Atlantic Transport News – April 2022

Welcome to the April 2022 installment of Atlantic Transport News!

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

FEDERAL BUDGET COMES UP EMPTY FOR VIA’S OCEAN – BUT TRI-WEEKLY SERVICE TO RESUME IN JUNE

Don’t expect to see long-haul passenger motive power like this in Canada anytime soon. Amtrak has ordered 125 of these low-emission Siemens Charger ALC42 diesels, shown here on the point of the Empire Builder. The 2022-23 federal budget contained nothing for VIA service outside the Toronto-Quebec City corridor.
PHOTO – Justin Franz/Twitter

Atlantic Canadians are still no closer to seeing a modernized rail passenger service after the 2022-23 federal budget was unveiled on April 7. The Trudeau Government’s fiscal plan made no mention of any investment outside the Toronto-Quebec City corridor, despite the first tentative steps taken by VIA Rail in January towards a long-overdue equipment replacement program. VIA is revealing little about the initiative, but the Crown corporation does acknowledge that there is no funding for it at this time. Evidently they are testing the waters to learn what options might be available, but are not prepared to say even how many participants were involved at their virtual “market day” – much less identify any of them. Neither will they disclose what type of equipment they might be looking at.

Meanwhile, VIA has just confirmed that the third frequency of the Ocean will resume in the first week of June. Online bookings had been available for Friday departures from Montreal and Halifax effective June 3 for several months, but the company hadn’t been able to confirm that these would actually take place, citing COVID-19 uncertainty. But the April 14th media release means that the full tri-weekly pre-pandemic schedule will be restored for the summer, albeit missing some of the amenities previously offered to sleeper-class passengers.

VIA CEO Cynthia Garneau termed it “a celebratory and crucial milestone in our service resumption plan after an incredibly challenging two years. We look forward to welcoming more of our customers back on board our trains and doing our part to encourage Canadians and tourists to get out and explore this beautiful country for the summer travel season.”

The release said VIA’s objective has always been the safe resumption of services when conditions allowed it, adding that the decision to add frequencies during the pandemic has been based on various factors, including demand, employing a balanced approach in order to fulfill VIA Rail’s public service mandate and manage financial impacts. The company will revise its service offering in line with the latest developments if necessary, and existing safety measures in response to COVID-19 remain in effect. Those include a masking policy on trains and in stations, as well as mandatory vaccination as required by the federal government.

“The train remains one of the safest ways to travel this summer and we are pleased to be offering our passengers more frequencies and more flexibility,” the announcement concluded. No details are yet available on whether additional sleeping car capacity will be available. The Ocean has been operating with just four Renaissance sleepers for the past several months, and for a number of upcoming departures the reservation system is showing all space as sold out.

LITTLE JOY FOR TRANSIT IN THREE PROVINCIAL BUDGETS

St. John’s City Councillor Maggie Burton: “There can be no meaningful action on poverty and climate without investment in public transportation.”
(Image from Facebook)

Sustainable transportation is clearly not a priority for the provincial governments of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador. All three tabled their 2022 budgets in recent weeks – and all three gave public transit short shrift. Where it did get a mention, only lip service was paid.

In St. John’s there’s a bit of a tempest brewing because the Furey Liberals tried to claim political points for the underfunded Metrobus pass aimed at low-income residents. The City is being expected to provide the free transportation to more people, but with a lower level of provincial funding than previously – despite much higher fuel costs. At the same time, the Province is refusing to give Metrobus a break on its taxes or the registration fees for its vehicles. City Councillor Maggie Burton perhaps said it best when she tweeted “there can be no meaningful action on poverty and climate without investment in public transportation.”

New Brunswick is apparently still adamant that it will not commit matching provincial funding in order to avail of available federal money for public transit, despite requests to reconsider from at least two city councils. Quoting Ottawa sources, Brunswick News reported that there is $112 million left on the table for transit investments in NB if the Province is prepared to come up with its share, but Premier Higgs continues to argue that the program isn’t flexible enough.

Instead, the Province unveiled a three-year $1.1-billion plan for improving and extending the life of existing roads and bridges – some of which admittedly are in dire need of attention. But this, of course, does nothing to reduce automobile dependency or promote sustainable transportation. Moncton economist David Campbell recently posted a graph indicating that New Brunswickers spend a higher proportion of their household income on motor fuel than any other Canadians.

In late breaking news from Ottawa, there has apparently been some sort of compromise hammered out that would allow New Brunswick greater flexibility in accessing the federal funds, which are scheduled to disappear if not used by the end of the new fiscal year. Brunswick News says influential federal minister Dominic LeBlanc brokered the arrangement, and Premier Higgs was quoted as being pleased with the outcome. Although details aren’t yet available it appears most of the money earmarked for transit may be diverted to projects preferred by the province.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s capital plan for 2022-23 includes $507.8 million for roads, highways and bridges. The only discernable nod to green transportation in the budget is a $2-million allocation for electric vehicle charging stations across the province. It isn’t clear if NS is prepared to match Ottawa’s offer for transit funding.

Prince Edward Island remains the front-runner in sustainable public transportation policies. It’s now been confirmed that the Island Transit network will be extended to the western end of the province effective Tuesday, April 19, which means residents will be able to effectively travel from one end of the province to the other for just a $2 fare, which includes a transfer to the T3 Transit service in Charlottetown. The recent budget also provided for free transit for all Islanders under 18, as well as $100 point-of-sale rebates on bicycle purchases and $500 for e-bikes. To allay concerns about supply chain issues, the government has announced that the cycle rebate will be extended indefinitely.

MARITIME BUS GETS CASH INFUSION FROM PROVINCES – BUT NOTHING YET FOR DRL

Intercity busing in the Maritimes has just received another helping hand from the three provincial governments to help keep services operational in the face of massive losses during the pandemic. In Newfoundland, DRL Coachlines remains empty-handed. PHOTO – Maritime Bus

Struggling motorcoach carrier Maritime Bus got some good news from three provincial governments on April 12. In a joint news release, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island announced a combined contribution of just under $900,000 to help the company defray some of the multi-million-dollar losses it has sustained during the pandemic. In addition to drastically reduced farebox revenue on its intercity and rural routes, the coach tour and cruise ship business disappeared, eliminating many of the economies of scale that kept the family-owned enterprise viable.

“It’s nice to feel needed and it’s nice to feel wanted,” said Maritime Bus founder Mike Cassidy in an interview with CBC News. It’s the second infusion of funds Mr. Cassidy’s company has received from the provinces, and is particularly important in enabling service to continue in rural areas like northern New Brunswick. He’s looking forward to the return of cruise ships, and hopeful that revenues during the upcoming tourist season will reach 90% of 2019 levels.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will each contribute $400,000 to the company, while Prince Edward Island is providing $90,000. The media release from Nova Scotia said the contributions are proportional to the ratio of kilometres driven by the service in each province.

DRL Coachlines, also a privately-owned carrier that provides daily service across 900 kilometres of the Trans Canada Highway in Newfoundland, has also been trying to get some financial support from government to help offset its pandemic losses. Owner Jason Roberts says nothing has been forthcoming to date, despite assurances last fall that help was on the way. The province has cut registration fees in half for 2022 to help compensate car owners for higher fuel prices, but hasn’t offered anything to public transportation operators.

Meanwhile, there’s been no word from Ottawa about any change in federal policy regarding the
Rural Transit Solutions Fund. The $250-million program was unveiled last year, but the federal government has been adamant that only not-for-profit agencies qualify for the capital assistance it offers. That specifically excludes companies like Maritime Bus and DRL – despite the fact that both have been losing massive sums of money over the past two years.

Mike Cassidy had the opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra in early March, and expressed hope afterwards that the political will for change was beginning to come round. But he’s still waiting for talk to turn to positive action.

URBAN TRANSIT: “CLAWING ITS WAY BACK TO NORMAL”

With another difficult winter behind them, urban transit systems are tweaking schedules in an effort to win back riders. New initiatives at Halifax Transit include a dedicated transitway on Spring Garden Road, a program to make using transit easier for people with special mobility needs, and additional help for newcomers in learning how to navigate the system. SUBMITTED PHOTO

As more and more people transition towards a new normal after nearly two years of working from home, and the masking guidelines on public transit switch from “mandatory” to “recommended”, the bus systems in the region’s major urban centres are adjusting routes and schedules as they ride the challenging road to recovery.

Halifax Transit introduced some large-scale service changes back in November, primarily affecting communities on the Dartmouth side, but also reaching to Halifax, Spryfield and Porters Lake/Seaforth. Most of these changes had been in the works long before the pandemic hit, and were included in plans approved by the Regional Municipal Council last spring. They are not part of the longer-term rapid transit plan unveiled in 2021, but they have the same objective – to make it easier for Haligonians to get to their destinations more quickly and conveniently, and without resorting to cars. Although the agency announced a return to its full pandemic schedule several months ago, staffing issues have forced periodic cancellation of both bus runs and ferry crossings.

Meanwhile, significant improvements to public transit in St. John’s were launched in January, after City Council allocated funding for the so-called “Zip Network”, aimed at increased frequency on multiple Metrobus routes. The upgrades are part of a commitment originally approved in 2019, but implementation was put on hold due to pandemic restrictions.

The Zip Network offers increased and consistent frequency throughout the day on routes 1, 2, 3 and 10, beginning earlier in the morning and extending later in the day, with 15-minute frequency at peak hours on weekdays and 30 minutes for most other times. Metrobus general manager Judy Powell says user feedback from the changes has been positive, but the COVID factor makes the total impact difficult to measure. For example, Zip was introduced at the same time that most university students returned to campus. She added that ridership continues to gradually improve, and by March had reached 88% of pre-pandemic levels.

Greater Moncton’s Codiac Transpo is also tweaking its routes and schedules as it “claws its way back to normal”, says operations manager Alex Grncarovski. The system is now at 90% of pre-pandemic service hours, and is showing a steady ridership increase. With a new automated fare collection system now fully implemented, there’s a wealth of new data available for planning purposes that simply wasn’t there before. And, they’re hearing a lot from employers who are recognizing how important availability of transit is in recruitment. All this means more “thinking outside the box” to get the best bang for the buck as routing and expansion changes are contemplated.

Codiac Transpo is especially pleased that the Town of Riverview is showing a stronger commitment to public transit. Council has maintained funding for expanded service that was first introduced last year to help residents cope with the extended closure of one of the Petitcodiac River crossings. Riverview has a history of being very car-centric, and presents a special challenge, Mr. Grncarovski says, because it is very spread out and much more difficult to adequately serve than Moncton and Dieppe. But the coverage area has recently been extended, and residents appear to be reacting positively to more reliable and quicker service.

RATES UNCHANGED THIS SUMMER ON MARINE ATLANTIC FERRIES

Sailing to and from Newfoundland by Marine Atlantic this summer won’t cost any more than it did in 2020. The Crown corporation has apparently been granted an exemption from the 65% cost recovery requirement again this year, and it’s hoping to return to the full range of onboard amenities. PHOTO – Marine Atlantic

Marine Atlantic has confirmed that there will be no rate increase on its ferries to Newfoundland this summer. Evidently the federal government did not want to either rain on the province’s Come Home 2022 parade or exacerbate the rising cost of living by increasing the charges for trucking goods to the island. In effect, this means that fares will remain at the same level as in 2020, with the 65% cost recovery requirement evidently held in abeyance for another year. And, because the Crown corporation has a fuel hedging program with their own tank farm, there’s unlikely to be any immediate impact on the fuel surcharge as a result of world events. Ferry bookings for the summer are running well ahead of pre-pandemic norms for this time of year – no doubt a consequence of pent-up demand among ex-pat Newfoundlanders.

Meanwhile, there’s optimism that onboard amenities will return to near-normal this summer, after two seasons of very limited food and beverage offerings. Colin Tibbo, the executive in charge of customer experience, says public health considerations may dictate some adjustments in how the food actually gets to the plate, but he’s looking forward to offering the same standard of service that received high satisfaction levels from passengers pre-pandemic.

OVERSEAS FLIGHTS RETURNING TO HALIFAX STANFIELD

MAX is back. The once-controversial Boeing 737 MAX 8 will be the workhorse of overseas flights from Halifax Stanfield International this summer. PHOTO-courtesy of HIAA

“Travel is getting easier again,” proclaims a recent e-mail blast from WestJet to its customers. And, the Calgary-based airline appears to be as good as its word for overseas travel this summer from Halifax Stanfield International Airport. It’s forging ahead with the restoration of seasonal direct service to four destinations across the pond, beginning on May 1. This summer there will be a daily flight from YHZ to London Gatwick, and tri-weekly service to Glasgow and Dublin, plus four times a week to Paris.

Air Canada is also resuming its non-stop, year-round service to London Heathrow, beginning with a five-times weekly operation effective April 30, increasing to daily for the peak travel period. And starting June 24 the national flag carrier will resume daily Halifax- Boston service. American Airlines, meanwhile, will start daily service to Philadelphia on June 3, and also offer once-a-week direct flights to Boston and Washington. And, two carriers will offer seasonal service to Frankfurt beginning this spring. Condor Airlines and Lufthansa subsidiary Eurowings Discover will both fly to and from YHZ three times a week.

“We are very pleased that many of the non-stop overseas and U.S. flights that were offered at Halifax Stanfield pre-pandemic will return for summer 2022,” says airport spokesperson Tiffany Chase, although she acknowledged that some routes will be offered at lesser frequencies until more travel demand returns. “We will continue working with our airline partners to bring back more routes and increase flight frequencies in the coming months and years for the benefit of our communities.”

Even though it’s some 470 nautical miles closer to Europe than Halifax Stanfield, the picture at St. John’s International Airport is not quite so rosy. Apart from flights to and from the French territory of St. Pierre and Miquelon, YYT will remain devoid of direct service on any international route. Three years ago WestJet decided to permanently centralize all its Atlantic Canada overseas flights at Halifax. Air Canada cancelled its on-again, off-again service to London Heathrow in 2019, when the controversial Boeing MAX 8 airplanes were grounded worldwide over safety concerns. And then came the pandemic.

Air Canada told CBC News by an e-mailed statement in mid-March that there were currently no plans to add any international flying out of St. Johns, blaming the continued suspension on pandemic effects.

Interestingly, all the overseas flights resuming from Halifax by both Air Canada and WestJet will use the MAX 8 aircraft, with all safety issues apparently now resolved to the satisfaction of the regulatory authorities. 

TAA’S ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING SET FOR MAY 28

Mark your calendar! Transport Action Atlantic will hold its annual general meeting online using the Zoom platform on Saturday afternoon, May 28. An informative program focusing on convenient, affordable and sustainable transportation is being planned. interested members of the public are welcome to attend – details below!

Once again, this year’s Transport Action Atlantic’s annual general meeting will be held virtually using the ZOOM platform on Saturday, 28 May 2021, beginning at 1400 ADT (1430 NDT).

The agenda includes annual reports and financial statements, appointment of an auditor, election of a board of directors, and any other business that may arise.

Current members of Transport Action Atlantic may nominate (with their consent) any other member in good standing for a position on the board. It is the board’s responsibility to choose the executive officers. Nominations should be made in advance of the meeting, and may be submitted by mail to the TAA Nominating Committee, P.O.Box 268, Dartmouth NS B2Y 3Y3, or (preferably) by e-mail to TAA secretary Michael Perry at mikeper5@nb.sympatico.ca.

Besides the required business, we plan to include guest speakers focusing on critical public transportation issues in our region, with ample opportunity for questions and discussion. Please watch for further details on our website as this program is finalized. TAA members for whom we have an e-mail address will automatically receive an invitation to the meeting. Others who’d like to participate should request credentials by e-mail to atlantic@transportaction.ca. As always, our AGM is open to the general public and the media.

Atlantic Transport News – March 2022

Welcome to the March 2022 installment of Atlantic Transport News!

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

PEI TAKES GREEN INITIATIVE AGAINST SOARING FUEL PRICES

PEI residents are being offered unlimited affordable public transit pass for six weeks to help them through the fuel price crisis. PHOTO – T3 Transit

Canada’s smallest province is leading the way in offering its residents a unique form of relief from rapidly escalating world-wide fuel prices. Instead of urging rebates or deferments of carbon taxes to give citizens a break, PEI Premier Dennis King is offering a climate-friendly alternative.

As part of a $20 million dollar fund to confront the rising cost of living, the Province of Prince Edward Island and T3 Transit have partnered to reduce the price of a monthly bus pass for islanders. Effective Monday, March 14, the cost of a public transit pass valid until the end of April will be $20 for adults and $10 for students (18+) and seniors. Everyone under 18 will ride for free during this period. The passes are valid on both T3 Transit in the provincial capital area and on the so-called “toonie transit” rural routes which currently extend from Souris and Montague west to Summerside. The rural initiative is expected to be extended westward to include service as far as Alberton and Tignish by mid-April.

“Right now, islanders are struggling with the increased cost of living and the unpredictable price of high fuel and heating oil,” Premier King said. “As a government we need to be there to help lessen the burden for islanders and help make life more affordable. This is a stressful time for everyone, and it is important that we ensure there are no additional barriers for islanders to get to work, school and the essential services they need.”

In another climate-friendly move, the PEI Government has announced a $100 point-of-sale rebate on bicycle purchases for a limited time. However, there’s concern that supply-chain issues may prevent many residents from taking advantage of the program. Bike retailers are urging government to consider extending the program until inventories recover.

MARITIME BUS OWNER ENCOURAGED AFTER MEETING WITH TRANSPORT MINISTER

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra (second from left) in conversation on March 7 with owner Mike Cassidy (right) in the Maritime Bus garage on Bayne Street in Halifax. Also in the photo are Matthew Cassidy and Kings-Hants MP Kody Blois.
(Image from Twitter @OmarAlghabra)

After many months of trying to get his message through to the top about the need for a helping hand to the motorcoach industry, Mike Cassidy has at last had his persistence rewarded. The Maritime Bus owner recently won an opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra – and on his own turf, at that.

The minister, a frequent flyer in the world of social media, embarked on a well-publicized swing through Atlantic Canada in early March. Mr. Cassidy has been working closely with politicians of all stripes in the course of his “public transit on provincial highways” campaign, and several members of the Atlantic Liberal Caucus helped facilitate bringing Mr. Alghabra for a tour of the bus garage in downtown Halifax.

According to Infrastructure Canada, the Rural Transit Solutions Fund seeks to help Canadians living in rural and remote areas get around their communities more easily day-to-day and connect with nearby communities. The $250-milliion program was unveiled last year, but up to now Ottawa has insisted that only not-for-profit agencies qualify for the capital assistance it offers. That specifically excludes companies like Maritime Bus and DRL Coachlines in Newfoundland – despite the fact that both have been losing money by the busload over the past two years.

Mr. Cassidy was able to use the meeting opportunity to explain to the transport minister why this policy was unreasonable, and should be changed to allow struggling for-profit operators to acquire new equipment. He’s encouraged by Mr. Alghabra’s apparent awareness of the intercity bus issue, and believes that progress is being made and the dialogue will continue.

It now appears that the political will is there, he says, at least on the federal level. But because accessing funding is contingent on provincial participation, there’s still more work to be done. The program requires a three-way split, with Ottawa, the province, and the applicant each investing an equal share. Therefore it’s essential that the provinces come on board. For now, Mr. Cassidy is “laser focused” on the three Maritime provinces where he operates, but the model could easily apply in Newfoundland and Labrador, and elsewhere across Canada. There’s a demonstrated need, he believes, for an interconnected motorcoach network that can sustainably carry both people and parcels from coast to coast.

SAINT JOHN EMPHASIZES TRANSIT IN CLIMATE INITIATIVES

The City of Saint John believes incentives should be offered to users of public transit in efforts to achieve climate change goals. PHOTO Discover Saint John

The City of Saint John says the New Brunswick government needs to recognize the important role public transportation can have in achieving greenhouse gas emission targets. In a submission to the five-year review of the Province’s Climate Change Action Plan, the City recommends the introduction of incentives to residents who use public transit. It’s music to the ears of transit commission chair Nick Cameron.

“It has taken a while for folks to realize just how much of an impact transportation has on our greenhouse gases,” he told the Telegraph-Journal, adding that transportation represents one of the highest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in New Brunswick. “We really need to make sure that transportation is part of our plans going forward. And although electric vehicles are certainly part of that solution, focus on public transit is a much more affordable and impactful solution.”

The commission sent a letter of support to supplement the City’s submission, detailing some initiatives currently underway, including exploring on-demand service to feed more heavily-travelled and frequent transit routes. A consultant has also been hired to examine various options for greening the system, including electric, hydrogen, or natural gas powered buses.

In a late development, the City of Saint John has written Premier Blaine Higgs urging him to buy into the federal government’s recently announced $750-million program to help municipal transit systems rebound from two years of low ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic. Matching provincial funding is a condition for municipal transit systems to get their share, and New Brunswick has shown considerable reluctance in the past toward participation in such initiatives. Premier Higgs once infamously remarked flippantly that “Fredericton doesn’t need a subway system.”

Mr. Cameron said getting access to a share of the federal money is crucial to helping Saint John Transit rebuild ridership. He told CBC News that annual ridership was now less than 1.2 million – down from over two million pre-pandemic. He’s concerned that the lost riders may have found other, less climate-friendly, means of transportation, and it may not be easy to win them back.

A BUSY SUMMER EXPECTED FOR MARINE ATLANTIC, WITH NO RATE INCREASE SO FAR

Marine Atlantic has announced off-peak vehicle and passenger discount fares for travel to and from Port aux Basques and Argentia up to June 30. So far the dreaded announcement of another general rate increase hasn’t come, and advance bookings for the summer season are reportedly exceeding pre-pandemic levels. (Image from Twitter @MAferries)

It looks like a busy summer lies ahead for Marine Atlantic ferries – and so far there’s been no announced increase in the controversial rate structure. Despite lingering uncertainty as to where COVID-19 will trend in the months ahead, the Crown corporation says its advance bookings between Newfoundland and Cape Breton to date are more than double those for the same period in pre-pandemic 2019. And, there’s an added incentive for travellers using the ferries from mid-May until the end of June, with off-peak savings of up to 22 percent on vehicle and passenger fares.  

Marine Atlantic spokesman Darrell Mercer told VOCM News that about 8000 reservations were made for the summer period between January 1 and March 7, compared with just 3300 in the same time frame three years ago. He attributed the surge to pent-up demand and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Come Home Year 2022 promotion. Cabin accommodations on many overnight sailings between North Sydney and Port aux Basques in July are already sold out.

It’s still unclear if the federal government will insist that Marine Atlantic meet its 65% cost recovery target this year, but so far there’s been no general rate increase announced. In 2021 planned increases were rescinded just days after their April 1 effective date when Ottawa relented on the requirement, for reasons attributed to the pandemic.

Part of this is no doubt due to continued pressure from politicians and advocacy groups. Transport Action Atlantic has recently ramped up its campaign to have ferry rates reduced to the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by highway. TAA continues to insist that this was the intent of the 1949 Terms of Union, in order to shield residents of the province from the burden of the added transportation costs of the Cabot Strait crossing.

Meanwhile, the rapid escalation of fuel prices arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to have an immediate effect on Marine Atlantic’s fuel surcharge. The company’s website says it purchases and stores large volumes of fuel in bulk, which protects customers against unpredictable price swings and consequent frequent fuel surcharge adjustments.

-All items above by Ted Bartlett

ESKASONI FIRST NATION LAUNCHES COMMUNITY-RUN TRANSIT SERVICE

Eskasoni Transit operations manager Kennis Gould is flanked by drivers Ricky Young, left, and Dave Simon on Monday as the new service launched. (Image from Maisyn Sock/CBC)

Eskasoni First Nation, a Mi’kmaw community in Cape Breton NS, is home to Nova Scotia’s newest transit service, with the community run operation making its first runs on March 14, 2022. The band launched the transit service to provide transportation options for people needing to get around the community, as well as getting in to Sydney for shopping, medical appointments, and other needs.

The service consists of a door-to-door van service, operating by request, and a bus operating a fixed route through the community and in to Membertou and Sydney. Van trips cost $5 anywhere in Eskasoni ($10 return trip), while the fixed route is $10 one-way or $20 for a return trip. The service to Sydney includes stops at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, the Sydney Shopping Centre, and the Mayflower Mall. The bus makes two round trips daily, once in the morning, and once later in the afternoon.

The two accessible vehicles purchased for the service, at a cost of $170,000, were paid for with the assistance of the provincial government, who contributed $110,000 of the cost, with the band paying the remainder. The agreement to purchase the vehicles was first announced early in 2021, but the service has only now gotten underway.

You can read more about the service by visiting the Eskasoni Transit Service’s Facebook page.

UPDATE: LONG-AWAITED CHIGNECTO ISTHMUS REPORT RELEASED

In our January newsletter, we reported on mounting frustrations about the delay of a long-awaited report on protecting the Chignecto Isthmus, and the critical rail and highway infrastructure that passes over it, from the effects of climate change and worsening flooding. Just after we put the current newsletter to bed, news broke that the report has been released.

In a news release on March 18, 2022, the study outcomes were summarized with three options:

  • raising the existing dikes
  • building new dikes
  • raising the existing dikes and installing steel sheet pile walls at select locations.

“Work on the Chignecto Isthmus Climate Change Adaptation Engineering and Feasibility Study started in 2018, and collaboration between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the federal government was key to ensuring this vital economic link between both provinces remains protected,” said New Brunswick Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jill Green. “Not only will this ensure the continuation of the trade corridor, but it should provide additional protection for residents in Sackville and surrounding areas.”

The provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will decide on a course of action after discussing these options with the federal government. The cost of each option ranges from about $190 million to more than $300 million.

Atlantic Transport News – December 2021

Welcome to the December edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

ATMOSPHERIC RIVER SEVERS TCH IN WESTERN NEWFOUNDLAND

Washouts from two days of torrential rain that started on November 23 severed the Trans-Canada Highway between Port aux Basques and Corner Brook at four separate locations. The vital transportation artery was closed to traffic for more than a week. PHOTO – Troy Turner CBC

A record-breaking downpour that struck Cape Breton Island and southwestern Newfoundland in late November caused a major supply chain disruption, with multiple washouts completely closing the main highway north of the ferry terminal town of Port aux Basques. The province’s principal entry point for commercial traffic was totally isolated for over a week. While provincial highway crews scrambled to make emergency repairs to the Trans-Canada Highway, Marine Atlantic reactivated its closed-down seasonal Argentia terminal on short notice to accommodate high priority traffic.

Port aux Basques received a typical month’s worth of rain – about 165 millimetres – in just two days, according to Environment Canada. Then another 50 mm fell on the area less than a week later, prompting Mayor Brian Button to call for serious conversations on the impact of climate change on his town and others. The meteorological term “atmospheric river” is one we’ve not heard very often in the past – but it’s one that we’re likely to hear much more often in years to come. It refers to a narrow corridor of concentrated moisture, of the kind that impacted both of Canada’s coasts last month. While the devastation in the Atlantic provinces wasn’t nearly as spectacular as that in British Columbia, it still created widespread concern and disruption. There were no fatalities, but motorists in both Cape Breton and Newfoundland had some very scary experiences. One Parks Canada employee in Cape Breton Highlands had an exceptionally narrow escape when his truck plunged into a washed-out chasm.

Marine Atlantic’s MV Blue Puttees docked for the first time ever at the quickly reactivated seasonal Argentia terminal on the morning of November 26. The load included 56 commercial vehicles carrying essential food and produce, mail and other items to keep the supply chain open, as well as motorists who’d been stranded in North Sydney. PHOTO – Marine Atlantic

On request from the provincial government, Marine Atlantic acted quickly to deliver a temporary partial solution to the island’s critical supply situation. There was no point in transporting the hundreds of backlogged commercial vehicles from North Sydney to Port aux Basques – there was nowhere for them to go – so the shuttered seasonal terminal at Argentia was hastily reactivated. The two year-round workhorses, MV Blue Puttees and MV Highlanders aren’t well-suited to the alternate route, because there’s no access to their upper deck at the seasonal terminal and these two ships don’t have internal ramp or elevator capability as their normal mode is bi-level loading.

But despite the capacity limitations and the longer crossing time, the strategy worked. Supplemented by MV Leif Ericson, a combined total of five round trips were made over a six-day period. The three ships transported a total of 606 commercial units and 1120 passengers with their vehicles to and from Argentia, according to spokesperson Darrell Mercer.

During the emergency, passengers and vehicles going to and from Argentia were charged the lower Port aux Basques fare – no doubt a welcome surprise to many. There were no food services available in the area of the Argentia terminal for the diverted truckers, but they were pleasantly surprised when the local population, some businesses, and service organizations came to the rescue. In a scenario reminiscent of the famous Come from Away story, they delivered meals or food packages to the drivers waiting in line.

By December 2 the TCH was once again passable, and the Argentia diversion came to an end. But the success of the operation prompted Placentia Mayor Keith Pearson to suggest in a CBC interview that the longer ferry route directly to the province’s largest concentration of population could play a larger role on more than just on a seasonal basis. An online petition calling for a year-round Argentia run had gathered over 2600 signatures by December 10.

-Ted Bartlett

“WHERE YOU LIVE DOESN’T SET LIMITATIONS ANYMORE” – A MOTHER’S TESTIMONIAL FOR PEI’S TOONIE TRANSIT

In the early morning darkness of October 12, Brady Chaisson boards the first “toonie transit” bus at the neighbourhood convenience store in Souris, PEI. He’s ridden to and from school in Charlottetown every day since. For the promising young hockey player, convenient and affordable rural transit is a game changer. PHOTO – submitted by Julie Chaisson

Thirteen year old Brady Chaisson is an aspiring young hockey player who lives in Souris, PEI. Some 80 kilometres away on the outskirts of Charlottetown there’s a recognized Hockey Canada school, the Mount Academy. It represented a golden opportunity for both his academic and sporting future, and his parents were giving serious consideration to enrolling him there. But there was one big catch: more than four hours on the road each day to drive him to and from – a daunting obstacle.

Then in early October came the game changer for Brady and his family. The provincial government announced a new transit program that would level the playing field – or rather the ice rink – for rural Islanders. Dubbed “Toonie Transit” because of the $2 one-way fare, regardless of distance, the publicly-funded initiative made the decision easy. It costs $20 a week for him to get to the Charlottetown campus – and he’s home every evening in time for supper.

“I was in shock; I couldn’t believe this was happening,” recalls Brady’s mom, Julie. Toonie transit was set to start on what would be his first day at the new school, and the schedule was a perfect match for school hours. Furthermore, the bus is flexible enough to make an extra stop to drop him off and pick him up right at the school to avoid any need to transfer to city transit, and of course the bus drivers know him by name.

Understandably, Julie is a cheerleader for rural transit, and is effusive in her praise for Premier Dennis King and service operator Mike Cassidy. “This is fantastic for PEI,” she says. “Where you live doesn’t set limitations anymore.”

Toonie transit now extends from Souris and Georgetown in the eastern part of the province all the way to Summerside. The previously-existing service between Charlottetown and Summerside via Kensington and Hunter River has come under the new umbrella, with fares being reduced to but a fraction of their former levels. The next step is to extend the service west to Alberton and Tignish in early 2022.

-Ted Bartlett

SECOND OCEAN FREQUENCY STARTS IN TIME FOR HOLIDAY SEASON TRAVEL

For the first time in more than 20 months, a second weekly VIA “Ocean” arrives in Halifax on the evening of December 9, 2021. Heavy snowfall the night before made for a very festive scene, and offered another reminder of why the train is a much needed travel option at this time of year. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

Though it’s still a long way from what we’d like to see, train travel in the Maritimes has become just a little bit easier in time for the Christmas holidays. On December 8, 2021, a second Ocean train set departed Montreal for the first time since March of 2020, meaning there was both a westbound train and an eastbound train on the road at the same time, meeting in the wee hours of the morning as they continued on to their respective destinations. The Ocean is now up to twice a week service, a full doubling of the meager once a week frequency that the train returned with after its lengthy pandemic shutdown, with trains departing from both Halifax and Montreal on Sundays and Wednesdays. When the service expansion was announced, VIA was clear that the timing was meant to coincide with the busier holiday season, and allow VIA to capture more ridership during this time period. President and CEO Cynthia Garneau was quoted in the press release as saying that “The return of this second frequency of the Ocean is good news for our passengers who now have more travel options in time for the holiday season”. As welcome as it is, it’s still only a shadow of VIA’s offering just a few years ago, when the tri-weekly service was further augmented with extra trains over the holidays.

The Sunday/Wednesday days of operation do work well around both Christmas and New Years, which fall on Saturdays this year, and the trains are selling well. Trains in both directions on Dec. 19 and 22, the two departures immediately before Christmas, have been sold out in most or all sleeper accommodations for some time. Other trains through that period also have limited availability. VIA’s reservations system appears to have shown additional sleeper inventory added more than once, which has disappeared quickly each time. We won’t be able to get a full sense of the total ridership until we see how much the train consists expand through this period, but it is already clear that there is still demand for this train, even after its lengthy absence.

Notably, the expansion to twice a week service now requires the use of two trainsets, which will be all that is required for the tri-weekly service return (and could even, in theory, support 4 trains a week). There have been concerns about VIA’s equipment availability to equip the Ocean, and while the longer term prospect is still concerning, it is positive to see enough equipment on hand to equip two trains with matching consists, and hopefully to expand suitably through the busier season.

In a boost to riders in the Gaspé, still waiting on an eventual return of their own train service, La Régie intermunicipale de transport de la Gaspésie – Îles-de-la-Madeleine (RÉGÎM) is once again bringing back its bus shuttle service to connect to and from the Ocean at Campbellton, allowing passengers to connect from stations along the former Chaleur route. This shuttle service has featured during past summer and holiday periods, and has continued to keep some connection to the Gaspé alive – no doubt a useful plan to keep enthusiasm for an eventual return of VIA to the region. The shuttle will connect with trains from Dec. 16 to Jan. 5.

A return to tri-weekly Ocean service is still planned for June 2022, at roughly the same time as the remainder of VIA’s network will finally see a return to normalcy, though the exact date is unlikely to be confirmed until much closer to that time.

-Tim Hayman

MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER:  HALIFAX IMPLEMENTS LARGEST NUMBER OF ROUTE CHANGES YET

Recent widespread changes to the Halifax Transit network show how services are evolving to reflect the changing needs of a changing region.
SUBMITTED PHOTO

On November 22, 2021, Halifax Transit introduced large-scale service changes primarily affecting communities on the Dartmouth side, but also reaching to Halifax, Spryfield and Porters Lake/Seaforth.  A new West Bedford Park & Ride has also opened, which has required minor modifications to four routes.

These changes are not part of the longer-term BRT and fast-ferry Rapid Transit plan.  Most are part of a rolling program stemming from 2016 when Halifax Regional Council approved the Moving Forward Together Plan (MFTP) – Halifax Transit’s strategic route network redesign. The recent changes are outlined in the Annual Service Plan, approved by Regional Council in May 2021.

Based on the MFTP, the network consists of eight service types. To help people easily identify each route’s service type, every type is being assigned its own range of route numbers, from which the service day and minimum frequencies can be inferred for any route:

• Corridor Routes (Routes 1 – 9) 

• Local Routes (Routes 20 – 99)

• Express Routes (Routes 100 through 199)

• Regional Express Routes (Route 300 – 399)

• Rural Routes (Routes 400 – 499)

• Ferry Routes (Routes 500- 599)

• School Routes (Routes 700-799)

• Access-A-Bus

Some routes have a letter attached, to indicate branched or directional routing differences. Branched routes operate along a main “trunk” providing high frequency service, and then splitting into “branches” to service different local areas at a lower frequency of service.  Directional routes provide service in a particular direction of travel, indicated by the letter.

Of the various service types, the Corridor Routes, Express Routes, and Regional Express Routes are of particular interest to readers of Transport Action Atlantic’s Bulletin.

Corridor Routes aim to provide consistent, frequent, service on high demand corridors, connecting residential areas or retail districts with regional destinations like shopping, employment, schools, and services.  These routes have sustained demand for transit over the course of the day, late into the evenings, and on weekends. They are well positioned to support increased residential density along the corridors which will, in turn, support increases in potential ridership generated by adjacent land uses.

Express Routes are a hybrid of the former successful MetroLink and Urban Express services. They are designed to provide commuters with a high quality, limited stop, weekday service during peak periods, making transit more attractive to individuals commuting for work and education. The intent is to attract peak period commuters to transit and reduce dependence on costly Park & Ride facilities. Express service picks up more passengers near their homes so they no longer need cars to access transit. It also retains a high level of service at terminals, allowing commuters who continue to use Park & Ride to retain a similar, if not better, level of service. Like the former Urban Express Routes, the new Express Routes provide local service in residential areas (regular local stops for pickups and drop offs). In some cases Express Routes replicate and replace Local Routes during peak times. Once an Express Route departs the local area, similar to MetroLink service but with no fare supplement, it provides limited stop service into downtown. Express Routes may also serve one or two major destinations on the way. Upon arrival in Downtown Halifax more frequent stops resume, allowing users to access their destinations quickly and easily.

Regional Express Routes connect rural, outlying communities to the urban core and other transit services. The intent is to allow residents of outlying communities the option of using transit for regular commuting. Regional Express Routes are subject to a premium fare. The Regional Express service model is very similar to the MetroX service which it supersedes; however, the new format will potentially allow one to three additional stops within the Urban Transit Service Boundary.

Compiled and adapted from Halifax Transit website content.  Further details are available at https://www.halifax.ca/transportation/halifax-transit/service-adjustments

METROBUS TO LAUNCH “ZIP NETWORK” IN JANUARY

Significant improvements to public transit in St. John’s are coming early in the new year. City Hall announced on December 7 that funding has been allocated for the launch of “Zip Network”, which will increase frequency on multiple Metrobus routes starting on January 3.

The service upgrades are part of a commitment by City Council to implement more frequent bus service. The budget for this improvement was originally approved in 2019, but implementation was put on hold due to pandemic restrictions.

“We are pleased to offer this improved service to Metrobus riders,” said Councillor Ian Froude, member of the St. John’s Transportation Commission. “Council is committed to public transportation, and more frequent bus service on the core routes is something we know users are anxious to see implemented.”

TheZip Network will offer increased and consistent frequency throughout the day on routes 1, 2, 3 and 10, offering service earlier in the morning and extending later in the day. The Zip routes will offer:

  • 15-minute frequency weekdays, from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 to 5:30 p.m.
  • 30-minute frequency weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
  • 30-minute frequency on Saturdays, all day until 6 p.m. 

Funding of approximately $500,000 for 2022 is slated to be approved as part of the upcoming budget, to be presented to City Council later this month.

“As we prepared for the upcoming budget, we heard through our public engagement processes the importance of public transit,” explained Councillor Ron Ellsworth, council lead on Finance. “We believe this is a sound investment that demonstrates the City’s strategic commitment to being a city that moves.”

Adapted from a City of St. John’s media release. 

http://www.stjohns.ca/media-release/metrobus-zip-network-begins-new-year

CAMPOBELLO FERRY SLATED TO LOSE FUNDING AT YEAR-END (UPDATED)

The Campobello ferry situation isn’t getting any better, with scheduled crossings for the Christmas holidays making family visits without going through the US a virtual impossibility. PHOTO – Justin Tinker

As the holiday season approaches, the news isn’t getting any better for residents of Campobello Island. New Brunswick Transportation Minister Jill Green announced on November 26 that the provincial subsidy to East Coast Ferries Ltd. would come to an end on December 31. Since the arrival of COVID-19 a total of $575,000 has been paid to the private company to fund the extension of its normally seasonal service linking Campobello with Deer Island and the rest of the province. This enabled islanders to access the rest of Canada without travelling through the US via the international bridge to Lubec, Maine.

The ferry currently is scheduled for four days per week, with 1-2 of those days typically being lost to poor weather conditions. The vessel isn’t well suited to winter operation, and no other ferry in the area loses this number of days.

Moreover, crossings to Campobello end at 4:30 pm, limiting the timeframe for technicians or trades to service the island. And, after 4:30 on December 23rd, no crossings are scheduled until December 28th, making holiday travel to Campobello nearly impossible for most people.

Mainland families with children not yet fully vaccinated cannot travel through the Canada-US border without having their children excluded from school, daycare and community settings, forcing mainland families into an impossible situation of spending a second COVID Christmas separated from family on the island.

Meanwhile, the Human Development Council reports that childhood poverty on Campobello in 2021 has risen 9% to nearly 43%, giving the island the dubious distinction of having the highest level of childhood poverty outside of First Nations communities.

In an interview with Brunswick News, Minister Green appeared to soften her opposition to the ferry ever so slightly. “We’re not considering it at the moment,” she said, but I’m open to listen.” She acknowledged that there had been discussions with colleagues in the federal government on the issue.

An ACOA-sponsored 2019 feasibility study estimated it would cost government(s) nearly $2 million a year to fund a year-round ferry. However, the consultant also estimated the annual spinoff benefit to the New Brunswick business community at over $3 million – revenue that is currently going to the US.

UPDATE: On Dec. 16, news broke that the ferry service will be extended until May 31, 2022, in light of increasing COVID case counts, especially in Maine. For more details: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/campobello-island-ferry-extension-1.6288344

-with files from Justin Tinker

MARITIME BUS ENTERS YEAR 10, SETTING A NEW RECORD FOR PUBLIC TRANSIT ON PROVINCIAL HIGHWAYS

No operator in the motorcoach industry has ever continuously maintained more than nine years of serving all three Maritime provinces – until now. Maritime Bus entered its tenth year on December 1, and its founder says there’s no looking back. PHOTO – Maritime Bus/Coach Atlantic

On December 1, 2012, Maritime Bus picked up the pieces left behind by the multi-national owner of Acadian Lines, launching uninterrupted service extending from Sydney NS to Rivière-du-Loup QC.  Since then the locally-owned Charlottetown-based company has served all three Maritime provinces – operating daily schedules until the hammer-blow of COVID-19 struck. Through the worst of the pandemic, the company continued to run its buses, albeit on a reduced four-days-per-week basis. Now they’ve been back to daily except Saturday for nearly six months, with extra runs on Fridays and Sundays to accommodate weekend travel.

As the company enters its tenth year in business, it is passing a significant milestone. No other motorcoach operator has provided continuous service in all three provinces for longer than nine years. And, despite losing millions of dollars in gross revenue because of the pandemic, the founder says Maritime Bus is here to stay. Mike Cassidy told Brunswick News that the number of employees is down to 175 from the pre-pandemic peak of 515, directly attributable to the loss of charter, tour and cruise ship business. But he’s confident his business will bounce back once the travel industry recovers from the crisis.

“We’ve come too far; there is no giving up,” he told Daily Gleaner reporter Michael Staples. “I don’t have a give-me-up bone in my body.”

Despite some financial assistance from the three provincial governments, supported in part by Ottawa’s “Safe Restart” program, Maritime Bus still had to borrow $6 million to cover the financial impact of COVID-19.

For the time being, there are no plans to resume Saturday operation, but Mr. Cassidy says he’s sent a clear message to governments and politicians that the company is here to stay. He’s still actively advocating for a regional transportation plan – one that would connect communities without air or rail options – and he continues to urge the Government of Canada to assume a leadership role that would ensure coast-to-coast motorcoach service for people and packages.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS! YEAR END DONATION REMINDER

As we approach the holidays and the end of 2021, all of us at TAA would like to wish our readers and supporters a safe and happy holiday season, and a wonderful start to the new year ahead!

Our advocacy is supported entirely by the generous support of our members and donors, and we’d like to take this time to thank you all once again. If you aren’t yet a member, it’s always a good time to consider joining! https://transportactionatlantic.ca/membership/

In addition to membership, tax-deductible donations in support of our advocacy efforts are gratefully received online through Canada Helps. Don’t forget, December 31 is the deadline to receive a 2021 tax credit for your donation.