The gradual return of Maritime Bus services across the region continues, after the dramatic scaling back that took place during the pandemic. Heading into September, Maritime Bus announced that Saturday service would be returning on routes that normally ran daily, bringing the operation up from 6 day a week to 7 day a week service. The move was prompted by strong response to the return of Saturday service for the Labour Day weekend, and sees travel options on routes throughout the region now back to near what they were before the pandemic.
PEI TRANSIT SEES RECORD RIDERSHIP, NEW FUNDING EXPECTED
PEI’s transit service has seen a record year for ridership in 2022, a surge buoyed by a general return to workplaces, high fuel prices, and no doubt PEI’s ambitious “Toonie Transit” program. T3, the transit service’s operator, saw 77,000 passengers fares for July in Chalottetown, the highest since October 2019 when they saw around 74,000. Ridership in rural areas across the island has also seen a surge, and the operator has found challenges in accommodating the volume of passengers on the existing fleet.
MARINE ATLANTIC – VESSEL ISSUES CAUSE CANCELLATION OF SOME ARGENTIA CROSSINGS
Mechanical issues with the MV Highlanders have caused Marine Atlantic to cancel several North Sydney-Argentia crossings through September, leaving passengers scrambling to find alternative travel options. With the MV Highlanders out of service, Marine Atlantic has moved the MV Atlantic Vision to the Port aux Basques service, typically the busier of the two routes. Ferry passengers have been forced to shift to available crossings on the Port aux Basques service, a challenge with busy traffic continuing, or make different travel plans. It is not yet clear when the Highlanders will return to service, and with limited time left in the seasonal Argentia service, it’s quite possible that the remainder of the season will end up scrubbed.
WESTJET SUSPENDS SOME DIRECT FLIGHTS TO ATLANTIC CANADA
Air traffic into Atlantic Canada has slowly built back up over the last year, but recent news from WestJet will once again limit the number of options available to travellers in the region. WestJet has announced that flights between Halifax and Montreal will be suspended as of Oct. 28, and flights to Ottawa and St. John’s will be suspended in early January. This follows a previous announcement that WestJet would not be providing winter services Charlottetown, Fredericton, and Sydney. These decisions follow part of WestJet’s effort to concentrate more of their fleet on services in western Canada, part of a refocusing effort that the airline announced earlier in the summer. The decision will leave passengers in Atlantic Canada with fewer options, and raises questions about the future of some of WestJet’s seasonal services, like their direct trans-atlantic services from Halifax – particularly as the airline has paused acquisitions of wide-body aircraft, focusing instead on narrow-body regional planes.
TRANSIT STAFFING WOES CONTINUE – HALIFAX FERRIES SCALE BACK SERVICE
The continuing combination of labour shortages, absences, and challenging working conditions have left transit agencies across the board facing ongoing issues with maintaining sufficient staffing levels to operate their full services. In the latest such development, Halifax Transit was forced to scale back afternoon service on the Halifax-Alderney (Dartmouth) ferry service, operating on a half hour schedule instead of the normal 15 minute frequency.
On September 12, TAA past-president Ted Bartlett was able to arrange a first ever in-person meeting of TAA’s “Newfoundland caucus”, with a lunchtime meeting in St. John’s. Those in attendance discussed Newfoundland issues including gulf ferry rates, transit in the NE Avalon, trans-island motorcoach service, and lack of overseas flights from YYT. Here’s hoping this is the first of more such meetings to come!
Welcome back to Atlantic Transport News! Summer is moving along quickly, and with lots of other things going on outdoors, we’ve decided to combine our July and August news into a single issue. Hopefully you’re able to peruse these stories while relaxing and enjoying the summer days, perhaps even back out and travelling around the country.
Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:
VIA WOES – SUMMER TRAVEL RETURNS, BUT DELAYS ABOUND
The summer of 2022 has brought a full return of VIA Rail service in Atlantic Canada, even if only at the ever-inadequate tri-weekly schedule of the Ocean, and the travelling public seems to have returned to fill the trains. No doubt buoyed by the resurgence of travel across the board, coupled with delays at airports and shortages of rental cars, the majority of departures in both directions have been nearly or entirely sold out.
Despite the evident demand, VIA has been slow to add capacity. More Chateau sleepers have been added to the Ocean train, but on-board accounts suggest that often only one of these cars is actually in revenue service. This appears to be tied to staffing issues, and VIA’s inability to provide sufficient crew to staff any additional cars that could be added. No doubt the long layoffs and painfully slow return to service, which included an exhausting on-train staff schedule with extended time away from their home terminal, have made it increasingly difficult to retain and attract new on board crews.
Delays have become a chronic issue through the course of the summer. Most recently, track work projects on the Mont Joli subdivision (Mont Joli to Campbellton) are causing routine delays in both directions, typically of at least 2 hours. A notice on Reservia reads “Due to operational issues experienced by the railway infrastructure owner, trains 14 and 15 are expected to incur a delay en route and upon arriving at final destination. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.” Connections in Montreal to trains 65 (for Toronto) and 35 (for Ottawa) have been removed from the reservations system for the time being, recognizing the high likelihood of missed connections. This work is anticipated to be complete by September, but it is certainly an inconvenience during some of the busiest travel time of the year.
Easily the worst example of delays and staffing issues took place on July 22, 2022. VIA 15, scheduled to depart Halifax that day at 13h00, had its departure time pushed back due to “operational issues”. Anecdotal reports from passengers suggest that there was no qualified Service Manager (SM) available to work, which put VIA in the position of either having to find another available SM (a challenge with schedules and few available qualified employees), or run the train without an SM – something the on board employees and union would oppose, and also something that would require authorization from Transport Canada. The result was a cascade of rolling delays that extended, hour by hour, through the entire afternoon and evening. Passengers were provided with extremely little information about what was taking place, and little indication of what their options might be in the long run.
Eventually, passengers in Halifax were allowed to board the train, but a call was made late at night that the train would be cancelled. Passengers were allowed to stay on board overnight, but by the morning they were left to fend for themselves. Refunds and travel credits were issued, but there was little to no assistance with any alternate travel arrangements. Passengers at some stations farther along the line may have been bussed, but this isn’t entirely clear. The train deadheaded back to Montreal the next day, with crew members on board and no passengers.
More details about this experience can be found in this report from a veteran VIA traveller. With the trip proving to be this disillusioning for even a seasoned traveller, one can only imagine how much this experience would do to deter those trying out the train for the first time. It seems that VIA managed to avoid any seriously negative press for this incident, but that is likely just indicative of how miniscule their presence is in the Atlantic Canada transportation scene.
VIA RAIL ANNUAL PUBLIC MEETING – NO IMMINENT IMPROVEMENTS FOR ATLANTIC CANADA, BUT OPTIMISM FOR FLEET RENEWAL
VIA Rail’s Annual Public Meeting was held on August 9, 2022. You can watch the live stream of the public meeting at the YouTube link below.
As usual, VIA provided an opportunity for questions to be submitted in advance, and answered some of the most commonly asked questions in a separate Q&A Document.
There were a number of questions related to VIA’s Ocean service and the prospect of any improvements in Atlantic Canada. Unsurprisingly, there’s no indication of any plan to expand services – though there was at least some acknowledgement of the interest in increased frequencies within the region. Even less surprising, there was a further reiteration that any plan for the regional services pitched under the tenure of Yves Desjardins-Siciliano has been suspended, with infrastructure issues (i.e. the high demands from CN) cited as the reason for abandoning the project. On that infrastructure note, there are also no plans for work on the Newcastle Sub to improve trip times, though this would seem to be the most obvious way to speed up travel.
On a disappointing note for passengers, the Q&A confirmed that the Ocean will “continue to operate…without a dome car until further notice”, due to “various factors including operational and equipment considerations.” The equipment considerations may very well be related to the state of the electrical equipment and the ongoing need for refurbishment work. Skyline cars – the mid-train domes that would be most appropriate for the bidirectional Ocean train – have mostly not had any major refurbishment work in recent years, although they were included in VIA’s original plans for an update to the carriages on the service. It certainly seems possible that there may not be sufficient cars in decent condition to meet the demands of both the Canadian and Ocean. Regardless of the reason, this means that all passengers on the train will have to suse two Renaissance service cars instead, which are not as attractive.
Though there’s relatively little to be excited about in this update, there is at least a hint of optimism related to plans for much needed long-distance fleet renewal. In response to a question on the topic, VIA provided this answer:
“Long-distance and regional services are closely linked to our mandate, our mission, our vision and the fleet that runs on these routes will need to be replaced since it is no longer reasonable to extend its operational life. For these reasons, we have submitted a business case to the federal government, and we look forward to working with the appropriate stakeholders in the Government of Canada during the evaluation of this business case. The replacement of this fleet will allow VIA Rail to provide a more comfortable, reliable, accessible and sustainable travel experience all the while continuing to contribute to the tourism industry and regional economic development. We look forward to sharing more details on this process in due course.”
VALUE FOR MONEY IS AN ISSUE FOR MARINE ATLANTIC USERS
Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has apparently had a “statistically significant” impact on how the Marine Atlantic ferry service is perceived by its customers. The Crown corporation published the results of its most recent customer satisfaction survey in the July issue of its employee newsletter.
A random sample of between 100 and 200 customers each month is polled on the company’s behalf by Narrative Research, and the results have been encouraging – until recently. The three-month rolling scores from the May 2022 survey show a number of noteworthy declines that are unlikely to have occurred by chance, with a confidence level of 95%. Marine Atlantic is clearly concerned by the numbers, and management evidently hopes that sharing the data with employees will inspire them not to rest on their laurels in what is predicted to be the busiest tourist season in years.
The survey revealed that a respectable 77% of customers are highly satisfied with their ferry experience, but that’s down by nine percentage points from a year ago. Yet 95.6% of users would recommend Marine Atlantic to others – a statistic that changed very little year over year. In the area of reliability, 81.2% provided a positive rating, down 4.8% from 2021.
But the area where customers are most dissatisfied will come as little surprise. Only 60.1% of customers rate Marine Atlantic’s value for money positively. That’s down 11.4% from last year, and clearly reflects a growing public perception that the ferry rates are far higher than they should be.
Although there has not been an increase in passenger fares since 2019, over the past two decades ferry rates have risen at a rate far in excess of the cost-of-living index. It’s not a matter over which the Crown corporation has direct control, as the cost recovery target for the constitutionally-mandated service is dictated by the Government of Canada. It currently stands at 66% – far higher it was in years gone by. It’s an issue that Transport Action Atlantic has been passionate about for quite some time, and continued political pressure will be necessary to prevent further burdensome rate hikes in future years.
PEI FERRY BURNS, SUBSTITUTE VESSEL FROM QUEBEC ARRIVES
The MV Holiday Island, one of the two ferries plying the Northumberland Strait between NS and PEI, ran into serious trouble on July 22, as a fire broke out in the engine room shortly before arrival in PEI. All 225 passengers on board had to be evacuated, with the aid of the vessel’s lifeboats and some local fishermen. Fortunately, there were no injuries to passengers or crew. With the fire still burning, the vessel remained just outside of the harbour at Wood Islands for two days before the fire could be extinguished, and vehicles could finally be offloaded and returned to their owners. The vessel is now sidelined indefinitely, with the extent of the damage and potential for repairs in need of further evaluation.
With one vessel immediately out of service, Northumberland Ferries Ltd. (NFL) adjusted the sailing schedule to allow the MV Confederation to make more trips during the day and pick up some of the slack. A process was also launched to seek out a potential replacement vessel. In impressively short order, NFL was able to track down a suitable substitute vessel from Quebec. The MV Sareema I, a vessel built in Norway in 2010 and used by Société des traversiers du Québec (STQ) on the Traverse Matane – Baie-Comeau – Godbout crossing, travelled to Caribou NS for testing in the first week of August. If the tests go well and the vessel is able to function with the dock infrastructure, the vessel will enter service on the Northumberland crossing as early as mid to late August.
The MV Holiday Island was already slated for replacement in the 2019 federal budget, but delivery of a new vessel was not expected until 2027. At this stage, it isn’t clear if the Holiday Island will be repaired and returned to service, or if some sort of substitute arrangement will be made until its successor is delivered.
DETAILS REMAIN SCANTY ABOUT WESTJET REFOCUS
WestJet services to, from and within Atlantic Canada appear to be in for some significant changes, but the full extent of the airline’s planned refocusing of its operations remains unclear. Canada’s second-largest airline announced on June 16 that it plans to concentrate its routes and fleet on its home turf in Western Canada.
Chief executive officer Alexis von Hoensbroech, who joined the company in February, made the announcement following a strategic review. “We think the West has more room for growth for us that the East,” he told the Globe and Mail, announcing that the number of flights within eastern Canada will be reduced while schedules and capacity would be boosted in the airline’s western stronghold. The airline claims it will continue to be a national carrier with a significant presence in Eastern Canada, but primarily through direct connections to western cities.
Exactly what this all means for Atlantic Canada is still unclear, more than a month after the announcement. The original media release (which is no longer available on WestJet’s website) did say its regional fleet of Q400 turboprop aircraft would be “shifted and right-sized” to focus on Western Canada. As of this writing, the indefinite cancellation of the carrier’s services linking Fredericton, Charlottetown and Sydney with Toronto effective in October are the only announced changes for the region. But other routes such as Halifax-St. John’s and Moncton-Toronto also use the WestJet Encore turboprops and could potentially be affected as well. And there’s also the question of the trans-Atlantic flights to and from Halifax. This summer has seen the return of direct services from YHZ to London Gatwick, Dublin, Glasgow and Paris. It remains uncertain whether these will survive the refocusing exercise. It’s already known that two of those routes will be ending earlier than their originally-planned October dates, attributed to operational and crewing challenges that are widespread throughout the commercial aviation industry.
Halifax Airport spokesperson Tiffany Chase confirms that no detailed longer-term plans have yet been forthcoming from WestJet. “We remain in discussions with them to identify the opportunities and benefits Halifax Stanfield provides as a strong partner and market going forward, in alignment with their new strategy, as we have successfully done in the past,” she wrote in an e-mail to TAA. “We can’t say what routes may be affected by their new strategy in future or what new opportunities will emerge – it’s early days on those discussions. I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point about the impact on routes that have been traditionally served by WestJet in our market or who else may fill any gaps.”
One player that may be looking for opportunities arising from WestJet’s new strategy is St. John’s-based PAL Airlines. The growing regional carrier now boats a fleet of seven Q400 planes, as well as six smaller aircraft. PAL’s acting director of business development Stephen Short says their concentration is on what he calls “underserved markets” – one of which is connecting New Brunswick and Newfoundland. Their plans were disrupted by the pandemic, but the airline is now flying direct between Moncton and St. John’s six days a week, with the same aircraft also providing non-stop Moncton-Ottawa service. In addition there are three round trips per week between YQM and YYT with a stop at Deer Lake, and tri-weekly service between Fredericton and St. John’s, also stopping at YDF.
He’s not disclosing any other opportunities PAL might be eyeing, but points out that they have interline agreements with both major national carriers, enjoy good relationships with airports throughout the region, and are nimble enough to adapt quickly to changing market conditions. He adds that they are committed to further growth in New Brunswick, and capacity and schedules will be dictated by demand. Current schedules are in effect until mid-October.
Meanwhile, the region’s largest airport, Halifax Stanfield, has been spared most of the chaos that has plagued major hubs in Canada and around the world. Mountains of lost or unclaimed luggage and hordes of angry passengers have not been a common sight anywhere in Atlantic Canada, but travellers in this part of the country have not been entirely immune from domino effects resulting from crew shortages and terminal overload at Toronto Pearson and Montreal Trudeau.
Tiffany Chase says YHZ views the rebound in traffic as encouraging, despite the uncertainty about WestJet’s future plans. While both major airlines have cut frequencies on some routes as they grapple with crewing and other challenges, seat capacity reduction has been to some extent offset by the use of larger planes.
“We are excited to see more people travelling through the airport again, for leisure, reconnecting with family and friends, and for business purposes, and we will continue to do everything we can to attract and retain air service connections to key markets and destinations around the world for the benefit of our communities,” she said. Passenger traffic through YHZ in June totalled 333,731, about 15% fewer than the same month in pre-pandemic 2019, but up astronomically from the 21,645 passengers handled in June of 2021.
PUBLIC TRANSIT: STAFFING ISSUES CAUSE HEADACHES, BUT RIDERSHIP CONTINUES TO RETURN
The summer of 2022 has seen a resurgence of travel and increasing numbers of passengers on public transit systems, but this positive trend has run up against serious staffing issues across the transportation sector. Labour shortages are an issue in virtually every industry at the moment, but transit systems seem particularly hard hit, owing in part to the turbulent years of 2020-2021 and challenging working conditions that persist today. The union representing Halifax Transit drivers has cited poor pay and a demanding work environment, including frequent mandatory overtime, as factors that have left the agency critically short of front line staff.
Halifax Transit has been forced to continue cutting departures, with cancelled trips now in place on more than 50 routes in the system. Though these service cuts have been planned to try to minimize disruptions by focusing on lesser used departures, they are still having a disruptive impact on the travelling public. Halifax Transit has also postponed all but one of the route changes planned for later this year under the Moving Forward Together Plan.
Despite these challenges, with high gas prices and a continuing return to more aspects of pre-pandemic life, transit agencies throughout the region have been seeing ridership return. Metrobus in St. John’s, NL reported record rider numbers in June, and Greater Moncton’s Codiac Transpo is seeing the same trend as well. Operations manager Alex Grncarovski attributes the upswing to several factors, including the return of many people to their normal workplace, and the high price of gasoline being an incentive to leave cars at home. More frequent service on most routes is also no doubt a contributing factor.
Codiac is also exploring the possibilities for bus electrification, with a study expected to be completed by early 2023. The consultants will determine what’s needed in the way of infrastructure, and identify next steps to get to that point. In the meantime the agency is also having suppliers bring their buses to Moncton for evaluation, including a vehicle that St. John’s is considering for purchase. “Exciting times,” Mr. Grncarovski says.
Back in Halifax, a long-anticipated electronic fare payment system is finally on the way, with a tender out for a mobile fare payment system that could be in place in a few months time. The first phase will involve a mobile app that passengers can use to pay fares and display proof of payment to the driver on boarding. Later phases will move to a more comprehensive electronic fare system, allowing tap card payments on the bus.
TRANSPORT ACTION CANADA LAUNCHES CANADA-WIDE MOTORCOACH SURVEY
Transport Action Canada is inviting Canadians to participate in a research project regarding the public transport needs of Canadians and the state of motorcoach services in Canada following the demise of Greyhound and the impact of the pandemic on Canadian motorcoach operators.
Please take a few minutes to fill out the survey with the information you feel comfortable sharing about your use of motorcoach services, and share this with others across your networks who may also be interested in sharing their views.
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 email@example.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. As always, our AGM is open to the general public and the media.