Atlantic Transport News – January 2021

Happy New Year! Welcome to the January edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

MOTORCOACH SERVICE IN NEW BRUNSWICK UNDER THREAT

Thousands of New Brunswickers are about to lose their only remaining public transportation link. With the provincial government unwilling to extend a helping hand to assist it through the COVID-19 crisis, Maritime Bus has announced indefinite closure of its services between Moncton and Campbellton and Fredericton and Edmundston, effective January 15.

Company founder Mike Cassidy, who came to the rescue after Acadian Lines abandoned its service in the Maritimes in 2012, has been providing line-haul motorcoach service ever since. However, he says, his passion for “public transit on provincial highways” has to be balanced with available financial resources. In April 2020 as the first wave of the pandemic took hold, Maritime Bus carried just 650 passengers – a dramatic plunge from 14,500 in the same month of 2019. The three provincial governments provided a one-time grant at that point to help offset the company’s losses, and indicated a willingness to negotiate an ongoing agreement for the duration of the crisis. The tentative deal to help cover the May to December was concluded with officials of all three provinces, but New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs refused to endorse it, citing his government’s policy of not subsidizing for-profit companies.

“Unfortunately, one province didn’t want to play in the same sandbox as the other two,” Mr. Cassidy said in a CBC interview. “The only way to reduce my operating costs is to travel less kilometres in the province of New Brunswick.”

The Higgs government decision ignores the reality that Maritime Bus lost over $3 million in 2020, and has continued to provide an essential public service on all its existing routes throughout the pandemic – albeit at a reduced level. Transport Action Atlantic has urged the Province to reconsider this regressive policy, which will leave residents of the North Shore and the Upper Valley without any public transportation options.

New Brunswick Green Party Leader David Coon also called on the premier to come to the rescue and keep the bus routes operational. He said the service loss will, among other things, deprive residents in the affected areas of vital access to healthcare services, adding that the buses are essential for people who cannot afford a car or are unable to drive.

For his part, Mike Cassidy says he’s committed to maintaining passenger and parcel service throughout the three Maritime provinces, noting that his company has a proven record over eight years, with no public funding except for the one-time contribution from the three provincial governments last spring.

“I want to take the high road by staying in business and keeping a base of bus service for our region until we are back to the new normal of people travelling again sometime this year when certain stakeholders and political decision makers are in a better place and a better frame of mind to make impactful social community decisions,” he said, adding that “it goes without saying Maritime Bus optimistically hopes public bus transportation will be a key strategic component in future community connectivity discussions.” 

ATLANTIC BUBBLE STAYS DEFLATED AMID NEW TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

Don’t expect to see the Atlantic Bubble return anytime soon. That’s the clear message emerging from provincial premiers and health authorities in the aftermath of a relatively subdued and travel-restricted holiday season across the region. But all the precautions and restrictions were clearly not sufficient to keep the pandemic’s second wave contained. New Brunswick in particular recorded a dramatic upsurge in COVID-19 infections in the first week of the new year, prompting a return to the more restrictive “orange level” throughout the province effective at midnight on January 5.

While per-capita case counts remained low in comparison to Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, the region’s leaders were taking no chances. Nova Scotia, which had continued to allow other Atlantic Canadians to enter without self-isolating after the other three provinces had suspended the bubble in November, imposed restrictions at the border with New Brunswick on January 8. Meanwhile, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey announced that his province would remain outside the bubble at least into February. And, New Brunswick announced that owning property or having family members in the province would no longer entitle non-residents to visit under the latest travel restrictions. All provinces were actively discouraging “non-essential” travel, but there appeared to be a variety of interpretations as to what that actually meant. One obvious complication is the relatively high number of residents who travel outside the region to find employment.

As of noon on January 10, the total reported active case count in the region stood at 212, over 80 percent of which were in New Brunswick.

Alerts continue to be issued about possible COVID exposure aboard flights into Atlantic Canada, while travel companies and some airlines appear to be flouting the advice of political leaders and public health officials by actively promoting offers to lure people onto planes and into resorts.  Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was clearly not amused, telling Brunswick News in a recent interview that he views the practice as “absurd”. The minister added that the Government of Canada won’t be interested in helping airlines financially if they aren’t interested in restoring regional routes.

ANOTHER SETBACK FOR AIR SERVICE IN THE REGION

In what one airport CEO described as a “massive blow”, Air Canada is implementing further flight suspensions throughout Atlantic Canada, effective January 11. The move includes a total shutdown until further notice of all scheduled passenger operations at Sydney and Saint John, as well as suspension of four routes serving Charlottetown, Fredericton, Deer Lake, and Halifax.

Derrick Stanford, president of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association, said the latest round of cuts has whittled down service to an unsustainable level, adding that this is the third significant round of service reductions in six months. It follows hot on the heels of major cutbacks implemented in November by WestJet that wiped out most of that airline’s presence in the region.

“Our industry cannot survive and operate in these conditions, and we are seeing the worst-case scenario playing out here today,” Mr. Stanford said. “This will have a huge impact on our region’s economy, on the ability of families to reconnect, on the movement of essential workers, and on airport employees and businesses.”

Meanwhile, St. John’s-based PAL Airlines is adjusting its services from Moncton to Newfoundland and Labrador to accommodate the latest round of travel restrictions as best it can. The airline has abandoned its service between Charlo NB and Wabush NL, and combined it with a new route linking Moncton with Deer Lake. And, until interprovincial travel restrictions are eased, non-stop service between YQM and YYT has been temporarily eliminated. Effective January 10 until further notice, a tri-weekly DASH-8-300 flight will run St. John’s – Deer Lake – Moncton – Wabush and return. PAL’s Janine Brown says a daily St. John’s – Moncton – Ottawa routing is still their post-pandemic objective, with a separate service planned for Deer Lake and Wabush.

ST. JOHN’S WALKS BACK A LITTLE ON METROBUS CUTS

Metrobus users in St. John’s will not have to deal with schedule cutbacks during the worst months of winter after all. Faced with mounting criticism, City Council has backtracked somewhat on its plan to implement the reduced summer schedule in January, in an effort to meet a severe budget crunch. The 2021 transit subsidy will still apparently be hit by the intended cut of $800,000, but the savings will now be achieved by deferring planned service improvements, rather than cutting back on frequency during the three most severe months of the year. The reductions will now begin in April. Frequency changes in summer are a normal response when student ridership drops substantially and more people are biking or walking.

Meanwhile, service is back to near-normal schedules on most urban transit systems in the region, although ridership, and consequently revenues, remain a long way below pre-pandemic levels.

CAMPOBELLO FERRY GETS ANOTHER EXTENSION

The Campobello ferry normally runs only in summer, and was not designed for operation under winter conditions. PHOTO – Maurice Haddon

The normally-seasonal Campobello Island ferry has received yet another extension. The New Brunswick government will now continue its financial support until February 7, 2021, to enable service four days a week (weather permitting) between Campobello and Deer Island, which is in turn connected with the NB mainland by year-round ferry. The only permanent access for the island’s 700 residents is through an international bridge to Lubec, Maine – a circuitous connection complicated by COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The Campobello ferry usually operates only during summer, and the privately-owned vessel is not well suited to sea conditions often encountered at this time of year. The schedule is therefore a bit of a moving target, and the operator, East Coast Ferries, is using social media to keep its customers informed.

Meanwhile, Campobello’s plight has found its way to the pages of the Toronto Star.  This detailed item was published on January 3: https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2021/01/03/cut-off-by-geography-and-covid-19-this-canadian-island-is-calling-out-for-a-link-to-the-rest-of-canada-to-no-avail.html

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

Transportation in turmoil amid COVID-19 crisis

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.

Summary of service reductions due to COVID-19
Halifax Transit implemented a 30% reduction in weekday service, effective Monday, 23 March.

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.

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There was no evidence of social distancing on this Air Canada flight arriving at YYT in late March.  PHOTO – Chris O’Neill-Yates (from Twitter)

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.

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This shot of the last train #15 for the foreseeable future was captured by a passenger at the station stop in Bathurst NB on 13 March. VIA suspended the service indefinitely on extremely short notice. PHOTO – from Twitter

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.