Transportation and COVID-19 – an Atlantic Canada update as of June 1, 2020

Atlantic Canada continues to fare better than the rest of Canada under the COVID-19 emergency, with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador showing a significantly improving public health picture over the past month. New Brunswick, unfortunately, suffered a setback in the Campbellton area late in May, and at month end was reporting a total of 12 active cases, out of a total of 30 in the four provinces. The Atlantic premiers remain focused on keeping the infection away from the region, and rigid travel restrictions remain in effect. The tourism outlook for 2020 is bleak indeed.

The only interprovincial travel now available in the region (other than private auto and a single daily Q-400 return flight between Halifax and St.John’s) is the tri-weekly service still being maintained by a struggling Maritime Bus on all its major routes. While the company is clearly hurting, owner Mike Cassidy remains optimistic about its post-pandemic future:

Perhaps taking a cue from the tight provincial border controls, VIA Rail announced on May 6 that its Ocean service would remain suspended until at least November 1. Beyond some vague references to using the hiatus as an opportunity to upgrade the aging HEP-1 stainless steel long distance equipment, VIA offered no real explanation as to why they were going so much farther than any other passenger carriers, and cancelling service nearly six months into the uncharted future.

https://media.viarail.ca/index.php/en/press-releases/2020/rail-extends-suspension-canadien-and-ocean

When it does return, the train will apparently be very different than before. In a written statement responding to an enquiry from the Moncton Times &Transcript on May 26, the Crown corporation said it was “pleased to announce an operational plan that will allow to continue operating the Ocean without access to the Halterm rail loop.” Pressed for further details, VIA declined to answer any of the newspaper’s questions. Neither has the company had any apparent engagement on the issue with provincial governments or the municipalities it serves. It is evident, however, that the product will be further downgraded from the already inadequate service offered at the time of the abrupt shutdown on March 13.

Meanwhile, public transit in the region’s larger urban centres continues to struggle, while remaining operational on a limited basis. Expenses have not fallen in proportion to the greatly reduced ridership, and of course many systems are suffering a further revenue shortfall because they are unable to collect fares from their few remaining riders. Transport Action Atlantic has urged the mayors of all cities and towns in the region that operate public transit to get behind the campaign for federal funding to ensure survival and recovery of these systems in the post-COVID era.

As the COVID restrictions gradually ease in Halifax, capacity on city buses was increased as of May 30 by once again allowing passengers to stand. A maximum of five standees are now permitted on conventional buses, at any given time. Standing passengers are asked to monitor physical distancing and should avoid positioning themselves immediately next to seated passengers or other standing passengers. Alternating seats will continue to be blocked off with appropriate signage. Mask usage is encouraged, and those who are feeling ill are warned not to use any transit service until their health returns to normal. Buses and ferries continue to operate on a reduced schedule, and fare collection remains suspended until further notice. The head of the transit workers union, meanwhile, warned that it could take up to two weeks to restore a full schedule.

https://www.halifaxtoday.ca/local-news/public-transit-will-not-be-a-back-at-full-strength-by-june-5-2392144

In St. John’s, Metrobus Transit reports ridership was down close to 85 percent in the first quarter of 2020. The “Snowmageddon” blizzard in January was a contributing factor, but COVID-19 had the most drastic effect, according to a May 28 story in the Telegram, resulting in an increased subsidy requirement of nearly a quarter million dollars for the three-month period.

https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/metrobus-ridership-down-85-per-cent-during-pandemic-454712/

Marine Atlantic’s constitutionally-mandated ferries between North Sydney and Port aux Basques have continued to maintain twice-daily departures throughout the pandemic emergency, with enhanced measures introduced to protect the health of passengers and crew. Initially maximum passenger limits of 250 per sailing were imposed to facilitate social distancing, but this has been subsequently reduced to 100 per departure. Meanwhile, the seasonal Argentia ferry, which is heavily dependent on tourism traffic, has been cancelled for the entire 2020 season. The other seasonal federally-funded “constitutional alternative” ferry service, between Nova Scotia and PEI is now operational – but only for large commercial trucks and their drivers. Bay Ferries Saint John-Digby vessel is continuing to offer one daily round trip, again with limits on maximum passengers permitted. And, the restart of the troubled “Cat” service between Yarmouth NS and Bar Harbor, Maine, has been postponed to mid-July at the earliest, and probably won’t run at all in 2020 if the US-Canada border remains closed.

Air access remains very limited, but so is demand. With continuing border restrictions imposed by all four Atlantic provinces, it appears that there is little difficulty maintaining social distancing even on infrequent flights by smaller aircraft. Some regional airports are showing only two or three flights a week on their departure boards, while Saint John is shut down completely. The normally-bustling Halifax Stanfield terminal was showing just seven flights a day at the end of May, with St. John’s likewise hosting just a handful of landings. Among the smaller terminals, Fredericton appears to have the most frequent service, with two daily Air Canada departures to Montreal and tri-weekly WestJet flights to Toronto. Air Canada is tentatively planning to ramp up its service at a number of locations effective June 22. Many of WestJet’s domestic routes are suspended through July 4, and Porter Airlines has extended its complete shutdown to July 28. It remains to be seen what demand will be like as we move into summer, and how long it might take for travel to again become an attractive proposition.

The deepening concerns about air transportation in the post-COVID era have prompted revival of the long-standing suggestion of a single, centrally located airport for New Brunswick. The concept appears be gaining some traction, drawing the surprising comment from one airport CEO that it just might have some merit. At least one respected columnist has endorsed the idea, with the caveat that high speed rail linking the cities of Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton must be part of the package. We’re not holding our breath on that one!

For updates on public transportation issues across the country, check out the latest newsletter from our national affiliate, Transport Action Canada:

https://myemail.constantcontact.com/-Transport-Action–June-Newsletter—Standing-up-for-transit–inter-city-rail-and-motor-coach-services.html?soid=1126215294753&aid=2a7kLan7_qs

Election 2019 – Ideas in Motion – A convenient, affordable, and sustainable transportation agenda

As polling day for the 2019 federal election draws ever closer, it’s increasingly apparent that climate change and the factors that influence it are becoming key issues for voters. Transportation is acknowledged to be a major contributor to greenhouse gases, and the opportunity has never been better for Transport Action’s sustainable transportation agenda to make its presence felt as Canadians go to the polls. Not to mention convenience and affordability!

Our national board has prepared a series of policy briefings for distribution to parties and candidates during the campaign. Transport Action Atlantic has been instrumental in three of these documents on matters specific to our region. We’ve also contributed to several others that have nation-wide implications, including intercity motorcoach services and long-haul passenger rail.

TAA is an all-volunteer, non-partisan advocacy organization. Our goal is to promote convenient, affordable and sustainable public transportation for all Atlantic Canadians. During the current federal campaign we believe it is important – and reasonable – to ask candidates of all political persuasion where they stand on these issues.

We are pleased to present these policy briefings, under the common theme Ideas in Motion. We encourage you to read and discuss them. If you agree with us that they deserve priority attention among campaign issues critical to Atlantic Canada and its future, please share them and encourage others to join the cause as well. Don’t miss this opportunity!

The three policy briefings focused on Atlantic Canada are published in their entirety below, and you can find a link to the national items at the bottom of the page. You can open or download any of these briefings as a PDF using the links below each item, so you can save, print and share them as you wish!

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A vision for renewed VIA Rail service in the Maritimes

(Photo – Tim Hayman)

Passenger rail in Atlantic Canada today is a sorry remnant of what it used to be. For the past three decades it has been declining at a more precipitous rate than elsewhere in the VIA Rail system. In fact, portions of the Quebec City-Windsor corridor have, in recent years, seen significant improvement in both frequency and capacity.

The most recent setback for VIA’s Maritime service came in October 2012, when the frequency of the region’s sole remaining train was cut to just three times weekly, under the guise of being an “improvement” to better meet the public demand. VIA’s then-CEO was insistent that the Ocean was primarily a tourism product – completely ignoring the realities of local needs and travel patterns. The train has suffered significant ridership losses and increasing operating costs since the cutback. VIA is now paying more to operate fewer trains, and its most recent corporate plan acknowledges that passengers in the Maritimes are being poorly served by the current schedule.

The tri-weekly operation eliminated the possibility of same-day returns to the Maritimes from Montreal, and one-day round trips to Moncton for residents of New Brunswick’s North Shore – an important consideration for people who have few other public transportation options. The lack of frequency also rules out rail as a choice for weekend travel, and it limits its usefulness when severe winter conditions make other forms of transportation unreliable or impossible.

Frequency and reliability are key components to making passenger rail service viable. Transport Action Atlantic believes that a daily Ocean with equipment appropriate to meet market demand at different times of the year would be the most effective way to serve communities all along the route, as well to provide a quality seasonal tourism product.

The 2018 federal budget allocated funding for VIA to replace its entire Quebec City-Windsor corridor fleet, and an order for new trains has been placed with Siemens. This is an important step, but VIA’s long distance equipment used on trains outside the Corridor is aging and in urgent need of replacement.  A refurbishment program is underway for much of this stainless steel “Heritage Fleet” – some of which is more than 70 years old and has already been rebuilt several times. But there is concern that this is not sufficient as a long-term solution. The British-built Renaissance equipment currently used on the Ocean is nearing the end of its service life, and when it is removed there will likely not be sufficient capacity to meet peak season demand. The time has come to place priority on investigating options for new long distance rolling stock.

Extensive market research should guide both the acquisition of new passenger cars and refurbishment of the existing fleet. A variety of accommodation and onboard amenities should be available to accommodate various travel budgets, including an enhanced economy service for those willing to pay extra for additional comfort and personal space without the luxury pricing of sleeper class. Simply put, the product should meet the needs of the marketplace.

There is also the issue of track infrastructure. The total Montreal-Halifax travel time for the Ocean today is longer than it was in the era of steam locomotives – largely due to the deteriorated condition of CN’s Newcastle Subdivision in northern New Brunswick. Passenger train speed is limited to just 30 miles per hour on a lengthy stretch of track where 70 mph was safely permitted less than 20 years ago. Federal investment several years ago was meant to improve the track, but the money has been spent and speeds have not been restored. Furthermore, there are frequent delays due to reduced siding capacity, particularly between Moncton and Halifax. Clearly, more investment is required, but in so doing the infrastructure owner needs to be held to account to ensure the outcome meets the intended objectives.

Canada does not end at Quebec City! Canadians outside of the corridor also deserve investment in modern passenger rail equipment and services.

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Open the PDF to share this VIA Rail briefing, or click the button below to download.

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Cape Breton needs rail service

(Photo – Tim Hayman)

The potential for restoration of rail freight service to Cape Breton Island remains strong – and the Government of Canada has an obligation to shoulder its share of responsibility.  Nearly five years after the last freight train ran over the 96-mile section of the former CN Sydney Subdivision, the Province of Nova Scotia continues to pay the current owner of the line, US-based Genesee and Wyoming Corporation, a monthly allowance of up to $60,000. This covers such expenses as salaries, insurance, security and building maintenance directly attributed to the line between St. Peter’s Junction and Sydney, in return for which G&W will not apply to remove the track.

Recent indications are that the provincial government is not planning to renew this arrangement beyond the current fiscal year – unless there’s substantial progress toward a proposed marine container terminal in the Sydney area. But there’s so much more to consider than just the international shipping business.

Originally built at taxpayer expense, this rail line was a public asset for over 100 years, and when Crown-owned CN turned it over to the initial private operator in 1993, its then-CEO gave assurance in writing to the premier of Nova Scotia assuring continuing rail service in the event the new arrangement didn’t work out. The subsequent privatization of CN did not simply make that commitment go away. If it’s no longer an obligation of the railway company, then the Government of Canada must accept responsibility for a commitment made by the Crown corporation’s CEO on its behalf.

The traffic that previously moved on the railway has been forced to use an inadequate highway system, with serious environmental and safety implications, not to mention the maintenance burden placed on the Province as a result of damage to infrastructure caused by heavy transport trucks. The Nova Scotia government also faces growing pressure for extremely expensive highway twinning – at far greater cost than the modest investment required to place the rail line back in service.

It is Transport Action Atlantic’s position that the federal government should begin by reacquiring the line for net salvage value, and turn it over to the Province with a commitment from the New Canada Building Fund sufficient to restore it to Class 3 condition. Nova Scotia would then engage a willing and competent operator. A further infrastructure investment in several small intermodal facilities at strategic locations would enable traffic to both Cape Breton and western Newfoundland to be transported by rail in a more environmentally sustainable manner, while substantially reducing the maintenance burden on highway infrastructure and enhancing road safety.

Preserving the rail line could also allow the possibility of re-establishing passenger rail to Cape Breton at some point in the future. The Halifax-Sydney route operated by VIA Rail prior to 1990 was a well-patronized service, and could be a part of a policy to expand passenger rail across the country. Such an initiative would be fundamentally limited to areas where tracks still exist. 

Governments do not need to be in the business of operating railways, but they should be establishing policies and making financial commitments that encourage more – not less – of Canada’s commercial traffic to move by rail. ______________________________________________________________________________

Open the PDF to share this Cape Breton Rail briefing, or click the button below to download.

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Affordable Newfoundland ferry rates – a constitutional commitment

It’s now been 70 years since Newfoundland and Labrador became Canada’s tenth province, completing Confederation from sea to sea. Transportation was a key concern for the people who designed the Terms of Union – and cost was an essential factor. Accordingly, Term 32 obligated Canada to provide a federally-supported ferry service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques, and provided assurance against the higher cost of living resulting from geography.  Specifically, framed in conformity with the dominant transportation mode of the day, the 100-nautical-mile crossing of the Cabot Strait was to be rated as an all-rail movement. The additional handling and operational costs of the ferry service were to be absorbed by the Government of Canada through Crown-owned Canadian National Railways.

Much has changed in the intervening years. The narrow-gauge Newfoundland rail line was abandoned in 1988; the railway passenger service on the island had been discontinued two decades previously. Traffic on the “constitutional” ferry route is now all highway-based.  But the basic principle of Term 32 remains. While road has replaced rail, the ferry service operated by the federal Crown corporation Marine Atlantic Inc. (MAI) must be viewed in the contemporary sense as an extension of the Trans Canada Highway. If the spirit in which the Terms of Union were drafted is to be respected, vehicles crossing the Cabot Strait should be charged no more than the cost of driving them 180 kilometres by highway. Arguably, there should be no charges for commercial drivers or the occupants of passenger vehicles. It is significant that these additional costs do not apply to users of the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island, which is also a constitutional obligation of the Government of Canada.

Over time, the best intentions of the latter-day Fathers of Confederation have been eroded. In the past two decades Marine Atlantic’s rates have more than doubled – an increase greater than three times the national inflation rate. Security fees and fuel surcharges have also been added. Notably, there are no such additional costs to users of the Confederation Bridge, where tolls are tied to the cost of living index.

Under the previous Conservative government, Transport Canada imposed a cost recovery target of 65% on MAI. This has remained unchanged under the current Liberal administration – despite a campaign commitment in 2015 that termed the existing cost recovery requirement as “unreasonable” and pledged to address it if elected. It’s a promise that has not been fulfilled, and ferry rates have continued to rise in excess of the inflation rate.

Transport Action Atlantic believes the spirit of the Terms of Union that made Newfoundland and Labrador a part of Canada should be respected, and that Term 32 must be viewed in a modernized context. The ferry crossing of the Cabot Strait is part of the Trans Canada Highway, and should cost users no more than driving the equivalent distance by road. This is an obligation assumed by the Government of Canada in 1949, and remains as valid today as it did then – notwithstanding the passage of time and changes in transportation technology. A recent recommendation by the House of Commons Transportation Committee to further study the concept of an undersea tunnel crossing of the Strait of Belle Isle should not be used as reason to delay addressing the ferry rate issue. Even if a “fixed crossing” between Newfoundland and the mainland is demonstrated to be feasible, its construction would lie many years in the future. Today’s ferry rates, by the Prime Minister’s own admission, are much higher than they should be – and immediate action is required.   ______________________________________________________________________________

Open the PDF to share this Newfoundland Ferry Rates briefing, or click the button below to download.

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National Policy Briefings

In addition to these three regional policy briefings, Transport Action Canada and Transport Action Ontario have developed briefings on several other items – policy support for VIA Rail, rebuilding a national bus network, and Southwestern Ontario rail and bus.

You can view and download any of these briefings, along with the Atlantic items, from the Transport Action Canada POLICY BRIEFINGS website.

Marine Atlantic cost recovery reaches 70% – Corporation holds annual public meeting

Marine Atlantic’s customer satisfaction levels and on-time performance continue to improve – but the cost recovery targets demanded by Transport Canada continue to soar.

Marine Atlantic’s customer satisfaction rates increased to 77 per cent during the 12-month period ending March 31, 2017, and on-time performance rates improved to 91 per cent.  The vessel reliability rate stood at 99 per cent, and the Newfoundland ferry service recorded its second consecutive year of growth, the first back-to-back passenger increases in almost two decades.

There was quite a bit of good news to report as the Crown corporation held its annual public meeting in St. John’s on November 6.  However, there was one very sobering statistic presented by board chair Kris Parsons and CEO Paul Griffin.  During the last fiscal year, Marine Atlantic achieved a record 70 per cent cost recovery, “falling within the targeted range as directed by the Government of Canada.”  It generated $111.7 million in revenue, while the service cost $209.4 million to operate. The federal subsidy for the year was $94 million.

The cost recovery ratio has risen steadily over the past two decades, climbing from approximately 45 per cent in the late 1990s.  During that period, user rates have soared at triple the national inflation rate – in sharp contrast to tolls on PEI’s Confederation Bridge, which are tied to the cost-of-living index.

During the last federal election campaign, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau publicly lambasted the Harper Tories for their fixation on cost recovery for the ferry service, and promised that a Liberal government would address the issue.  They haven’t:  Since the election there have been two rate increases at Marine Atlantic – both well in excess of the cost-of-living index.  A third is anticipated for 2018, although it had not been announced as of this writing.

 

– Ted Bartlett