The soaring price of diesel fuel is having a severe effect on already-struggling municipal and urban transit systems and intercity bus operators in Atlantic Canada. In most areas, the price per litre is at least a dollar higher than it was at the beginning of the year. In both New Brunswick and Newfoundland cities are calling on their provincial governments to take advantage of federal joint funding offers to help transit.
In St. John’s alone, Metrobus is predicting fuel costs will push the system $1.4 million over budget unless fares are raised or service reduced – which neither the agency nor City Hall wants to do. So far there’s no sign the Province is prepared to respond favourably. In fact, even though private autos and light trucks are getting a 50% rebate on registration renewals to help offset fuel costs, no such offer has been made with respect to transit vehicles.
A similar situation exists in New Brunswick, where the Premier Blaine Higgs has reached an agreement with Ottawa, under which federal contributions earmarked for transit and matched by the Province can be used for purposes other than what was originally intended. For NB, that means investment in highways and bridges, including highway twinning. Transport Action Atlantic views this as a most unfortunate turn of events – one that can only strengthen the car culture in a place where residents spend a far higher proportion of their income on motor fuel than any other Canadians.
PEI’S ISLAND TRANSIT REACHES MILESTONE AS ROUTES EXPAND WESTWARD
Canada’s smallest province continues to be a leader in public transportation. PEI’s Island Transit network was extended to the western end of the province effective 19 April. Residents are now able to effectively travel from one end of the island to the other for just a $2 fare, which includes a transfer to the T3 Transit service in Charlottetown.
Island transit reached a significant milestone on May 10. For the first time, the early morning bus arriving in Charlottetown from Souris had every seat occupied – a strong indication that Premier Dennis King’s transit-friendly policies are having the intended effect. Service in eastern PEI began in October 2021, and ridership has been growing steadily to the point where additional equipment may soon be needed.
Meanwhile, Mike Cassidy of Maritime Bus says the daily average of paid fares on their system continues to climb, from 266 in March, through 300 in April, to 349 for the first eight days of May. The fuel surcharge is set jointly by the regulators in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick based on a three-month weighted average, a process in which the company plays no part. It is currently 9.5%, but will increase for the next period based on the current price of diesel. Mr. Cassidy notes that base fares haven’t increased in ten years, because of the automatic adjustment for fuel costs. He says his corporate value philosophy is to keep fares affordable, and his biggest fear is overpricing the service.
VIA RAIL CEO RESIGNS ABRUPTLY
Once again there has been a change in command at VIA Rail Canada. In a tersely-worded statement just before the May long weekend, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced the immediate departure of Cynthia Garneau, after just three years on the job and two years before her order-in-council appointment was due to end.
“I would like to thank Ms. Garneau for her service and her work over the past three years in contributing to the modernization of VIA Rail, and adapting VIA Rail operations during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while always ensuring the health and safety of employees and passengers,” the minister said, adding “I wish Ms. Garneau the best of luck in her future endeavours.”
No reason was given for the sudden resignation, with the former CEO saying only that her train had arrived at its destination, and she was leaving with a sense of accomplishment.
Ms. Garneau faced a difficult challenge from the day she arrived at VIA. She was new to the company and its culture, she had no railroad background, or any experience in an organization carrying passengers or with a need to appreciate customer relationships on a large but very personal scale. She’d been at VIA only ten months when COVID struck.
Her tenure will not likely be remembered as being positive for Atlantic Canada, or anywhere else outside the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor, where her focus had been clearly concentrated. Transport Action Atlantic was not able to obtain a meeting with her – not even a virtual one – during those three years, further reinforcing the perception that, in VIA’s view, Canada ends at Quebec City.
VIA board chair Françoise Bertrand announced that Martin Landry, who has served as the corporation’s chief commercial officer for the past eight years “will ensure business continuity”. Mr. Landry, who previously served in various senior roles at IBM, was recruited by former VIA CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano.
VIA TRI-WEEKLY SERVICE RESUMING – BUT AMENITIES REMAIN UNCERTAIN
Restoration of pre-COVID service frequency by VIA Rail’s Ocean is just a few weeks away. The Crown corporation confirmed in a mid-April media release that the tri-weekly schedule would resume effective June 3, with departures from both Montreal and Halifax on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. However, it’s still unclear what the summer consists will look like. The online reservation system indicates that additional sleeping car capacity is on offer, using Chateau stainless steel cars, but there has been no word on what, if anything, will replace the Park-series observations cars which can no longer operate because the train cannot be turned in Halifax. Unless this issue is addressed, it will represent a significant downgrading of service quality for the higher-revenue sleeper-class passengers – one that will clearly make the product less attractive than it previously was.
Although dining car service is now available to sleeper passengers, other safety measures in response to COVID-19 remain in effect. Those include a continuous masking policy on trains (except in enclosed sleeper accommodation) and in stations, as well as mandatory vaccination as required by the federal government.
NS AIRPORTS GET GOVERNMENT CASH AS TRAFFIC REBOUNDS
Activity at airports across Atlantic Canada is slowly rebounding, as people gradually regain their confidence about travelling. Although horror stories abound about excessive security and customs delays at some of Canada’s larger airports, this region appears to have been spared most of the grief, which has been generally attributed to staffing shortages. Schedules are slowly becoming more frequent, as both airliners and airport authorities look ahead to summer with cautious optimism.
Governments generally appear to be more focused on encouraging people to fly than on promoting greener forms of transportation. As a case in point, on May 6 the Nova Scotia government handed out nearly $20 million in funding to help airports in Sydney and Halifax recover from the pandemic and attract new airlines and flights. Of this $6.3 million goes to Sydney and $13 million to Halifax. In the latter case, the money will be spent on attracting U.S. and international flights, and also to re-establish domestic services that were cut during the pandemic. However, as reported last month in this space, both overseas and transborder operations at YHZ are already showing encouraging signs of recovery.
Meanwhile, at annual meetings held recently both the Moncton and Saint John airport authorities reported a much improved outlook for their respective bottom lines. Even the smaller airports are seeing increased numbers of arrivals and departures, with new flights being introduced at bargain prices by low-cost carriers.
LIVELY DISCUSSION EXPECTED AT TAA’S ANNUAL MEETING
The agenda is almost finalized for Transport Action Atlantic’s annual general meeting, to be held virtually using the ZOOM platform on Saturday, May 28, beginning at 1400 ADT (1430 NDT). In addition to the required business, there’s extensive discussion planned on three major issues that TAA has been closely following over the past year – public transit, passenger rail, and Marine Atlantic ferry rates. Confirmed or tentative speakers and panellists include Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister Gerry Byrne, Maritime Bus founder Mike Cassidy, New Brunswick transit advocate Yves Bourgeois, long-time Trains magazine passenger rail columnist Bob Johnston, and Deatra Walsh, policy and advocacy director for the NL municipalities federation.
The business agenda includes annual reports and financial statements, appointment of an auditor, election of a board of directors, and any other organizational matters that may arise. This is expected to require about 45 minutes, after which the discussion portion of the meeting will begin.
As always, our AGM is open to the general public and the media. Non-members who’d like to attend should request credentials by e-mail to email@example.com.
FEDERAL BUDGET COMES UP EMPTY FOR VIA’S OCEAN – BUT TRI-WEEKLY SERVICE TO RESUME IN JUNE
Atlantic Canadians are still no closer to seeing a modernized rail passenger service after the 2022-23 federal budget was unveiled on April 7. The Trudeau Government’s fiscal plan made no mention of any investment outside the Toronto-Quebec City corridor, despite the first tentative steps taken by VIA Rail in January towards a long-overdue equipment replacement program. VIA is revealing little about the initiative, but the Crown corporation does acknowledge that there is no funding for it at this time. Evidently they are testing the waters to learn what options might be available, but are not prepared to say even how many participants were involved at their virtual “market day” – much less identify any of them. Neither will they disclose what type of equipment they might be looking at.
Meanwhile, VIA has just confirmed that the third frequency of the Ocean will resume in the first week of June. Online bookings had been available for Friday departures from Montreal and Halifax effective June 3 for several months, but the company hadn’t been able to confirm that these would actually take place, citing COVID-19 uncertainty. But the April 14th media release means that the full tri-weekly pre-pandemic schedule will be restored for the summer, albeit missing some of the amenities previously offered to sleeper-class passengers.
VIA CEO Cynthia Garneau termed it “a celebratory and crucial milestone in our service resumption plan after an incredibly challenging two years. We look forward to welcoming more of our customers back on board our trains and doing our part to encourage Canadians and tourists to get out and explore this beautiful country for the summer travel season.”
The release said VIA’s objective has always been the safe resumption of services when conditions allowed it, adding that the decision to add frequencies during the pandemic has been based on various factors, including demand, employing a balanced approach in order to fulfill VIA Rail’s public service mandate and manage financial impacts. The company will revise its service offering in line with the latest developments if necessary, and existing safety measures in response to COVID-19 remain in effect. Those include a masking policy on trains and in stations, as well as mandatory vaccination as required by the federal government.
“The train remains one of the safest ways to travel this summer and we are pleased to be offering our passengers more frequencies and more flexibility,” the announcement concluded. No details are yet available on whether additional sleeping car capacity will be available. The Ocean has been operating with just four Renaissance sleepers for the past several months, and for a number of upcoming departures the reservation system is showing all space as sold out.
LITTLE JOY FOR TRANSIT IN THREE PROVINCIAL BUDGETS
Sustainable transportation is clearly not a priority for the provincial governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador. All three tabled their 2022 budgets in recent weeks – and all three gave public transit short shrift. Where it did get a mention, only lip service was paid.
In St. John’s there’s a bit of a tempest brewing because the Furey Liberals tried to claim political points for the underfunded Metrobus pass aimed at low-income residents. The City is being expected to provide the free transportation to more people, but with a lower level of provincial funding than previously – despite much higher fuel costs. At the same time, the Province is refusing to give Metrobus a break on its taxes or the registration fees for its vehicles. City Councillor Maggie Burton perhaps said it best when she tweeted “there can be no meaningful action on poverty and climate without investment in public transportation.”
New Brunswick is apparently still adamant that it will not commit matching provincial funding in order to avail of available federal money for public transit, despite requests to reconsider from at least two city councils. Quoting Ottawa sources, Brunswick News reported that there is $112 million left on the table for transit investments in NB if the Province is prepared to come up with its share, but Premier Higgs continues to argue that the program isn’t flexible enough.
Instead, the Province unveiled a three-year $1.1-billion plan for improving and extending the life of existing roads and bridges – some of which admittedly are in dire need of attention. But this, of course, does nothing to reduce automobile dependency or promote sustainable transportation. Moncton economist David Campbell recently posted a graph indicating that New Brunswickers spend a higher proportion of their household income on motor fuel than any other Canadians.
In late breaking news from Ottawa, there has apparently been some sort of compromise hammered out that would allow New Brunswick greater flexibility in accessing the federal funds, which are scheduled to disappear if not used by the end of the new fiscal year. Brunswick News says influential federal minister Dominic LeBlanc brokered the arrangement, and Premier Higgs was quoted as being pleased with the outcome. Although details aren’t yet available it appears most of the money earmarked for transit may be diverted to projects preferred by the province.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s capital plan for 2022-23 includes $507.8 million for roads, highways and bridges. The only discernable nod to green transportation in the budget is a $2-million allocation for electric vehicle charging stations across the province. It isn’t clear if NS is prepared to match Ottawa’s offer for transit funding.
Prince Edward Island remains the front-runner in sustainable public transportation policies. It’s now been confirmed that the Island Transit network will be extended to the western end of the province effective Tuesday, April 19, which means residents will be able to effectively travel from one end of the province to the other for just a $2 fare, which includes a transfer to the T3 Transit service in Charlottetown. The recent budget also provided for free transit for all Islanders under 18, as well as $100 point-of-sale rebates on bicycle purchases and $500 for e-bikes. To allay concerns about supply chain issues, the government has announced that the cycle rebate will be extended indefinitely.
MARITIME BUS GETS CASH INFUSION FROM PROVINCES – BUT NOTHING YET FOR DRL
Struggling motorcoach carrier Maritime Bus got some good news from three provincial governments on April 12. In a joint news release, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island announced a combined contribution of just under $900,000 to help the company defray some of the multi-million-dollar losses it has sustained during the pandemic. In addition to drastically reduced farebox revenue on its intercity and rural routes, the coach tour and cruise ship business disappeared, eliminating many of the economies of scale that kept the family-owned enterprise viable.
“It’s nice to feel needed and it’s nice to feel wanted,” said Maritime Bus founder Mike Cassidy in an interview with CBC News. It’s the second infusion of funds Mr. Cassidy’s company has received from the provinces, and is particularly important in enabling service to continue in rural areas like northern New Brunswick. He’s looking forward to the return of cruise ships, and hopeful that revenues during the upcoming tourist season will reach 90% of 2019 levels.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will each contribute $400,000 to the company, while Prince Edward Island is providing $90,000. The media release from Nova Scotia said the contributions are proportional to the ratio of kilometres driven by the service in each province.
DRL Coachlines, also a privately-owned carrier that provides daily service across 900 kilometres of the Trans Canada Highway in Newfoundland, has also been trying to get some financial support from government to help offset its pandemic losses. Owner Jason Roberts says nothing has been forthcoming to date, despite assurances last fall that help was on the way. The province has cut registration fees in half for 2022 to help compensate car owners for higher fuel prices, but hasn’t offered anything to public transportation operators.
Meanwhile, there’s been no word from Ottawa about any change in federal policy regarding the Rural Transit Solutions Fund. The $250-million program was unveiled last year, but the federal government has been adamant that only not-for-profit agencies qualify for the capital assistance it offers. That specifically excludes companies like Maritime Bus and DRL – despite the fact that both have been losing massive sums of money over the past two years.
Mike Cassidy had the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in early March, and expressed hope afterwards that the political will for change was beginning to come round. But he’s still waiting for talk to turn to positive action.
URBAN TRANSIT: “CLAWING ITS WAY BACK TO NORMAL”
As more and more people transition towards a new normal after nearly two years of working from home, and the masking guidelines on public transit switch from “mandatory” to “recommended”, the bus systems in the region’s major urban centres are adjusting routes and schedules as they ride the challenging road to recovery.
Halifax Transit introduced some large-scale service changes back in November, primarily affecting communities on the Dartmouth side, but also reaching to Halifax, Spryfield and Porters Lake/Seaforth. Most of these changes had been in the works long before the pandemic hit, and were included in plans approved by the Regional Municipal Council last spring. They are not part of the longer-term rapid transit plan unveiled in 2021, but they have the same objective – to make it easier for Haligonians to get to their destinations more quickly and conveniently, and without resorting to cars. Although the agency announced a return to its full pandemic schedule several months ago, staffing issues have forced periodic cancellation of both bus runs and ferry crossings.
Meanwhile, significant improvements to public transit in St. John’s were launched in January, after City Council allocated funding for the so-called “Zip Network”, aimed at increased frequency on multiple Metrobus routes. The upgrades are part of a commitment originally approved in 2019, but implementation was put on hold due to pandemic restrictions.
The Zip Network offers increased and consistent frequency throughout the day on routes 1, 2, 3 and 10, beginning earlier in the morning and extending later in the day, with 15-minute frequency at peak hours on weekdays and 30 minutes for most other times. Metrobus general manager Judy Powell says user feedback from the changes has been positive, but the COVID factor makes the total impact difficult to measure. For example, Zip was introduced at the same time that most university students returned to campus. She added that ridership continues to gradually improve, and by March had reached 88% of pre-pandemic levels.
Greater Moncton’s Codiac Transpo is also tweaking its routes and schedules as it “claws its way back to normal”, says operations manager Alex Grncarovski. The system is now at 90% of pre-pandemic service hours, and is showing a steady ridership increase. With a new automated fare collection system now fully implemented, there’s a wealth of new data available for planning purposes that simply wasn’t there before. And, they’re hearing a lot from employers who are recognizing how important availability of transit is in recruitment. All this means more “thinking outside the box” to get the best bang for the buck as routing and expansion changes are contemplated.
Codiac Transpo is especially pleased that the Town of Riverview is showing a stronger commitment to public transit. Council has maintained funding for expanded service that was first introduced last year to help residents cope with the extended closure of one of the Petitcodiac River crossings. Riverview has a history of being very car-centric, and presents a special challenge, Mr. Grncarovski says, because it is very spread out and much more difficult to adequately serve than Moncton and Dieppe. But the coverage area has recently been extended, and residents appear to be reacting positively to more reliable and quicker service. RATES UNCHANGED THIS SUMMER ON MARINE ATLANTIC FERRIES
Marine Atlantic has confirmed that there will be no rate increase on its ferries to Newfoundland this summer. Evidently the federal government did not want to either rain on the province’s Come Home 2022 parade or exacerbate the rising cost of living by increasing the charges for trucking goods to the island. In effect, this means that fares will remain at the same level as in 2020, with the 65% cost recovery requirement evidently held in abeyance for another year. And, because the Crown corporation has a fuel hedging program with their own tank farm, there’s unlikely to be any immediate impact on the fuel surcharge as a result of world events. Ferry bookings for the summer are running well ahead of pre-pandemic norms for this time of year – no doubt a consequence of pent-up demand among ex-pat Newfoundlanders.
Meanwhile, there’s optimism that onboard amenities will return to near-normal this summer, after two seasons of very limited food and beverage offerings. Colin Tibbo, the executive in charge of customer experience, says public health considerations may dictate some adjustments in how the food actually gets to the plate, but he’s looking forward to offering the same standard of service that received high satisfaction levels from passengers pre-pandemic.
OVERSEAS FLIGHTS RETURNING TO HALIFAX STANFIELD
“Travel is getting easier again,” proclaims a recent e-mail blast from WestJet to its customers. And, the Calgary-based airline appears to be as good as its word for overseas travel this summer from Halifax Stanfield International Airport. It’s forging ahead with the restoration of seasonal direct service to four destinations across the pond, beginning on May 1. This summer there will be a daily flight from YHZ to London Gatwick, and tri-weekly service to Glasgow and Dublin, plus four times a week to Paris.
Air Canada is also resuming its non-stop, year-round service to London Heathrow, beginning with a five-times weekly operation effective April 30, increasing to daily for the peak travel period. And starting June 24 the national flag carrier will resume daily Halifax- Boston service. American Airlines, meanwhile, will start daily service to Philadelphia on June 3, and also offer once-a-week direct flights to Boston and Washington. And, two carriers will offer seasonal service to Frankfurt beginning this spring. Condor Airlines and Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings Discover will both fly to and from YHZ three times a week.
“We are very pleased that many of the non-stop overseas and U.S. flights that were offered at Halifax Stanfield pre-pandemic will return for summer 2022,” says airport spokesperson Tiffany Chase, although she acknowledged that some routes will be offered at lesser frequencies until more travel demand returns. “We will continue working with our airline partners to bring back more routes and increase flight frequencies in the coming months and years for the benefit of our communities.”
Even though it’s some 470 nautical miles closer to Europe than Halifax Stanfield, the picture at St. John’s International Airport is not quite so rosy. Apart from flights to and from the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon, YYT will remain devoid of direct service on any international route. Three years ago WestJet decided to permanently centralize all its Atlantic Canada overseas flights at Halifax. Air Canada cancelled its on-again, off-again service to London Heathrow in 2019, when the controversial Boeing MAX 8 airplanes were grounded worldwide over safety concerns. And then came the pandemic.
Air Canada told CBC News by an e-mailed statement in mid-March that there were currently no plans to add any international flying out of St. Johns, blaming the continued suspension on pandemic effects.
Interestingly, all the overseas flights resuming from Halifax by both Air Canada and WestJet will use the MAX 8 aircraft, with all safety issues apparently now resolved to the satisfaction of the regulatory authorities.
TAA’S ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING SET FOR MAY 28
Once again, this year’s Transport Action Atlantic’s annual general meeting will be held virtually using the ZOOM platform on Saturday, 28 May 2021, beginning at 1400 ADT (1430 NDT).
The agenda includes annual reports and financial statements, appointment of an auditor, election of a board of directors, and any other business that may arise.
Current members of Transport Action Atlantic may nominate (with their consent) any other member in good standing for a position on the board. It is the board’s responsibility to choose the executive officers. Nominations should be made in advance of the meeting, and may be submitted by mail to the TAA Nominating Committee, P.O.Box 268, Dartmouth NS B2Y 3Y3, or (preferably) by e-mail to TAA secretary Michael Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Besides the required business, we plan to include guest speakers focusing on critical public transportation issues in our region, with ample opportunity for questions and discussion. Please watch for further details on our website as this program is finalized. TAA members for whom we have an e-mail address will automatically receive an invitation to the meeting. Others who’d like to participate should request credentials by e-mail to email@example.com. As always, our AGM is open to the general public and the media.
While many Atlantic Canadians chose the cautious route over the Christmas-New Year period by staying close to home for the festive season, there was still a scaled-down version of the annual holiday travel rush.
The resurgent tide of COVID infections in the region, across Canada, and world-wide, clearly impacted the travel industry’s gradual recovery that had been evident through the fall months. But despite a lot of cancellations by concerned potential passengers, holiday travel was much busier than in 2020. Your co-editors were among those who did venture outside the region in December – one by rail and the other by air – and their anecdotal observations are included in this story.
VIA Rail’s service offering in the Maritimes was a far cry from the extra trains and lengthy consists of fairly recent years, but relative to the once a week frequency that had been in place from the service restart in August, having two departures a week made it at least a bit easier to plan Christmas travel. Bookings had been strong in the lead-up, and there was much rumbling about extra equipment being added for both trainsets; however, by the time the holiday season was approaching, new concerns about the rapidly spreading omicron variant undoubtedly swayed some travellers to take advantage of VIA’s flexible cancellation and refund policy and cancel or postpone their travel. Trains over the holidays were still busy and expanded up to 17 cars, but did not seem to be quite as heavily patronized as initially expected.
Travel on the Ocean ahead of Christmas was not that much different from in the past, aside from the new consist and lack of a Park car. Proof of vaccination was checked in the station while checking in, with a sticker provided so passengers wouldn’t be bothered again during their journey. For sleeper passengers, all the usual accommodations in both Renaissance and HEP sleepers (aside from open sections) were available, and the full hot menu had returned to the dining car, also available by room service for those not comfortable dining in the shared space. All meals were up the usual standard, and the quality was consistent both in the dining car and by room service. Masks were required when moving through the train, as well as at all times for passengers in Economy, and compliance appeared to be strong across the board. The service car lounges were open and available, though canteen service was by cart only for those in the coaches. On time performance of this particular westbound trip was good across the board, with an arrival in Montreal just a few minutes behind schedule – lots of time to make connections on toward either Ottawa or Toronto.
By the return trip after Christmas, the service had once again tightened up in recognition of the rapidly evolving COVID situation. The dining car remained on offer, though room service seemed to be more heavily patronized. The service cars were closed, and passengers were asked to remain at their seats or rooms as much as possible for the duration of the trip. Compliance with these rules again appeared to be quite consistent across the board, even in the coaches.
On this particular trip, on-time performance was hampered from the beginning by a very late arriving connecting train from Toronto – VIA held the Ocean to ensure passengers wouldn’t be stuck in Montreal for several days! Though some time was initially recovered, more was lost due to a series of ongoing slow orders on the Newcastle Sub, and even more by a forced detour through Rockingham yard on the final approach to Halifax. Far too often of late, CN has been leaving cars parked on the mainline and forcing the Ocean to make a painfully slow detour around through the yard tracks. Such treatment from their host railway is certainly nothing new, but it continues to be a major thorn in the side of VIA’s operations.
The outbound leg of a round trip by WestJet from Moncton to Toronto was a rather uneventful experience, apart from the usual pandemic precautions of continuous masking and hand sanitizing, but the return flight from Canada’s busiest airport was another story. In sharp contrast to the smooth check-in and uncrowded security at Moncton on December 16, Pearson’s Terminal 3 was quite a chaotic scene on the morning of December 30. There were technical issues at the bag drop, and a long queue at security where social distancing appeared to be a totally foreign concept. Furthermore, many travellers weren’t wearing their masks properly or were using improvised versions, and staff seemed to be actively discouraging anyone who attempted to avoid crowding their fellow passengers.
The Moncton departure was consistent with earlier anecdotal experiences at Halifax and St. John’s airports in November – a general atmosphere that gave travellers some sense of assurance that those in charge were taking their public health responsibilities seriously. And this before the Omicron variant had reared its ugly head. Not so at Pearson, where one couldn’t help but feel somewhat ill at ease amid rapidly escalating case counts.
“Overall, our industry like many others is not immune to the quick spread of Omicron, which at times is affecting service delivery among some businesses and airport partners,” says Tiffany Chase, spokesperson for Halifax Stanfield. “We’re asking for anyone travelling to be patient if they experience longer than usual line ups and to arrive with plenty of time to make their way through the various health and security screening processes prior to their flight. Travellers are also reminded of the public health protocols in place at the airport, including mandatory vaccination for those 12 years and older, always wearing a mask, frequent hand washing and sanitizing, enhanced cleaning of high touch surfaces, and reduced seating available at airport eating establishments.”
On December 30, WestJet announced the cancellation of 15% of its flights, and said it would rebook affected passengers on alternative departures. The airline blamed the Omicron variant for the drastic move, and claims that it could not have anticipated the variant’s “rapid and unpredictable impact” on its operations. Air passenger rights advocate Gabor Lukacs of Halifax isn’t buying that explanation, and suspects that the company is attempting to evade its obligations under the already-loose federal regulations regarding cancelled flights. The group’s website suggests that WestJet is trying to save money – a lot of money – by claiming the cancellations are due to circumstances beyond its control, and it therefore doesn’t have to compensate affected passengers for meal and accommodation expenses.
Meanwhile, Maritime Bus carried 7800 passengers throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in December – a significant improvement over the previous year but still down 55% from the number of fares recorded in the same month of 2019, before the pandemic struck. But reduced holiday travel meant that more people were sending Christmas packages by bus. The company handled 10,000 shipments last month, helping offset the lost revenue from fewer paying passenger.
Some travellers who sought to minimize their COVID exposure by driving home for the holidays in their own cars and taking advantage of Marine Atlantic’s generous social distancing capabilities found their plans frustrated by high winds and heavy seas in the Cabot Strait. With incredibly cruel timing, adverse weather closed in on December 23, forcing cancellation of all sailings on Christmas Eve.
-Tim Hayman/Ted Bartlett
VIA TAKES FIRST STEP IN “NON-CORRIDOR” FLEET RENEWAL
A tentative first step toward the badly needed replacement of VIA Rail Canada’s tired long-haul fleet appears to be in the offing. The timing may be just coincidence – it probably wasn’t really intended as a Santa surprise for Canadians who’ve been waiting many years for action by the Crown corporation and its political masters on this issue. But on the morning of Christmas Eve, without fanfare of any kind, a notice quietly appeared at VIA’s behest on MERX, a tender publishing website that bills itself as “Canada’s #1 Source of Business Opportunities”.
Entitled “Non-Corridor Fleets Renewal Market Day”, the solicitation was notably short on detail, but was nonetheless a hopeful signal that something may finally be happening to address an issue that’s been neglected for decades. The solicitation was identified as an informal request for information, and the bid intent was shown as “not available”. Only two sentences were offered as a project description, which reads as follows:
“VIA Rail is pleased to invite all tier 1 original equipment manufacturers of intercity and long-distance rail cars and locomotives to attend the virtual VIA Rail non-corridor fleets renewal market day. The day will be dedicated to both informing the market about the fleet renewal opportunity and addressing the context of the Government of Canada’s 2022-2023 Budget.”
VIA has so far not been forthcoming with any additional information, and there has been no media release on the subject. However, the cryptic MERX posting does suggest that there may be some funding in the upcoming federal budget to at least begin the process. Transport Action Atlantic views this as an encouraging sign, and has asked the corporation’s management for clarification and details on the current status.
It’s no secret that the equipment currently in use on VIA’s long-haul trains – now just a shadow of the once-substantial network that existed at the corporation’s inception in 1978 – is well past its best-before date. The classic stainless steel cars built for Canadian Pacific by the Budd Company of Philadelphia in 1954-55 are now in the twilight of their long careers, although some of them have recently undergone significant refurbishment. However, a plan to adapt some of the vintage coaches to accommodate passengers with special mobility needs had to be abandoned when it was discovered that the cars weren’t structurally compatible with the intended retrofit. The more recent British-built Renaissance cars that entered VIA service in the Maritimes more than two decades ago were problematic from the get-go, as they were never designed or intended for the challenges of life in Canada. They have also proven to be far less durable than the much older US-built cars, and are in fact more urgently in need of replacement. The F40 diesel locomotives that haul all of VIA’s long-distance trains are more than 35 years old, and although almost all of them have been rebuilt to extend their service life and reduce exhaust emissions, the clock is ticking for them as well.
Needless to say, TAA will be watching this development with keen interest. Stay tuned!
TWO NEW BRUNSWICK VIA STATIONS ARE NO MORE
Featured on the rear cover of our most recent Spring-Summer 2021 Bulletin, we had received news that two small stations in New Brunswick, those at Jacquet River and Charlo, were soon to be demolished due to deteriorating condition of the structures and the prohibitive cost of rehabilitation. Though we don’t currently have details of exactly when the structures were removed, we were able to confirm over the holidays that both stations have been torn down. All that remains at each site is the parking lot, platform, a small sign-board, and other associated VIA signage at the roadside.
The stops do continue to be served, and there appear to be no plans to stop serving either stop – Springhill Jct. remains an example of how a stop can stay on the schedule, without having anything more than a patch of gravel by the tracks! It remains to be seen whether either community will step up to build any form of structure to replace the former buildings.
PATIENCE WEARS THIN OVER DELAYED CHIGNECTO REPORT
More than six months past its promised release, there’s still no sign of a long-awaited report on the endangered critical transportation corridor that connects New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. There’s been growing concern in recent years that the famous tides of the Bay of Fundy are growing ever higher, presumably as a result of climate change. More and more frequently, storm surges are threatening to overwhelm the Chignecto Isthmus just east of Sackville on the NB side of the provincial boundary. The potential for a flood disaster is top of mind for Cumberland-Colchester MP Stephen Ellis.
“Every day, $50 million dollars worth of trade crosses this essential corridor,” the recently-elected Conservative politician recently wrote to the federal ministers of transport and environment. “It’s one of those things that people take for granted and don’t realize that what happened in British Columbia could easily happen here.”
Dr. Ellis isn’t the first MP to voice concerns about the risk of the Tantramar Marsh being inundated by salt water. Four years ago his predecessor, Liberal Bill Casey, was singing the same tune, describing it as the most vulnerable transportation corridor in all of Canada from an environmental perspective. The CN Rail line across the isthmus is higher than the Trans-Canada Highway, and in effect acts as dyke. If it were ever to be breached, the result could be a catastrophic economic blow to Nova Scotia and to Canada.
The $700,000 engineering study was announced in May of 2018, with the federal government picking up half the cost and the remainder shared by Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The report was scheduled for release in the spring of 2021, but it remains under wraps. A spokesman for the NB Department of Transportation and Infrastructure confirmed to the Moncton Times and Transcript that the report had indeed been completed, but was still under review by all three governments. Meanwhile, community leaders and MLAs on both sides of the border are growing impatient for answers.
“We’re still waiting for our provincial and federal governments to take climate change and its impacts seriously, but time is running out,” the Green Party’s Tantramar MLA Megan Mitton told reporter Alan Cochrane. And Elizabeth Smith-McCrossin, the independent MLA for Cumberland North, says she’s made flood mitigation one of her priorities for 2022 – even though the most vulnerable point is not in her riding. “We need to stop studying and get the work done,” she said, adding that she’d introduced a bill in the fall session of the NS Legislature that has yet to be debated.
The concerns were echoed by the mayors of both Sackville and Amherst, who are very worried that large areas of their respective communities are under threat of permanent flooding, as ancient 18th-century dykes built by Acadian farmers begin to crumble.
HALIFAX TRANSIT LAUNCHING NEW INITIATIVES IN 2022
The last couple of years have been rough for transit ridership, but there continues to be work on incremental improvements to the Halifax Transit system. In early December, Halifax regional council approved a year-long pilot project that will see a section of Spring Garden Rd., one of the busiest downtown streets and a major choke point for traffic, converted to bus only access from 7am to 8pm, beginning in June 2022. The section of Spring Garden Rd. in question, between Queen and South Park streets, had been closed for an extended period of time for a comprehensive streetscaping project. With the work now complete, municipal staff proposed that this was an ideal time to launch such a pilot, since car traffic had already been blocked from the street. Council opted instead to wait until June, so as not to have to contend with winter conditions while evaluating the initial success of the pilot. Ultimately, the pilot will be assessed based on pedestrian, customer, and transit rider experience on the street, average transit times, collision data, traffic volumes, and public and area resident feedback.
The transit agency is also set to launch two new initiatives aimed at making the service easier to use for people with disabilities and for newcomers to the city. Planned to launch early in 2022, Halifax Transit is developing an in-person accessibility training program to educate people with disabilities how to use both conventional transit, and the specialized Access-A-Bus service. The program is intended to respond to concerns from people with disabilities that the transit system is intimidating, and will aim to provide more support to help people become comfortable with using transit, covering everything from how to request stops to learning about the audio and visual stop announcement, paying fares, and using the Transit app.
The second program is a training program for newcomers who need help navigating the system, especially those working to overcome language barriers. In addition to providing information about where to buy tickets and how to read transit schedules, the program is expected to bring a bus into communities so newcomers can experience it first hand, with an introduction to the vehicles, explanations of how to use features like bike racks, and an opportunity to talk with staff with the aid of translation services.
LABRADOR’S FIRST-EVER TRANSIT SYSTEM PROPOSED
The stage has been set for the first-ever public transit system in Labrador’s largest population centre. A feasibility study conducted at Dalhousie University is recommending a two-route network for Happy Valley-Goose Bay. While there’s no clear answer yet as to how the estimated $180,000 start-up cost for each route and the annual $670,000 annual operating deficit would be funded, there’s growing community enthusiasm for the project.
The study was commissioned by the town council, and released in November. The core route recommended by consultants would be 28 kilometres in length, and would provide an hourly service to the town’s 8100 residents. In addition, service would be provided to North West River and the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nationevery three hours over a longer 92-kilometre route.
Mayor George Andrews told CBC Radio’s Labrador Morning that the proposed system would open up the community to everybody. “Whether it’s a single mom who doesn’t have transportation that needs to go to work, or someone without a vehicle that needs to go to the airport,” he said, adding that Council would be doing due diligence on the file in the near future.