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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A vision for renewed VIA Rail service in the Maritimes

(Photo – Tim Hayman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cape Breton needs rail service

(Photo – Tim Hayman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Affordable Newfoundland ferry rates – a constitutional commitment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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National Policy Briefings

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

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

Province to support keeping Cape Breton rail line in place

An orange and yellow train with bright headlights heads directly towards the viewer under cloudy fall skies.
One of the last trains that ran to Sydney prior to the discontinuance of service is seen making its way across the now dormant rail line in Cape Breton. Thanks to an agreement with the Province of Nova Scotia, the tracks will be staying in place for at least another year. (Photo by Tim Hayman)

 

The Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia (CBNS) Railway has reached a deal with the Province of Nova Scotia to keep its rail line through Cape Breton in place for at least another year. The province will pay CBNS up to $60,000 per month to cover valid expenses, including salaries, insurance, security and building maintenance directly attributed to the line between St. Peter’s Junction and Sydney. Repairs or improvements to the line will not be reimbursed under this agreement. In exchange, CBNS will not apply to abandon the line for the next year. It’s not yet clear whether this agreement would be extended on an annual basis.

From the provincial news release: ““This agreement preserves the existing rail line, which is a key component of the proposed container terminal in Sydney,” said Geoff McLellan, Minister of Business. “Government continues to work together with businesses, community and municipal leaders on economic development related to Cape Breton. Strong transportation links are a key component of building a stronger economy.

From CBNS, in the same release: ““We are pleased to work with the Government of Nova Scotia to allow economic development initiatives like the proposed container terminal unfold,” said Louis Gravel, president of Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway. “We would like nothing more than to one day see a thriving operating railway between Port Hawkesbury and Sydney.”

The full press release can be found here:  https://novascotia.ca/news/release/?id=20170901004

Any action from the province to help maintain this rail line is valuable, and it maintains the possibility that it may once again see trains at some point in the future. Losing the right of way and basic railway infrastructure would all but guarantee that trains would never again run across Cape Breton. However, this agreement will not do anything directly to restore service on the line, nor does it seem to suggest that there is any thought of re-opening the line unless the proposed container terminal in Sydney goes ahead.

Regardless, it is a better outcome for the time being, and provides both a glimmer of hope and an indication that the province has some level of interest in preserving the rail link for the future.

A news article on the announcement can be found here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/cape-breton-rail-line-st-peters-junction-province-deal-1.4271792