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 – August 2021

Welcome to the August edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

NOVA SCOTIA ELECTION APPROACHES, PARTIES WEIGH IN ON TRANSPORTATION ISSUES

Polling day in Nova Scotia is fast approaching, and each of the parties continue to lay out their vision for the province should they have the opportunity to form government. As we have done consistently with other recent provincial elections throughout the region, TAA believes that it is important – and reasonable – to ask candidates of all political persuasion where they stand on the transportation issues we believe are important to the province and its future.

Earlier in the campaign, TAA submitted a series of six questions on key transportation issues to each of the major parties running in the election. Our goal has been to provide each of the parties with an opportunity to present their plan to our members and to anyone in the public who is concerned about these issues.

To date, we have received responses from the Nova Scotia NDP, Nova Scotia Liberal party, and the Green Party of NS. We have posted these responses in their entirety on our website, in the order that they were received. If we receive a response from the Progressive Conservative party before the election, we will add it to our post. Of course each party also has published platform documents, which we would encourage Nova Scotians to peruse for further information and context as they consider their vote.

You can view the Q&A here: https://transportactionatlantic.ca/ns-election-2021-questions-for-the-parties/

VIA RAIL’S OCEAN RETURNS AFTER 17-MONTH HIATUS

The inaugural return voyage of VIA Train 15 waits to depart Halifax, with the locomotives back-to-back and the new hybrid bidirectional consist in tow (PHOTO – Tim Hayman)

VIA Rail service in Atlantic Canada has resumed at long last, nearly 17 months after the COVID-19 pandemic forced an abrupt shutdown. With the Ocean back in operation between Halifax and Montreal, albeit on a reduced once-per-week schedule, the last major gap in VIA’s network has been restored to at least a basic level of operation. Early indications are that the trains are selling well, and there was a solid crowd boarding the first train in Halifax and at several stops along the way. VIA staff in Moncton had even prepared an impromptu celebratory greeting for this first train, and the Times and Transcript covered the event.

The warm welcome the train received reflects the ongoing interest from citizens along the route in having a train service that is available and that meets their needs for travel both within and beyond the region. While the return is welcome and long overdue, the initial once per week schedule is hardly adequate. We can certainly hope that VIA is serious about it’s talk of a gradual reintroduction of service, and that we will in fact see a return to the pre-pandemic service levels in October as currently indicated by VIA’s reservations system. Of course even this is far from adequate, and TAA continues to make the case for a daily service – but this will require significant investment, and continues to be an item that requires serious support from the federal government to bring to fruition.

The initial on board service offering remains restricted, due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns, with passengers required to wear masks except when eating, drinking, or in private cabins, and both economy and sleeper passengers confined to their respective seats or rooms. Food service is being provided by cart to economy passengers, and sleeping car meals are pre-packaged cold offerings being served to rooms. Despite the presence of dining and Renaissance service/lounge cars in the consist, these are not currently in operation. The timeline to resume fuller service is not clear, though it is of course dependent on the trajectory of the pandemic and related restrictions. With the news today that the federal government will soon be requiring vaccinations for all railway employees and passengers, with implementation expected by the fall, the on board experience may be able to resume some greater normality before too long.

The new bidirectional consist necessitated by the loss of the turning loop in Halifax has indeed resulted in the loss of the Park car. It remains possible that a Skyline dome/lounge could be added in the future, though with it serving no function at the present time where the lounge and dome would be off limits, it’s hardly surprising to see its absence from the initial trains. If no proper replacement for the Park car can be provided, the train will have lost one of its prime attractions for sleeper passengers.

On the bright side, the 1950s built stainless steel HEP1 coaches, last refurbished in the late 1990s, have finally received an overhaul, making for a much nicer on board environment for economy passengers. The Renaissance equipment in use has also seen the most notable refresh in years, with exterior paint touch ups, buffing, and waxing, and interior work to repair upholstery, carpets, and other interior components. These improvements are very much welcome; however, they don’t change the fact that both the HEP and Renaissance equipment, by VIA’s admission, are nearing the end of their serviceable life and a process to replace them needs to start sooner than later. Without adequate replacements, the long term prospects of both the Ocean and Canadian are in serious doubt.

-Tim Hayman

One welcome addition to the current consist is refurbished HEP1 coaches, which offer a spruced up environment for Economy passengers. This upgrade was well overdue, but doesn’t change the fact that both the HEP and Renaissance equipment need replacement plans sooner than later! (PHOTO – Ted Bartlett)

NEW FERRY ON THE WAY FOR MARINE ATLANTIC

This rendering of the planned new vessel for Marine Atlantic appears to indicate a more esthetically pleasing profile than that of the Crown corporation’s two current workhorses. It’s expected the new ship – as yet unnamed – will replace the aging MV Leif Ericson in 2024. (Image courtesy of Marine Atlantic)

Marine Atlantic has announced a five-year charter agreement with Stena North Sea Ltd. to supply a new Ro-Pax vessel for its fleet. Following the initial agreement, Marine Atlantic will have an option to purchase the ferry. However the Crown corporation is under 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.

The new vessel will offer energy efficient green ship technology, according to a media release issued on July 21. Its design will incorporate dual-fuel capability and will include batteries to further reduce its carbon footprint. The ship will be constructed with specific measures to reduce underwater noise, thereby reducing the impact on marine life. It will also offer enhanced power and thruster capability for maximum maneuvering ability during docking and undocking. This would appear to indicate that the challenges presented by the harbour at Port aux Basques will be specifically addressed in the design, as was the case with the purpose-built Caribou and Smallwood more than three decades ago.

The new ice-classed vessel will be just over 200 metres in length, about the same as the existing MV Blue Puttees and MV Highlanders, with the ability to carry similar numbers of commercial and passenger vehicles. It will incorporate the latest accessibility standards, carry up to 1000 people, have 146 passenger cabins (including pet friendly cabins), 40 passenger pods, a variety of food service options, seating lounges, a children’s play area, and a kennel for pets.

The ship will be compatible for use on both the Port aux Basques and Argentia routes and is expected to enter service in the 2024-25 fiscal year.

In Budget 2019, the Government of Canada provided funding for Marine Atlantic to replace an existing vessel. The corporation launched a request for qualifications (RFQ) in July 2019, with successful bidders moving to an RFP stage in June 2020.

-Ted Bartlett

INTERCITY BUS RIDERSHIP STARTS TO RECOVER

Travellers await Maritime Bus departures at Moncton on August 8. Ridership is showing some improvement as travel restrictions have eased, but there’s no indication about if or when interlining of passengers or packages beyond Edmundston might resume. (PHOTO – Ted Bartlett)

The essential service that Maritime Bus founder Mike Cassidy refers to as “public transit on provincial highways” is showing some signs of recovery with the reopening of the Atlantic Bubble. Maritime’s coaches continue to operate six days a week (daily except Saturday), with all communities on its route map being served on a limited schedule. However, there’s no indication as to if or when it might again be possible to ride the bus further than Edmundston, or to ship a package to points in Quebec or beyond. Mr. Cassidy says there’s been no action on restoring the interlining agreement with pre-pandemic partner Orleans Express.

Ridership figures were very low in early July, but improved as border restrictions among the Atlantic provinces were eased. Mr. Cassidy anticipates a daily average of 275 passengers in August, with his coaches logging about 5000 km per day compared to the pre-COVID full schedule of 10,000.

He adds that there’s still no indication that Ottawa’s Rural Transit Fund is going to offer any relief for struggling commercial carriers such as Maritime Bus and Newfoundland’s DRL coachlines. Neither is there any indication that the federal government is prepared to assume any form of leadership role in ensuring the restoration of a coast-to-coast network for passengers and parcels.

“Passion and a commitment to busing has allowed me to persevere through these trying COVID times,” he says. “We can never lose sight of the importance of an intercity bus service within the Maritimes moving passengers and time sensitive parcel freight.”

Meanwhile, DRL’s owner Jason Roberts tells Transport Action Atlantic that his company has lost over $1.3 million since the start of the pandemic, and although the COVID threat has subsided for now, he doubts he can maintain the service in its current form for much longer. He does have some hope that the provincial government will come through with some sort of assistance package. The federal government has an implicit obligation to ensuring continuing trans-island bus service, but to date has shown no sign that it is considering honouring that commitment.

-Ted Bartlett

AIRLINE SCHEDULES SLOWLY INCREASE AS AIRPORTS RECEIVE FEDERAL AID

The arrivals/departures board at Halifax Stanfield International Airport on August 10 shows increased activity, but remains but a shadow of its pre-pandemic level. For context, it should be noted that the flights shown here cover a period of nearly 24 hours. (PHOTO courtesy of HIAA)

The long-term future of commercial air travel to, from and within Atlantic Canada remains an unknown as air carriers gradually increase their service levels in the region. Meanwhile, the Government of Canada has stepped in to assist regional airport authorities that faced massive revenue losses during the pandemic, and are continuing to feel the pinch as travel slowly rebounds.

The latest federal funding package was announced on August 9 – an $11.8 million contribution to the bottom line of St. John’s International Airport (YYT) under the Regional Air Transportation Initiative. Airport CEO Peter Avery said the funding would help in the recovery effort, and allow the facility to remain competitive. Earlier contributions under the initiative included $3.8 million each for Saint John (YSJ) and Fredericton (YFC), $3.1 million each for Charlottetown (YYG) and Deer Lake (YDF), $2.7 million for Sydney (YQY), and $2.4 million for Gander (YQX). Moncton airport (YQM) received a lesser amount to offset its operational losses, but was awarded over $5 million for capital improvements.

The number of flights in the region operated by Air Canada and WestJet is gradually increasing, but it is still nowhere near pre-pandemic levels. Meanwhile, Porter Airlines – in full hibernation since March of 2020 – will be returning to Atlantic Canadian skies in the first half of September.
Air Canada has not indicated any plans to resume most of its short-haul services in the region, with PAL Airlines filling some of the void, but on a much lower frequency. PAL has also commenced its promised service to Ottawa from St. John’s and Deer Lake, stopping at Moncton or Fredericton on alternate days.

The region’s largest and busiest airport, Halifax Stanfield, remains “international” in name only for the time being, although as of August 9 it is permitted to once again accommodate US and overseas departures. Spokesperson Tiffany Chase tells TAA that Condor Airlines is planning to offer a short fall seasonal service to Frankfurt from September 9 to November 4. There is some suggestion that US flights might resume in October, but there’s no indication yet as to plans for overseas operations to or from YHZ by either Air Canada or WestJet. She was optimistic they might resume in 2022.

As of early August, Stanfield was handling a daily average of 50-60 arrivals and departures carrying between 3000 and 4000 passengers, compared with pre-pandemic levels of 200 daily flights accommodating 11-12 thousand people. Currently flights to and from YHZ are serving only 16 destinations, compared to 46 pre-COVID.

-Ted Bartlett

Atlantic Transport News – April 2021

Welcome to the April edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

MARINE ATLANTIC RATE INCREASE CANCELLED FOR 2021

The 2021 Marine Atlantic ferry rate hike lasted just a few days. On April 5 the Crown corporation announced that the increases had been cancelled, and users who had paid the higher fares would receive a refund.

The campaign for lower rates on the Marine Atlantic ferry service linking the island of Newfoundland with the mainland has shown its first sign of success. Faced with pressure from various advocacy groups, Transport Canada appears to have backed down on its demands for 65% cost recovery – at least for 2021. After just five days under a new tariff that increased passenger fares on the seasonal Argentia ferry and freight transportation and handling charges on both its routes, the federal Crown corporation announced a price rollback to 2020 levels. Customers who had paid higher rates for completed or future travel are to receive refunds.

Transport Action Atlantic has been playing a leading role in advocating for lower ferry charges for several years, but the effort gained traction in recent weeks when Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador formally joined the cause. The issue also found its way to the floor of the House of Commons. During question period on March 9, MP Jack Harris (NDP-St. John’s East) asked the Prime Minister to reverse the latest round of increases. Although Transport Minister Omar Alghabra gave only a non-committal response, the message appears to have gotten through to the province’s six Liberal MPs. They reportedly pursued the matter with the minister, leading to the rollback directive.

TAA views the concession as winning just one battle in what may yet be a long war. It doesn’t change the reality that ferry rates have outstripped the cost-of-living index by a factor of three to one over the past two decades, and are not consistent with the intent of the Terms of Union under which Newfoundland joined Confederation in 1949. Neither is there any indication that Ottawa is backing away from its cost recovery demands in the long term.

ATLANTIC BUBBLE MAY RETURN THIS MONTH

There’s optimism that the Atlantic Bubble may return soon, but concern lingers about opening the region to the rest of Canada. PHOTO – NLTourism

Travel among the four Atlantic provinces without need for a two-week self-isolation may soon be a reality once again. In March, the four premiers agreed in principle to a tentative reopening on Monday, April 19. The date, however, is subject to change should new pandemic concerns emerge.

As of April 1, the total known active caseload in the region stood at 182 – 141 of which were in New Brunswick, where a significant outbreak had occurred in the Edmundston area in the province’s northwest corner near the Quebec border. Provincial authorities reacted quickly, imposing renewed restrictions aimed at containing the cluster and flattening the curve. Similar measures had been very successful in knocking down an alarming outbreak that had surfaced during February in eastern Newfoundland – one that was all the more critical because most cases were of the more contagious B117 variant. But New Brunswick’s chief medical officer Dr. Jennifer Russell cautions that the April 19 date is by no means a sure thing. Public health authorities will be monitoring the situation closely to ensure that it’s safe to reduce travel restrictions.

As April arrived, Newfoundland and Labrador was reporting only four active cases, while Nova Scotia had 24 and PEI 13. Overall, the prevalence of COVID-19 on a per capita basis in Atlantic Canada is currently far lower than in other areas of Canada. The case count at the beginning of April was just 7.5 per 100,000 population, at a time when vaccine rollout was rapidly gaining momentum.

Theo Moudakis – Toronto Star

AIRLINE SERVICE SHOWS SIGNS OF RECOVERY

Deserted for now, but ready to go when service resumes: Fredericton airport has just completed a substantial terminal modernization and expansion project, ahead of schedule and under budget.

With the arrival of spring and the increasing availability of COVID-19 vaccines, Canada’s airlines are taking some cautious first steps toward restoration of regional services that were either greatly reduced or suspended entirely at the height of the pandemic. Not surprisingly, it won’t happen all at once, and ongoing travel restrictions between the Atlantic provinces and the rest of the country are expected to be a determining factor.

WestJet was first off the mark with an announcement on March 24 that services would be restored to Moncton, Charlottetown, Fredericton, and Sydney between June 24th and 30th.  The suspended service between St. John’s and Halifax that had not been planned to resume until late June will instead return with six flights a week effective May 6. WestJet’s direct daily St. John’s-Toronto route will be back as of June 24. Seasonal services to Deer Lake and Gander will also be restored at the end of June.

“We committed to return to the communities we left, as a result of the pandemic, and we will be restoring flights to these regions in the coming months, of our own volition,” said airline CEO Ed Sims. “These communities have been a crucial factor in our success over our 25 years and it is critical for us to ensure they have access to affordable air service and domestic connectivity to drive their economic recovery.” 

Meanwhile, Air Canada is preparing to resume some of its cancelled routes in the region as well.  The acting CEO of Saint John airport, Greg Hierlihy, told CBC News they are gearing up for a restart of services to Toronto and Montreal in early June, but he acknowledged that it’s a bit of a moving target, one that is somewhat dependent on loosening restrictions on visitors to New Brunswick from other provinces to the west. He’s also optimistic about an eventual return of Porter Airlines, which has been in complete hibernation since March of 2020. Discounter Flair Airlines is planning to begin service from Saint John in June. Flair also has plans for four routes out of Halifax this summer.

PAL Airlines is anticipating stepping up its St. John’s-Deer Lake-Moncton frequency to three times weekly when the Atlantic Bubble reopens.

MEANWHILE, ON THE GROUND…

The trans-island DRL Coachlines service in Newfoundland resumed its daily operation between St. John’s and Port aux Basques on March 8, following a three-week total shutdown due to the sudden COVID-19 surge in the northeast Avalon, where a high proportion of its traffic originates. Maritime Bus is continuing to run just four days a week, but is anticipating a daily-except-Saturday operation once the Atlantic Bubble reopens.

It’s now been more than a year since VIA Rail abruptly ceased all service east of Quebec City. As of early April, reservations for both economy and sleeper space are still being accepted online for tri-weekly departures from May 16, but the likelihood of service resuming while travel restrictions remain in effect between Quebec and New Brunswick remains a big question mark.

SUBSIDY PRESERVES CAPE BRETON RAILWAY FOR ANOTHER YEAR

Concrete barriers block a section of washed-out track in Cape Breton, but no trains are going to attempt to run here any time soon. (PHOTO – Tom Ayers, CBC)

On March 25 the Nova Scotia government announced another year of provincial subsidy to the Genesee and Wyoming owned Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway (CBNS) to keep the railway across Cape Breton island in place, an extension of an ongoing agreement that has ensured that the railway will refrain from proceeding with formal abandonment of the line. If there is ever to be a hope of restoring this rail line to active use, keeping it in place remains a critical interim solution.

A rehabilitated rail connection is undoubtedly critical to any potential major port development in Sydney, but many advocates are now saying the case of restoring rail service doesn’t need to hinge entirely on that project moving ahead. Existing customers could return, and a restored rail line could serve to attract other new business to the region. Other options, like building a container transload facility in Sydney to allow Newfoundland-bound truck traffic to stay on rail instead of being transloaded to trucks at Moncton, could provide rail-supporting business while also taking a toll off highways, and helping to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transport that’s already taking place across the province. The Scotia Rail Development Society has been leading a push for funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to support exactly this kind of development.

Newly elected Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Amanda McDougall has expressed support for the railway and its role in a greener transportation future for the region. In comments made to CBC News following the subsidy extension announcement, Mayor McDougall acknowledged that local businesses were making the case for the rail line regardless of whether the container terminal moving ahead, and spoke of the role a reinstated rail line could play in expanding the Cape Breton economy.

TRANSIT UNION MOUNTS ADVOCACY EFFORT

The Moncton local of the Amalgamated Transit Union is concerned that service reductions in municipal public transportation because of COVID-19 may result in what one spokesman refers to as a “death spiral” that presents an existential threat to transit. With municipal elections currently underway in New Brunswick,  Sheldon Phaneuf says it’s an opportunity for candidates to declare where they stand, while recognizing that both the provincial and federal governments have a vital funding role to play.

Mr. Phaneuf, who drives for Codiac Transpo, has launched a media campaign and has prepared an opinion piece, which calls on governments to act before it’s too late.

“If service cuts weren`t enough,” he writes, “the death spiral phenomenon is being further accelerated by passenger capacity restrictions, imposed by provincial health authorities in response to regional COVID-19 outbreaks. These restrictions are necessary to safeguard the health of passengers and transit workers, but the impact on transit systems already crippled by service cuts is overwhelming.”

The full text of his commentary can be found on the TAA website:

PETITCODIAC CROSSING CLOSURE BRINGS TRANSIT OPPORTUNITY

Final closure of the old causeway route between Moncton and Riverview took place on April 5. The new bridge structure at centre of this photo should be commissioned in October. Until then, major congestion is expected on the Gunningsville Bridge. PHOTO – Shane Fowler, CBC

It may be an opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of public transit to the 20,000 residents of Riverview NB. The bedroom community across the Petitcodiac River from Moncton will have to live within the constraints of a single span linking them to the city for the next six months. The final decommissioning of the controversial causeway that opened in 1968 began on April 5, and involves the removal of the tidal gate structure and diversion of the channel to its original route beneath a largely-completed new bridge. However, there is a lot of remaining work, including construction of the bridge approaches, which required complete closure of the causeway. This means effectively doubling of the traffic demand on the 15-year-old Gunningsville Bridge – well in excess of what it was designed to handle.

Until the new bridge opens at the causeway site in October, the Gunningsville span is anticipated to be carrying more than 50,000 vehicles each day. It’s a recipe for traffic congestion that has concerned municipal authorities on both sides of the river for several years. Among the planned mitigation measures is a transit option, but the big question is whether enough residents of the traditionally car-centric community will avail of it to make a difference.

Alex Grncarovski, operations manager for Codiac Transpo, says the plan calls for a frequent express bus linking a park-and-ride lot in central Riverview directly with downtown Moncton, where convenient connections can be made to numerous routes throughout the metropolitan area. A supervisor will be assigned to the parking lot at peak periods to help facilitate traffic flow. The direct bus will approach the bridge using a limited access route with no turns and just one traffic light, so delays are anticipated to be much less severe than those in the more heavily populated areas of the town.

While users will pay standard transit fares, they will be spared the expense of downtown parking, as the park-and-ride lot will be free of charge.

The commissioning of the new bridge this fall is expected to complete the restoration of the river to its natural state, and return the famous tidal bore to its former glory. The construction of the causeway a half-century ago resulted in unintended environmental consequences, including massive silting of the channel and a serious effect on fish habitat.

CAMPOBELLO FERRY ISSUE MAY BE TESTED IN COURT

Once again the seasonal ferry linking Campobello Island with the rest of New Brunswick via Deer Island has been extended – this time until the end of May. The most recent announcement from the provincial transportation department says the vessel will then be withdrawn for maintenance prior to starting its usual summer schedule. The provincial government evidently has no enthusiasm for maintaining this service on a year-round basis, making it clear that the extension is simply a response to the COVID-19 crisis, to allow island residents access without having to drive through the US.

The campaign for a permanent year-round link may yet find its way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Campobello Island Year-Round Ferry Committee has begun preliminary discussions with local partners and regional law firms to pursue legal challenges, claiming that access to and from one’s own country without undue search and forfeiture are protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In the late 20th Century, crossing the international bridge to Lubec Maine was quite a simple matter – but 9-11 changed all that. Subsequent tightened US border security, the requirement for passports, and annoyances such as the opening of Campobello-bound mail by US authorities have made life very difficult for islanders.

Campobello resident Ulysse Robichaud, a member of the ferry committee, told the Saint Croix Courier that they were encouraged by a virtual meeting with Premier Higgs last May, but the enthusiasm appears to have evaporated. Although both the PC MLA and the Conservative MP for the area are supportive of a year-round ferry to the rest of New Brunswick, there does not appear to be any momentum in either Fredericton or Ottawa.

Committee chair Justin Tinker says the Province of New Brunswick and the Government of Canada continue to ignore calls and e-mails from island leadership, who asking for nothing more than what has already been afforded to other remote locations: access to their own country.

REFOCUSING OUR PUBLICATION EFFORTS

With the introduction of our monthly online newsletter, we’re transitioning TAA’s biannual printed Bulletin to meet a slightly different communication objective.

Thank you for reading this, the sixth issue of our new monthly newsletter. Launched late last year, it’s an initiative designed to keep TAA members and other interested readers up to date with the latest transportation news from around our region. It also enables us to share Atlantic news more widely with interested people across the country, through a linkage with Transport Action Canada’s regular newsblast.

Over the past five years or so, we’ve made a special effort to add value to our printed twice-yearly Bulletin as an outlet for regional transportation news and opinion. While feedback has been generally positive, we’ve realized it’s an uphill, perhaps futile, struggle to make this publication a go-to source for breaking news. When a publication produced entirely by volunteers only appears twice a year, it’s a tall order to keep the content current and avoid the ever-present risk of being overtaken by events.

The latest Bulletin is behind schedule for a variety of reasons. It is at the printers as this is written, but members won’t receive their copies in the mail before mid-April. They’ll no doubt notice that some stories are already out of date. Hence the reason for a different approach. In November, we launched a monthly online newsletter, under the somewhat prosaic banner Atlantic Transport News. This collection of current transportation news from around the region seeks to fill a need that just isn’t possible with a biannual print publication. Our objective is to publish on (or shortly after) the first weekend of each month. Don’t hold us to that – this is, after all, a project of entirely volunteer effort! But all members and/or readers can help us with this, by contributing content, be it news tips, updates of happenings in your area, newsworthy photos, or complete short stories.

With this initiative comes a change in direction for the Bulletin. In the upcoming issue you’ll notice there’s less emphasis on news content, and more on in-depth features, analysis and opinion. In an era where the overwhelming majority of our membership and other followers enjoy access to the Internet, we think this approach makes sense, although we recognize that most members still appreciate receiving a hard copy in the mail twice a year – a tangible symbol of their membership they can hold in their hands and read at leisure.

Please, let us know what you think. You can reach us by e-mail at atlantic@transportaction.ca. Perhaps you might even have a suggestion for a more catchy name for this online publication, or some thoughts on how we can make the Bulletin a more appealing product and a more effective vehicle for promoting our agenda. But please don’t forget all this is an effort of volunteers – and we don’t have nearly enough of them. If you believe you have something to contribute, do not hesitate to step forward.  TAA needs you!