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.
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.
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.
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:
It’s a whole new world out there! “Physical distancing” (perhaps more appropriate terminology than the initially popularized “social distancing” response to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic) has burst upon public transportation as an unprecedented challenge. Actions by governments and by carriers are in a state of continuous evolution, here in Atlantic Canada and around the world. Here’s an overview of what’s happening in our region – believed to be accurate at time of writing (04 April), but subject, of course to change.
On March 28 the Government of Canada issued a total prohibition on intercity or interprovincial travel by air or rail for anyone exhibiting symptoms consistent with the virus. The ban does not apply to motorcoach transportation, as it is not subject to federal jurisdiction.
In Atlantic Canada, the region’s three largest urban centres were keeping public transit operational, albeit on a reduced scale, in order to enable essential service employees to get to work. Halifax Transit, Metrobus in St. John’s, and Moncton’s Codiac Transpo were all taking special precautions to maximize the safety of both operators and passengers. These included accelerated sanitizing procedures, greatly reducing the number of riders allowed on buses, and requiring boarding by the rear doors to avoid close proximity to drivers (which generally made fare collection impossible). All three systems were scaling back on frequency and operating hours, resulting in some concerns about their being able to meet the essential needs of those dependent on public transit, while still maintaining physical distancing. In Halifax, the union representing drivers was raising alarm bells about the health and safety of its members – something that apparently didn’t surface to the same degree anywhere else. Those concerns intensified when a maintenance employee at the Burnside transit garage was diagnosed with the virus, but apart from a brief disruption for deep cleaning at the facility there was no evident long-term effect on service levels.
Three other transit systems – Saint John, Fredericton and Cape Breton – were also maintaining a limited schedule as of this writing.
Air travel presents some the greatest challenges to physical distancing, not only because of the very confined space in the cabin, but also because of security and boarding procedures. With many flights cancelled, the inevitable outcome was often a higher passenger density on those that were operational. In one representative anecdote noted on Twitter, CBC journalist Chris O’Neill-Yates, on her way home to St. John’s from Toronto after a tour of duty in the national newsroom, saw no evidence of even the slightest attempt at physical distancing aboard her Air Canada flight on the evening of March 27. “It’s as if life is completely normal. And guy next to me is coughing up a storm. Going to be a long three hours,” she tweeted.
Frequencies at all Atlantic Canadian airports are greatly reduced, as the public in general complies with the plea to avoid all non-essential travel – and some, such as Saint John and Sydney, have effectively been entirely shut down. Air Canada has suspended all its direct flights between Toronto and Moncton, Fredericton, Saint John and Charlottetown until the end of April at the earliest. WestJet is down to once a day service to Toronto from Moncton and Fredericton. Porter Airlines, which normally provides only limited service to Atlantic Canada in winter and early spring, announced a total shutdown of its network until June 1. Meanwhile, airport authorities have introduced a variety of extra health and safety measures, with many requesting that all non-travellers refrain from entering terminal buildings.
Marine Atlantic also introduced enhanced health and safety precautions on its ferry service to and from Newfoundland, and moved to facilitate physical distancing by limiting the number of passengers per sailing to 250. Effective April 1, this limit was further tightened to just 100 per departure. Furthermore, enhanced screening measures were introduced denying passage to anyone exhibiting potential signs of COVID-19 (fever, cough, difficulty breathing, or sore throat), and restaurant service was being discontinued on board. (A pre-packaged box lunch will be provided to all customers.) The Crown corporation says “these measures are being introduced to allow us to meet our guiding principles of protecting the health and safety of customers and employees, while maintaining our essential ferry link.”
Maritime Bus reduced frequency on its intercity routes in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, and has temporarily discontinued connecting service to points west. The company has reduced maximum capacity on its coaches by 50%, and stepped up sanitizing procedures. A further downsizing was announced effective 30 March, with all routes reduced to a tri-weekly operation (Monday, Wednesday and Friday only) until further notice. Meanwhile, DRL Coachlines, which normally provides daily service along the Trans Canada Highway in Newfoundland, suspended service completely as of March 25.
The mode of public transportation that arguably offers the best opportunity for physical distancing is not currently an option in Atlantic Canada. Moving with what appeared to be undue haste, VIA Rail abruptly shut down its tri-weekly Ocean service between Montreal and Halifax on March 13 until at least the end of April. Ontario originating passengers for train 14 would have already been aboard connecting trains to Montreal when the decision was announced on less than three hours notice. The corporation evidently felt it was not necessary to give its customers reasonable advance notice of the service suspension as other carriers have consistently done – a courtesy that VIA itself extended to customers in the corridor when it found it necessary to reduce frequency. The abruptness of the suspension was all the more surprising given that there was but one reported case of COVID-19 in the entire Atlantic region at the time.
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!
A vision for renewed VIA Rail service in the Maritimes
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
does not end at Quebec City! Canadians outside of the corridor also deserve
investment in modern passenger rail equipment and services.
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.
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.
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
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.
Affordable Newfoundland ferry rates – a constitutional commitment
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
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.
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.
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.
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.