Atlantic Transport News – October 2021

Welcome to the October edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

A NEW LIBERAL CHAMPION FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION?

Newly re-elected Fredericton MP Jenica Atwin says she’s really passionate about climate-friendly transportation, and isn’t shy about saying she’s like to be invited to join the Trudeau Cabinet. She told the Daily Gleaner recently she’d love to be minister of transport. PHOTO – John Chilibeck, Brunswick News

It’s most unusual after an election for MPs on the government side to comment on any hopes they might have for a cabinet post. Even those who may have good reason to anticipate a call from the PMO would normally be reluctant to talk about it to anyone – much less the media. But Jenica Atwin, who narrowly pulled off a second electoral victory in Fredericton after switching sides from the Green Party to the Liberals, has never been shy about speaking her mind. In an interview with the Daily Gleaner just days after tabulation of mail-in ballots confirmed her win, she made her aspirations abundantly clear.

When asked by journalist John Chilibeck, she did not hesitate. “I would love the post of status of women, or families and housing,” she said, adding that she has a lot of concerns about the environment and transportation, and her desire to upgrade Canada’s rail system is one reason she’d jump at the opportunity to be transport minister. Whether Ms. Atwin was promised a reward for switching her allegiance we may never know, but some political pundits are suggesting that just might be the case.

Significantly, she made it clear in the Gleaner interview that she hasn’t lost any of her enthusiasm for passenger rail – despite being silent on the subject since joining the Liberals. She said that she plans to take the train to Ottawa for her swearing in ceremony expected sometime in November, just as she did after being first elected in 2019. This time she thinks that instead of driving to Moncton to catch the train she may drive to Rivière-du-Loup to avoid the snail’s pace rail journey through northern New Brunswick, even though it will not get her to Parliament Hill any earlier, and would mean boarding in dead of night.

In any event, it would seem there may now be a strong and effective voice for sustainable transportation within the Atlantic Liberal caucus. Ms. Atwin says she’s really passionate about high-speed rail and electrifying bus fleets around the country. While it may be questionable whether high-speed rail would be practical in this thinly-populated region, a return to the much faster and more frequent schedules of 25 years ago would by itself represent significant progress.

“I think that’s the way we go after greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s the way we transform our cities to be more accessible to people,” she said. “I think it’s one we don’t (see as) having a big impact on the environment, but I absolutely know it does.”

-Ted Bartlett

NOVA SCOTIA SET TO COMPLETELY ABOLISH HIGHWAY TOLLS

The minister responsible for transportation in Nova Scotia’s new PC government has apparently been mandated to fast-track the complete abolition of tolls on the Cobequid Pass highway – a step well beyond what the previous Liberal government had promised to do if it was re-elected. PHOTO – cobequidpass.com

Nova Scotia’s only toll highway is apparently going to be free of charge to all users in the near future. The 45-kilometre Cobequid Pass section of Highway 104 between Oxford and Masstown has had a toll plaza since it was completed as a public-private partnership in 1997. Passenger autos are currently charged $4.00, while commercial and other vehicles pay based on the number of axles.

In this year’s provincial election campaign, the Liberals dusted off an earlier unfulfilled promise to grant free passage to passenger autos bearing Nova Scotia licence plates. But the victorious PC government of Premier Tim Houston is evidently planning to go much farther.

The mandate letter to Public Works Minister Kim Masland reads, in part “As Minister of Public Works, you will…remove the tolls on the Cobequid Pass, starting the process immediately.”

No definite timeline for actual closing and removal of the toll booths has been spelled out, but the announcement will undoubtedly come as good news for the commercial trucking industry, which has continually maintained that the Trans Canada Highway should be completely free to all users. It will not be so welcome to advocates for sustainable transportation, who hold the view that those who use the roads – and particularly vehicles that account for the major portion of maintenance costs – should pay a larger share than is currently collected through fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees. 

NO IMMEDIATE EFFECTS ON TRANSPORTATION AS  4th COVID WAVE HITS REGION

Most transit agencies are now back to full occupancy, despite the uptick in COVID cases, but obligatory masking by all passengers is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

Public health authorities say it was not unexpected, but the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit Atlantic Canada with a vengeance in September, and rising case numbers continued as the calendar turned into October. The rapidly growing active caseload in New Brunswick was particularly alarming, with the Province acting quickly to reinstate certain restrictions that had been lifted at the end of July. In a late-breaking development, a 14-day “circuit-breaker” set of restrictions has been imposed, effective at the start of the Thanksgiving weekend.

Also on the increase was the percentage of the region’s population that was fully vaccinated, which might help explain why there did not appear to be any immediate significant impact on the numbers of people using public transportation so far during this fourth wave. Despite its concerns, the NB government hasn’t imposed any occupancy limitations on public transit, and that decision came as a great relief to Greater Moncton’s Codiac Transpo.

“That would have been devastating for us, as we have shown a steady increase in our ridership numbers,” said operations manager Alex Grncarovski. He added that a slight decrease was noticed when the mask mandate was reintroduced, but it wasn’t really a serious concern. The effect of New Brunswick’s new round of restrictions announced on October 5 remains to be seen.

Essentially everywhere in the region, masking is compulsory for transit riders, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Intercity busing tells a similar story. A snapshot from Maritime Bus shows 380 tickets were sold on Friday, October 1 – down slightly from 420 a week earlier. Owner Mike Cassidy sees that as encouraging given the circumstances, but adds that there’s a long road to travel to get the company back to where it was pre-pandemic. On a typical Friday in the fall of 2019 the norm would be about 650 passengers. Again, the effect of Thanksgiving weekend restrictions. which apply to all of New Brunswick, are still an unknown. Mr. Cassidy says these are very challenging times for the bus business, but his strategy is to stay in the marketplace, because people still need to travel, and time-sensitive packages need to be delivered.

An early October departures board at St. John’s airport shows an increasing number of flights, but there’s still a long way to go on the runway to recovery. Masks of course are still required, and the terminal remains off-limits to non travellers. PHOTO – St. John’s Airport Authority

Meanwhile, air travel is also seeing the effects of the fourth wave. Janine Brown, director of business development for PAL Airlines, says they are certainly seeing the impact of the rising case numbers, and will continue to monitor demand. But for the time being, at least, there are no changes in the growing airline’s new services linking St. John’s and Deer Lake with Moncton, Fredericton and Ottawa.

At St. John’s International Airport, passenger numbers for August 2021 were three times what they were a year earlier, reaching an inbound and outbound total of 85,221. But that’s still a long way from the pre-pandemic level of 179,784 in August of 2019. Spokesperson Laura Thomas says they don’t yet have sufficient data to identify possible effects of the rising case numbers, but adds that COVID can change things on a dime and the airport is learning to adapt. 

“We still anticipate a peak in Christmas travel and are cautiously optimistic that air service will continue to recover,” she said. “We are working closely with our airline partners and airport stakeholders to navigate any and all challenges.”

CAMPOBELLO SEASONAL FERRY EXTENDED AGAIN, BUT NO LONG-TERM FIX IN SIGHT

The seasonal ferry that plies between Campobello and Deer Island will continue to run until at least the end of October, but island residents are still denied basic transportation access that is taken for granted by almost all other Canadian citizens. PHOTO – Justin Tinker

The 800 residents of New Brunswick’s Campobello Island are still no closer to a permanent solution for their long-term transportation challenges, despite an ongoing campaign that has drawn support from all corners of the political spectrum and attracted a fair share of national media attention. The island’s only year-round link to the rest of Canada involves using an international bridge to Lubec, Maine and two international border crossings – which have been effectively closed since the arrival of COVID-19.

The seasonal ferry to Deer Island NB continued to run during the past fall, winter and spring, and the provincial government is still footing the bill for extended operation until at least the end of October. But it remains a tenuous connection, by a vessel that was only designed for summer operating conditions, and the Province has made it pretty clear that this is just an interim measure that will end once the border reopens. The island will then once again be subject to the not-so-tender mercies of the US Homeland Security authorities – an obstacle which makes it a huge challenge for residents to access services other Canadians take for granted.

The federal and provincial governments don’t appear to be even discussing the issue, although it seems clear that this should be a shared responsibility. While the feds continue to look the other way, the Province is digging in its heels. In a recent interview with the Globe and Mail, NB Transportation Minister Jill Green showed scant sympathy for the islanders’ plight, insisting that they do have year-round transportation to the rest of Canada, even though it runs through another country.

“They actually have a linkage, they have a bridge,” Ms. Green told the newspaper. “The residents there have been very good at expressing their concerns … But I don’t have enough funds to take care of all things for all New Brunswickers, so I have to make some difficult decisions.”

Latest efforts in the campaign take the shape of a constitutional challenge, focused on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Sections 7-10 (regarding freedom of the person and protection against unreasonable search, seizure, forfeiture and arbitrary detention), in hopes that the federal government will provide year-round Canadian access as a response to these rights being routinely violated.

-with files from Justin Tinker

NL PROVINCIAL FERRY ACQUISITION PANNED BY AUDITOR GENERAL

The acquisition of the local ferries MV Veteran and MV Legionnaire was badly mismanaged by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, according to a report by the Province’s auditor-general. PHOTO – NL Government

The process of purchasing two new vessels for Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial ferry fleet has been handed a failing grade by Auditor General Denise Hanrahan. The audit began three years ago at the request of the Legislature’s public accounts committee, and was prompted not only by the acquisition of MV Veteran and MV Legionnaire, but by the two ships’ troubled performance record once they entered service beginning in 2015.

The just-released report blamed mismanagement by the Transportation department for “significant operational delays, service disruptions and substantial unplanned costs during the construction, operationalization and initial operations of the vessels.” The two ships were built in Romania, and the project cost taxpayers about $120 million, including terminal upgrades. They currently serve on the Bell Island and Fogo-Change Islands routes.

The report said there was a lack of proper oversight in both the construction of the two vessels, and the provision of appropriate docking facilities for their operation. It suggested too much reliance was placed on shipyard progress reports, rather than completing internal project management reviews. There were also problems identified with the adequacy of personnel training for the sophisticated new ships. The two ferries were out of service because of technical issues for a combined total of 607 days in their first three years, and equipment failures and vessel damages resulted in unplanned costs of about $4.2 million.

The report’s recommendations include the establishment of a project management process for all future fleet acquisitions, with attention paid to risk management, onsite supervision, document management and training. For its part, the department acknowledged that there were significant shortcomings in the project in question, but said that a new public procurement framework was already in place. The official response, included in the report, insisted it was “committed to continuous improvement in this area.”

Atlantic Transport News – September 2021

Welcome to the September edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

SCANT ATTENTION TO TRANSPORTATION IN FEDERAL CAMPAIGN

The 2021 federal election campaign that supposedly nobody wanted is in the home stretch, but there’s so far been very little mention of transportation issues – much to TAA’s disappointment. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

OUR TAKE ON THE FEDERAL ELECTION TO DATE

Transport Action Atlantic is a strictly non-partisan advocacy organization, but we do not hesitate to get involved in politics when the need or opportunity arises. This election is no exception.

Apart from the highly dubious need for a national vote at this time, it has been an incredibly short campaign. The electorate has had little time to examine and/or challenge the hastily prepared party platforms. TAA has therefore had limited opportunity to confront parties and candidates on the issues we believe to be important – matters of convenient, affordable and sustainable public transportation for Atlantic Canadians. Be that as it may, it is certainly disheartening that neither of the three major parties has so far been paying much – or any – attention to our agenda.

In the final week of the campaign we are attempting to stimulate some critical thinking, focusing particularly on certain closely-contested ridings where transportation issues just might make a difference on polling day. The matters where the federal government has jurisdiction or influence that are of ongoing concern to TAA are well-known to most of our readers:

  • The sorry state of passenger rail in the Maritimes, and the gross neglect of our one remaining train by both VIA Rail management and their masters – the Government of Canada.
  • The excessive cost recovery demands placed on Marine Atlantic’s Newfoundland ferry service – demands that Justin Trudeau referred to as “unreasonable” while in opposition.
  • The federal government’s refusal to honour a written commitment to continuing rail service for Cape Breton made on its behalf three decades ago by the head of then Crown corporation CN.
  • Ottawa’s reluctance to take leadership in rebuilding an integrated coast-to-coast motorcoach network for passengers and packages, and to assist existing operators through the pandemic.
  • The absence of a commitment to the people of Campobello Island who must travel through the US for most of the year to access the Canadian services to which they are entitled. 

Given that transportation is a major contributor to climate change because of carbon emissions, one might reasonably expect strong commitments to green transportation to be popping up like election signs. But that has not been the case. It’s almost as if the parties and candidates generally are consciously avoiding the subject. Perhaps, though, they sense that green initiatives don’t build the same kind of political capital as public spending to support the big climate culprits – highway and air transportation. 

In the past several months, Ottawa has paid out well over $50 million to airports across Atlantic Canada to help offset their pandemic-related losses. At the same time, the two line-haul motorcoach companies in the region, Maritime Bus and DRL Coachlines, have come up empty-handed. Collectively these two for-profit operators have lost millions over the past 18 months, but are being told by the federal government that the newly-created Rural Transit Fund is not intended for them. The fact that the privately-owned buses kept providing essential public transportation services for both people and parcels through most of the pandemic while operating at a substantial loss doesn’t seem to matter.

“Everybody’s green – but they’re not sorting the garbage properly!” was the wry comment from Maritime Bus founder Mike Cassidy, who has become increasingly frustrated in his efforts to gain political support for his industry. Over the past several months he says he’s pursued every possible avenue in search of assistance, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, there’s been no indication of any pandemic funding for VIA Rail in Atlantic Canada. As reported elsewhere in this issue, the Ocean will remain on a token once-a-week schedule until at least November 15 – presumably with the approval of the Crown corporation’s political masters.

The Liberals are steadfastly refusing to address the Marine Atlantic cost recovery requirements imposed by the Harper Conservatives, despite commitments made during the 2015 campaign. Now they apparently only want to talk about a far-fetched proposal to build a tunnel under the Strait of Belle Isle, while ignoring the very real issue of today’s excessive ferry charges. And, surprisingly, the NDP – which championed the ferry rates issue as recently as last spring – has been strangely silent about it during this campaign.

Regardless of the election outcome, the reality is that TAA will need to work with new or re-elected members of the House of Commons of all political persuasions to advance the above agenda items, and others that may arise during the life of the new Parliament. That will be our priority throughout the fall and winter. Hopefully the threat of COVID-19 will wane as vaccination becomes widespread, and the opportunity for more in-person meetings will return.

-Ted Bartlett

RESPONSIBILITY FOR TRANSPORTATION POLICY UNCLEAR FOLLOWING NOVA SCOTIA ELECTION UPSET

Nova Scotia’s new premier has reorganized the structure of the provincial government, but there’s no department with the word “transportation” in its title. (PHOTO from CBC.ca)

Nova Scotia Liberal Premier Iain Rankin gambled and lost by calling a summer pandemic election. On August 17 the Progressive Conservatives under Tim Houston pulled off an upset victory and won a majority mandate. The new government with 18 ministers was sworn in on August 31 – but not one of them carries the word “transportation” in their title.

TAA had been active in the campaign, asking parties and candidates to state their positions on various issues of concern. Unfortunately, the PC party was the only one that did not respond to a pre-election questionnaire, so the views of Premier Houston and his cabinet on such matters as the Cape Breton rail line, public transit, and reducing emissions from transportation remain unclear. In seeking to initiate dialogue with the new administration, there is some uncertainty at this point as to where actual policy responsibility on transportation matters resides in the restructured cabinet.

VIA WALKS BACKWARD ON SERVICE RESTORATION PLAN

Passengers swarm toward the Renaissance cars at the rear of VIA’s westbound Ocean on September 1. The bare-bones once-a-week schedule has now been extended until at least November 15. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

Would-be travellers who were expecting VIA Rail’s Ocean to be back on its usual tri-weekly schedule by early October are in for a big disappointment. The train returned as a bare-bones, once-a-week operation with reduced onboard amenities on August 11, after an absence of nearly 17 months. The plan, according to VIA management sources in mid-July, was to resume the normal pre-COVID schedule at the beginning of October, in the hope that pandemic restrictions would be sufficiently relaxed to permit restoration of the usual onboard food and beverage options by that time.

It was not to be. On September 2 Transport Action Atlantic was advised in an e-mail that the corporation is now intending to continue with just the single weekly trip until at least mid-November – with no promises for after that either. The was no public announcement, but the VIA website was updated shortly afterwards to reflect the change in plan.

The decision was blamed on ongoing COVID concerns. However, TAA says the excuse just doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, coming just days after VIA restored nearly full pre-pandemic service levels in the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City Corridor, where the average daily per-capita count of new cases is far higher than in the Maritimes.  It would appear that there may be other factors at play, and lack of demand certainly doesn’t seem to be one of them. The day before the news broke, the crowd of passengers waiting to board the westbound Ocean at the Moncton station was similar to what one would expect to see at the peak of the Christmas travel season.

It might be a shortage of personnel, or maybe there are equipment challenges. There is only one train set in service at present, and perhaps all that’s VIA has available because their roster of rolling stock overall is in such bad shape. But that one trainset could easily make two round trips a week, or even five over a two-week span on an adjusted schedule. TAA is speculating company management may simply want to minimize their operational and/or payroll costs, without any consideration for the needs of Atlantic Canadians.

“This is just not good enough,” says TAA president Ted Bartlett. “Quite frankly, we are growing rather tired of excuses. Are we expected to believe that the smaller presence of COVID in the Maritimes represents a greater threat to public safety than the much larger per-capita case numbers in Ontario and Quebec?

“Presumably as a Crown corporation VIA would not be shortchanging Atlantic Canadians without the approval of the current federal government – which is rather astounding in the midst of an election campaign. But this cavalier attitude to anything east of Quebec City is unfortunately typical of VIA management and Transport Canada. We really have to make a public issue of it, and would be very interested to hear from election candidates on where they stand with respect to passenger rail in this part of the country.”

TRAVEL INCREASED IN AUGUST – DESPITE COVID CHALLENGES

Concern over rising incidence of COVID infection in New Brunswick caused Nova Scotia to reinstate border checkpoints in late August, slowing vehicle traffic between the two provinces. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

Although dark and ominous clouds remain on the horizon, non-essential travel to, from and within Atlantic Canada showed signs of continuing recovery last month. Active COVID-19 caseloads in all four provinces showed upticks, especially in southeastern New Brunswick – prompting Nova Scotia to require all visitors entering from the west to show proof of vaccination at reinstated border checkpoints. Generally, though, the consensus from the tourism industry was that business in this challenging summer was exceeding expectations.

The travel restrictions continued to present challenges to the motorcoach industry, but even so Maritime Bus reports that ridership climbed to a daily average of 322 in August – considerably higher than had been anticipated, but still a long way from putting the beleaguered company in the black. Rather than add service on Saturdays, they chose to add extra departures on Fridays and Sundays, geared to weekend demand but with the travel needs of students particularly in mind. Apparently it worked, as 541 people bought tickets for Maritime’s coaches on the Friday preceding Labour Day weekend.

The airline industry likewise remains a long way from full recovery.  By early September Halifax Stanfield Airport – the region’s busiest – was handling as many as 7000 passengers on some days. While that was a significant increase from a peak of 4000 at the beginning of August, it was still far behind the pre-pandemic daily average of about 12,000 travellers. The number of daily flights had reached 65 on average, a slight improvement month-to-month but a long way off the average of 200 arrivals and departures per day of two years ago.

Condor Airlines began a shortened twice-weekly seasonal service between YHZ and Frankfurt, Germany, on September 9, marking the first international activity in over 18 months. However, there’s no sign of any other international or trans-border flights returning in the immediate future.

“Air Canada has not announced resumption of any non-stop European routes to/from Halifax Stanfield, and their winter seasonal schedules, which would include sun destinations including Florida, has yet to be published,” reported airport spokesperson Tiffany Chase in an e-mail. She added that WestJet had just announced their intention resume non-stop service between Halifax and Glasgow in spring 2022, but there was apparently no mention of resuming service to Dublin or London Gatwick. Likewise, WestJet service to southern destinations this winter from YHZ has yet to be revealed.

TRANSIT IS ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

PEI’s T3 transit is showing an encouraging recovery in ridership numbers, which are now approaching the point where they were prior to the pandemic. PHOTO – City of Charlottetown

Transit users throughout the region appear to be growing more and more comfortable with the idea of taking the bus, and ridership numbers in most areas are continuing to show improvement. In some communities, schedules have still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, and the rules or recommendations regarding wearing of masks by both passengers and operators vary by location or province.

One system that is showing a strong post-pandemic recovery with very encouraging numbers is Charlottetown’s T3 Transit. On one red-letter day in early September, the number of fares passed the 2800 mark – the highest since the CVID-19 outbreak began. That number – impressive for a small city – compares very favourably with the average ridership of 3000 people per day in September of 2019.

Greater Moncton’s Codiac Transpo is one of the agencies that has still not resumed full service. With about 75% of what existed in early 2020 now being offered, there is still no firm plan in place for complete restoration, and a multi-step phased recovery approach has been adopted.

The tri-communities of Moncton, Riverview and Dieppe are now seeking the input of transit users to help guide their decision making. An online survey has been launched, and residents have until September 18 to submit their views.

Transit union spokesman Sheldon Phaneuf says asking the passengers for their views on how the system could be improved is a great idea – but he questions whether an online survey can fully cover the demographic that regularly rides the buses. He suggests that a grass-roots approach of meeting people face-to-face to get their opinions might be more effective.

MARINE ATLANTIC FERRY PLAN HITS ROUGH SEAS

The massive state-owned and highly-subsidized Jinling Shipyard in China has been tapped to build Marine Atlantic’s new ferry. The news has touched off a bit of a political firestorm. (Internet file image from ESL Shipping)

At first glance it seemed like a win-win situation, but the devil was lurking in the details.

In July, Marine Atlantic announced a five-year charter agreement with Stena North Sea Ltd. to supply a new Ro-Pax vessel for its Newfoundland fleet. Following the initial agreement, the federal Crown corporation will have an option to purchase the ferry. However there is no obligation to exercise that option, and should the new ship not meet expectations it can simply be returned to the owners after the five years have elapsed.

Problem is, Stena Line is planning to have the ship built in China’s state-owned and highly subsidized JinLing Shipyard, a detail that wasn’t mentioned in the initial media release. It’s no secret that this country currently has a particularly troubled relationship with the Chinese over the three-year imprisonment of two Canadian citizens on dubious espionage charges.

The story broke on the front page of the Globe and Mail on August 25, and very quickly became embroiled in political controversy. Canadian ship-building interests were quick to protest that the new ferry could have been built here at home. Whatever the merits of that claim, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau quickly distanced himself from the decision, saying he was troubled by the deal.

“We are concerned with this situation,” he told the newspaper, adding that his goal is for federal government purchasing to “align with our values.” But he also tried to deflect blame to the former Harper Government, suggesting that his predecessor should have made it a requirement of his national shipbuilding strategy in 2010 for Crown corporations to buy Canadian-built vessels.

Meanwhile, Shane McCloskey, policy director in Transport Minister Omar Alghabra’s office denied any responsibility in the matter. “The minister did not approve the contract…the minister was informed by the department as the procurement process was completed,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement to the Globe.

Likewise, Marine Atlantic denied any direct responsibility for the choice of shipyard. Communications manager Tara Laing said the ferry contract was open to domestic and international bidders and was overseen by an independent fairness monitor. “The ownership of the shipyard selected by Stena was not considered within the procurement process,” she told the newspaper in an e-mailed statement.

For their part, Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives vowed they would cancel the deal immediately if elected, and ensure the contract went to a Canadian shipyard.

Other media outlets also jumped on the story. The Toronto Sun editorialized that awarding the contract to China “is galling to any Canadian who supports justice, freedom and human rights,” while Saltwire columnist Teresa Wright wrote that “(Michael) Spavor and (Michael) Kovrig are political prisoners — Ottawa calls it ‘hostage diplomacy’ — in an increasingly tense showdown between Canada and China. So why does China get to benefit from hundreds of millions of dollars of our hard-earned tax dollars and build a ship for Marine Atlantic?”

Stena is a Swedish-based company, and is a major and widely-respected player in the European ferry industry. Marine Atlantic and its predecessor CN Marine has had a long-standing and largely amicable business relationship with them dating back nearly 50 years. Stena does not build ships, but contracts the construction to builders with established expertise in ferries, generally to Norwegian or German shipyards. That’s where three of the four vessels in Marine Atlantic’s current fleet came from. The Chinese connection – not Stena Line – is evidently the key issue in the uproar.

-Ted Bartlett

Atlantic Transport News – July 2021

Welcome to the July edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

ELECTRIC FERRIES PLANNED FOR HRM

A look at the proposed new ferry routes under Halifax’s Rapid Transit Strategy. The first route from Mill Cove to downtown Halifax got a major boost in the past month, with funding from all levels of government to move the project ahead. GRAPHIC – Halifax Regional Municipality

Halifax Transit has received a major boost to one of their rapid transit plans, as all levels of government have stepped in with funding to move ahead with a plan to launch a fast, electrified ferry service from Bedford into downtown Halifax. Halifax Transit had announced the plan as part of their Rapid Transit Strategy, and in June the federal, provincial and municipal governments announced funding support to move the project toward becoming reality.

The full project, which will involve the construction of new ferry terminals, replacement of the downtown Halifax terminal, and the purchase of new vessels for the service, is estimated to cost $134.5 million. An initial $3.3 million study to plan and engineer the service will be supported by $1.1 million from the province of Nova Scotia, $1.3 million from the federal government, and another $917,000 from the Halifax Regional Municipality. This phase of the project is expected to be complete in 2022, with hopes that the ferry service will be able to launch in 2024.

In a separate announcement, the HRM announced a tender for design concepts for the rebuild of the downtown terminal and the design of the new Mill Cove terminal. The downtown terminal will need to be expanded significantly to accommodate the new electric vessels planned for the service, and the Mill Cove terminal will need to include bridges across the CN rail line.

A fast ferry service has been proposed a number of times over the years as a solution to traffic congestion on the Bedford Highway, and as a way to provide a more efficient public transit connection into the downtown core. When recent attempts at commuter rail fell through, the ferry service has again risen to the top as a viable option, promising travel times to downtown that can beat driving even at off-peak times, and far exceed anything that is possible by car or bus during peak rush hour. With the new addition of exploring an all-electric ferry, the service is even more attractive to multiple levels of government that are prioritizing a shift to clean, sustainable public transportation options. All being well, this will turn out to be the first step in an important expansion of Halifax’s transit network.

-Tim Hayman

ATLANTIC BUBBLE OFF TO A SHAKY START – AT LAST!

Traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see on the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst NS as protesters expressed their displeasure with more stringent provincial travel restrictions imposed just days before the 2021 version of the Atlantic Bubble was launched. This year there’s less consistency among the provincial governments, so travellers would be wise to check the rules in advance before attempting to cross provincial boundaries. PHOTO – RCMP on Twitter

It will be a bit different from last summer’s successful formula, but the 2021 version of the Atlantic Bubble is finally up and running. Postponed several times, the arrangement permits travel (with a few restrictions) among the four provinces, without the requirement to self-isolate. The four governments had evident difficulty in reaching a consensus, perhaps due in part to the presence of two new premiers in the mix this year. In any event, it did not come together without a rather public difference of opinion between the premiers and chief medical health officers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – one that resulted in a protest blockade of the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst that required RCMP intervention, and got the local MLA booted from the NS PC caucus over her apparent role in the illegal activity.

With the rapid acceleration of COVID inoculations throughout the region and a steep decline in active cases during June, the travel outlook is certainly looking brighter for the summer of 2021. As of July 1, Nova Scotia was reporting 51 cases, down from 369 a month earlier; New Brunswick had 24 compared to 142; NL had just five, a drop from 90; and PEI had only one, having gone for over three weeks during June without a single new case being reported. Nonetheless, visitors to the Island this year must apply online for a “PEI Pass” prior to arrival. That’s just one of many variations in the rules among the provinces, so travellers would be well-advised to check in advance before hitting the road to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

VIA RAIL PREPARES TO RESUME OCEAN SERVICE – BUT IT WON’T BE THE SAME

When the post-pandemic Ocean returns, among the missing amenities will be the iconic Park-series domed observation cars. Designed to operate in the forward-facing direction only, they can no longer be turned at Halifax. VIA hasn’t yet provided full details of future train consists, but we will soon find out when a train makes its way to Halifax for the service resumption. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

It’s been a long 17 months, but VIA Rail’s Ocean service is finally returning to the Maritimes – even if it won’t look quite the same as it did when the last train departed in March of 2020. VIA has just announced that the Ocean will resume its operations from Halifax on August 11, 2021, with a single weekly departure in each direction.

https://media.viarail.ca/en/press-releases/2021/rails-ocean-service-gradually-resume-starting-august-11

The first train will depart Halifax on August 11th, and the first eastbound trip will depart Montreal on August 15th; this will make for a schedule featuring Wednesday departures from Halifax and Sunday departures from Montreal, presumably following the same timetable as before the pandemic. VIA has labeled this a “gradual” resumption of service, and expressed optimism that additional frequencies will follow shortly; at the time of writing, an advisory on the VIA website shows tri-weekly service resuming in October, but this is always subject to change.

Consistent with trains like the Canadian that have been operating up to this point, the Ocean’s on board service offering will be much different during the first days of operation. Both Economy and Sleeper classes will be offered, in a mix of Renaissance and HEP1 stainless steel equipment, but passengers will not have free movement throughout the train. Sleeper passengers are asked to stick to their rooms for the duration of the trip, and Economy passengers to stay at their seats aside from trips to the washroom, or presumably stretch breaks at longer station stops. Passengers must wear masks on board, in keeping with federal requirements, except when eating or drinking or when in their own private rooms. Food service will be provided by cart to Economy passengers, and by room service to sleeper passengers – no meals in the dining car, for now. There will also be no lounge access for the time being, and while a Skyline dome may eventually be included in the consist, there won’t be one for the time being. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, all of these restrictions are subject to change as the situation evolves.

A special deadhead train will soon head east to ferry equipment from Montreal to Halifax to allow for crew training and the first departure from Halifax (*UPDATE: This deadhead train arrived in Halifax on the morning of July 13th). With the service shut down for such an extended period, quite a number of crew members have no doubt chosen to take retirement or have found other employment, so new on board crew training will be essential. Once this consist heads east, we should finally get a look at the new incarnation of the Ocean, now that the train cannot be turned. We expect to see a hybrid hodge-podge of Renaissance and HEP equipment, with baggage cars on both ends and no Park car, on account of the need to run the train in reverse for the return trip.

Regardless of the changes to the train, it is still a positive sign to see VIA’s return to the region, and TAA will continue to advocate for a full service resumption as soon as possible, and further improvements moving into the future.

VIA’s return to Halifax – on July 13, 2021, a full 16 months after the last train #15 departed on March 13, 2020, VIA equipment has at last returned to Halifax. With the locomotives back to back and the new bidirectional consist in tow, this consist will be used for on board crew training over the next several weeks, and depart Halifax as train #15 on August 11th. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

“OPEN WITH AN ASTERISK” – A DIFFERENT SUMMER AT MARINE ATLANTIC

MV Atlantic Vision will be making fewer appearances at Argentia this summer. Pandemic precautions have reduced the maximum passenger numbers to 300 per crossing, and a reduced level of customer amenities will be offered. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

More than two weeks delayed from the originally planned date, MV Atlantic Vision docked at Argentia NL on the morning of July 5, marking the launch a scaled-down 2021 seasonal service. Although it is a significant improvement over 2020 when the route did not operate at all, the Vision will be sailing this summer under the dark cloud of COVID-19. Consequently, many of the onboard amenities that had helped make the trip a special travel experience in recent years won’t be offered. And, there will be only two weekly round trips instead of the usual three.

Colin Tibbo, Marine Atlantic’s chief information officer and acting vice-president of customer experience, says there is sufficient flexibility in their operational plan to allow for a third return crossing should demand exceed expectations. But for now the departures from North Sydney will be at 1730 ADT on Sunday and Wednesday only, sailing from Argentia at 1700 NDT on Monday and Thursday. To allow for social distancing there will be a limit of 300 passengers per crossing, which means much of the auto deck space will be empty. Most of the passengers are expected to be in cabin accommodation, and Mr. Tibbo notes that demand for private rooms is stronger than ever. In fact, he senses a trend where this is a make-or-break condition for many prospective customers. However, the good news for unberthed passengers in lounges is that they will be sufficiently spaced so that wearing of masks will not be required once they are seated.

The popular buffet dining option on the Vision has fallen victim to the pandemic – perhaps permanently – and the upscale dining room experience will also not be offered this year. The only alternative to the ship’s rather small snack bar will be a light meal service available in the bar lounge area.

Mr. Tibbo said the company did not want to cancel the Argentia run again this year, despite the pandemic uncertainty, because they consider it to be an important part of their summer service offering. He noted that, despite the limited amenities, the initial July 4 departure was booked to 98% of its reduced passenger capacity a few days prior to sailing, which attests to the popularity of the seasonal route. The online “rolling schedule” that now allows customers to reserve up to 16 months in advance shows a return to three weekly crossings in 2022.

A similar passenger limitation applies to the year-round North Sydney-Port aux Basques route, where there are a minimum of two daily sailings. Public health measures are likewise in effect, and passenger amenities have been reduced accordingly. Commercial drivers are now berthed in single-occupancy cabins, which places additional pressure on accommodations aboard the Blue Puttees and Highlanders. The volume of commercial traffic hasn’t been significantly affected during the pandemic, and passenger bookings as of early July were running between 30 and 40 percent higher than corresponding dates in 2020.

Customer expectations for Marine Atlantic appear to have adjusted somewhat because of COVID-19, just as they have elsewhere in the transportation and hospitality industries, but Mr. Tibbo expects they will become higher with the passage of time. He’s reluctant, however, to predict timelines for the return to a higher level of customer amenities.

“We’ll see how it unfolds,” he says, “For now, we’re open – with an asterisk!”

-Ted Bartlett

MARITIME BUS BEGINS SIX-DAY OPERATION; DRL SOLDIERS ON

After a financially-challenging winter and spring, maintaining service only three times a week, Maritime Bus increased to a daily-except-Saturday schedule at the end of June. Owner Mike Cassidy is looking ahead to better days, but there’s still no indication of any federal support for a national integrated motorcoach network. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

With the rejigged Atlantic Bubble now in effect, Maritime Bus owner Mike Cassidy is looking ahead to better days – but he finds it hard to be optimistic. In anticipation of increased travel, the company bumped its schedules up to six days a week effective June 23, but uptake has been very slow, with three different reopening plans in the Maritime provinces having a dampening effect on ridership.

There’s been no response to date to the industry’s urgent pleas for federal support and a modest financial commitment to help rebuild a national intercity motorcoach network in the wake of Greyhound’s complete abandonment of Canadian service and the devastation of COVID-19.

“It appears as if there is no champion at the federal or provincial level,” Mr. Cassidy commented. “All I can say is that busing in Canada needs help.”

Meanwhile in Newfoundland, the orange DRL coaches are still plying their 900 km. route, serving 25 stops along the Trans-Canada highway from St. John’s to Port aux Basques. This despite a warning from owner Jason Roberts last month that financial pressures might force the company to cease operations. There’s been no word on the possibility of any assistance from the cash-strapped provincial government, along the lines of emergency aid extended earlier this year to Maritime Bus by Nova Scotia, PEI, and (after some prodding) New Brunswick.

But unlike elsewhere in Canada, there appears to be some onus on Ottawa to support DRL, which acquired the trans-island bus service from newly-privatized Canadian National in 1997. The so-called “Roadcruiser Service” had replaced the CN passenger train in 1969, and federal government responsibility to ensure continuing service at fares consistent with passenger rail elsewhere in Canada was acknowledged in the 1988 federal-provincial Memorandum of Understanding that provided for final abandonment of the Newfoundland Railway. However, none of the province’s six Liberal MPs have as yet weighed in on the issue.

SHUTTERED AIRPORTS REOPEN – WITH SOME NEW SERVICES

A water cannon salute greets PAL flight 905 on its inaugural arrival at Fredericton from Newfoundland on June 28. YFC was one of three Maritime airports to reopen late last month, after being closed since January. PHOTO – PAL Airlines

With the gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the aviation industry in Atlantic Canada is at last on final approach to what may prove to be a long period of recovery. Three regional airports in the Maritimes that had been completely devoid of scheduled passenger service for more than five months reopened for business in late June, and flight frequencies at others that had maintained limited service during the pandemic were noticeably increased. There were even some new destinations on departure boards around the region as airport spokespersons expressed cautious optimism.

Notable among recent developments was the return of scheduled service to Saint John, Fredericton and Sydney, which had been in hibernation since January. In addition to the return of Air Canada services to Toronto and Montreal, and WestJet flights to Toronto, YFC welcomed its first-ever direct service to and from Newfoundland with a tri-weekly flight by PAL Airlines to and from St. John’s with an intermediate stop at Deer Lake. In addition to the return of Air Canada service, discount carrier Flair Airlines was offering flights to Toronto from YSJ for as little as $49 one-way on a once-a-week 737 jet. At Sydney, WestJet resumed service to and from Halifax, while Air Canada was offering direct flights to Toronto.

St. John’s welcomed the return of direct service to Toronto by both Air Canada and WestJet, after an absence of several months. It would appear that Air Canada has no plans to resume local services between Halifax and various Maritime airports, but it looks like PAL is moving in to take up where the national carrier left off. PAL’s ambitious expansion plans also include offering service to Ottawa beginning in August. And by the time Porter Airlines returns to the skies in September, they may find the field a little bit crowded.

But make no mistake: air travel is by no means back to normal, or even approaching a new normal. The majority of the reinstated services are at greatly reduced frequencies – less than daily in many cases. Even the most optimistic air travel advocates will acknowledge that the road back will be a difficult one. Many restrictions remain in place, with most airports limiting access to their facilities strictly to passengers holding tickets. Most food and beverage concessions have not reopened, and masks must be worn continuously from entering the departure terminal until the exit on arrival.

There’s been no indication as to if or when overseas flights might return to Halifax Stanfield International Airport. For the foreseeable future, Atlantic Canadians destined to Europe or the UK will be obliged to fly several hours in the wrong direction before heading across the big pond.

NEW RURAL AND SMALL TOWN TRANSIT INITIATIVES UNDERWAY

A new fully-accessible transit service in Nova Scotia’s Pictou County launched on May 17, bringing public transportation back to New Glasgow and Stellarton after a 25-year absence. PHOTO – PC Transit

Residents of the Nova Scotia towns of New Glasgow and Stellarton are once again able to avail of public transit. Pictou County has not seen such a service since 1996, and the three-year pilot project should provide ample opportunity to prove that it is both needed and sustainable. 

Ridership numbers will determine if the service continues past the three-year trial, and promoters emphasize it is very important the community support the service by using it. 

The route is a one-hour bus loop through the two towns, but it’s been named Pictou County Transit in the hope that other communities will join in. 

The new, fully accessible, one-door-for-all, low-floor bus made its inaugural run on May 17.  The $190,000 capital cost was underwritten by the Province of Nova Scotia, which is also fully funding the first year of operations. Years two and three will see Stellarton and New Glasgow pay $50,000 and $100,000 annually, respectively. 

Meanwhile in New Brunswick, the community group Eastern Charlotte Waterways (ECW) has been awarded a rural transit pilot project grant by Environment and Climate Change Canada.  The federal funding will provide a new ride-share transportation system to the community of Blacks Harbour and the southwest New Brunswick region.

A media release says that issues of mobility and accessibility in rural communities are well documented, and Blacks Harbour is no exception. This pilot project aims to address these transportation issues by providing a fleet of electric cars for community-wide use. It will act as an on-demand door-to-door service. The new rideshare system which will launch in the fall of 2021, is the natural next step in working towards designing sustainable systems for rural communities in Charlotte County.

“ECW’s mandate has always been supporting sustainable projects that benefit local residents and the environment,” says Rick MacMillan, the group’s chair. “This investment will improve accessibility and the livelihoods of people in our community while raising the profile of the village to attract new businesses, visitors, and residents. Providing this climate-friendly ride-share program helps facilitate the community’s potential growth through connectivity.”

Blacks Harbour and the greater southwestern New Brunswick region has not had a public transportation option since the end of the RuralLynx project in 2020. With federal support, ECW will be able to operate an integrated public transportation model, built upon eight years of extensive research and reports from the Southwest Transit Authority Board as well as other community organizations both in and outside the province of New Brunswick. The announcement notes that the ECW team will be working collaboratively with key community partners that include the Charlotte County Multicultural Association and Vibrant Communities Charlotte County to ensure the pilot project is successful in providing all community members with an efficient, affordable and climate-friendly way to get around. This rural transit pilot project is described as an investment in social infrastructure that prioritizes rural communities and facilitates future growth.

FARES REMOVED FROM NOVA SCOTIA PROVINCIAL FERRIES

Passengers on the Englishtown Ferry in Cape Breton will no longer have to pay a fare, nor will users of any other of the intraprovincial ferries in Nova Scotia. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

Drivers in Nova Scotia will no longer have to pay to use any of the province’s seven intra-provincial ferry services, as the provincial government announced the permanent removal of ferry fees in late June. The ferry services, operated by Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, include those at Englishtown and Little Narrows in Cape Breton, Country Harbour on the Eastern Shore,  Tancook and LaHave on the south shore, and Petit Passage and Grand Passage on Digby Neck.

When announcing the permanent removal of user fees, which had been waived in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, Premier Iain Rankin said the change will make transportation more “affordable and accessible for Nova Scotians”. Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines noted that the fees only covered a small percentage of operating costs, and were inefficient to collect and becoming an increasing burden to administer.

The province hopes that the removal of fees will help to encourage tourism by making more parts of the province more easily accessible, though it’s likely no coincidence that a provincial election is expected in the coming months.