the routes will operate.

Mike Cassidy, owner of Maritime Bus/Coach Atlantic, says the passenger volume on the four days each week that all the main routes are currently operating is still not strong enough to support full-time daily operation. System-wide ridership at the end of October was ranging between 250 and 300 per day – encouraging, but not yet enough to justify service seven days a week.

“Every day I reassure myself that I made the right decision to keep going through the pandemic,” Mr. Cassidy says, “yet looking strictly at the financial results I sometimes do have some doubts.”

He remains optimistic about the longer term, however. And even amid the pandemic he’s particulsrly upbeat about the Charlottetown area transit service T3, which he operates under contract to the City. T3 marked its 15th anniversary on September 30, and now boasts a 50% load factor – well above the national average for transit systems.

PUBLIC TRANSIT GETS CLOSER TO NORMAL; SOME GOOD NEWS IN NB

Halifax Transit is now running near-normal operation with COVID precautions in place.

The evident success of the Atlantic Bubble in keeping COVID-19 at bay seems to be helping public transit throughout the region along the road to recovery. As of October 26, Halifax Transit was reporting that all conventional and express bus routes were running on their regular schedules, and with mandatory mask use all buses were utilizing their full seated capacity. The situation at Metrobus Transit in St. John’s was similar. Most transit agencies have now resumed fare collection, which had been largely suspended for a considerable duration earlier in the pandemic period – contributing further to their financial woes.

In New Brunswick, the three largest cities at last received the news they’d been hoping for. The provincial government, which had earlier declined to participate in a shared-cost transit relief program with Ottawa, finally announced on October 30 that a $1.6-million agreement had been reached. The funding is being distributed based on COVID-related impacts, with Fredericton receiving the largest share at $670,000. Moncton gets half a million, while Saint John will receive $400,000. The money is expected to be forthcoming in early November.

Premier Blaine Higgs, who had earlier attracted criticism from both advocates and municipal politicians for his apparent dismissive attitude toward public transit, is now suggesting he’d be receptive to further requests by cities for reimbursement of pandemic-related expenses.

PASSENGER RAIL NOT AN OPTION FOR MARITIME CHRISTMAS TRAVELLERS

VIA Ocean departs Halifax in the snow
TAA’s Tim Hayman captured this view of a VIA holiday extra in 2015. It’s a scene that won’t be repeated. Passenger rail will not return to the Maritimes in 2020 because of COVID–19, and consists like this have been relegated to history.

Once again, the return to service by VIA Rail’s Ocean has been further postponed. The Crown corporation has now confirmed that all reservations up to and including December 31 are being cancelled, and refunds issued to customers. Furthermore, an embargo has been placed on any further bookings for January and February 2021, but the company still says a return to service before March remains a possibility.

While VIA doesn’t specifically blame the latest postponement on the existence of the “Atlantic Bubble”, a corporate source does acknowledge that it presents a major challenge. The Ocean originates in Montreal where the COVID-19 infection rate is still increasing at an alarming rate, and enters the Atlantic region near the small northern New Brunswick city of Campbellton. Because there is a mandatory two-week self-isolation requirement for everyone entering any of the four easternmost provinces from elsewhere in Canada, the boundary crossing could get quite complicated – especially given that the train makes multiple stops on either side of the dividing line.

When the Ocean does return it won’t be the same as it was before the pandemic. With the loop track at the Halifax container terminal no longer available to turn the train, it will be necessary to move the locomotives around to what would normally be the rear and run the consist backwards on its return journey to Montreal. VIA says the exact form the train will take hasn’t been finalized, but one casualty will definitely be the iconic domed observation car that has graced the tail end for the past three decades, and has been a major attraction for higher-revenue sleeper-class passengers.

TSB RELEASES REPORT ON NEWCASTLE SUB VIA DERAILMENT

Two cars of VIA #14 derailed on April 4, 2019.

The consequences easily could have been much more serious for passengers and crew aboard VIA train 14 on the early afternoon of April 4, 2019. The 14-car eastbound Ocean was proceeding towards Moncton at the permissible track speed of 60 miles per hour when the last two cars went on the ground because of a broken rail at mile 15.27 of CN’s Newcastle Subdivision. There were no serious injuries, but there was significant damage to track and equipment. The results of a Transportation Safety Board investigation into the incident were released on September 30.

The TSB found that a deteriorated length of rail at a public grade crossing, that had gone undetected when a hi-rail inspection vehicle had passed over it hours earlier, had collapsed under the weight of the train. Ultrasonic and track geometry inspections in the previous six months had also failed to identify the defect. The investigators found that the web (vertical portion) of the rail that fractured had thinned due to corrosion to a point where it could no longer support normal train forces, but had remained undetected because it was hidden by the crossing surface.

As the locomotives travelled over the crossing, the operating crew experienced rough track conditions. Seconds later, they received a radio call from the service manager, who was located in the fourth car, reporting that there had been a hard impact. But it wasn’t until the train unexpectedly slowed after crossing the bridge at mile 14.9 that they realized the last two cars had derailed and immediately made an emergency brake application. Fortunately the derailed cars remined upright throughout, and the five passengers and one crew member in the Park-series dome car did not suffer any serious injury. The VIA employee, however, had become separated from his radio, and was unable to immediately contact the head end. The other derailed car was an unoccupied Renaissance “transition car.”

The derailed cars were dragged across this trestle at mile 14.9 of CN’s Newcastle Sub.
Note the damage to the bridge deck caused by the accident.

Early in its investigation, the TSB issued this Rail Safety Advisory regarding effective and consistent rail condition monitoring practices at railway crossings:

“Given the challenges with detecting rail defects at railway crossings, Transport Canada may wish to review how rail condition monitoring is performed at railway crossings and provide guidance (as necessary) to ensure that these inspections are conducted in an effective and consistent manner.”

The full TSB report can be found here:
https://www.bst-tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/rail/2019/R19M0018/R19M0018.html