Atlantic Transport News – October 2021

Welcome to the October edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

A NEW LIBERAL CHAMPION FOR PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION?

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ted Bartlett

NOVA SCOTIA SET TO COMPLETELY ABOLISH HIGHWAY TOLLS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-with files from Justin Tinker

NL PROVINCIAL FERRY ACQUISITION PANNED BY AUDITOR GENERAL

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

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

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

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

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

Atlantic Transport News – September 2021

Welcome to the September edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

SCANT ATTENTION TO TRANSPORTATION IN FEDERAL CAMPAIGN

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

OUR TAKE ON THE FEDERAL ELECTION TO DATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ted Bartlett

RESPONSIBILITY FOR TRANSPORTATION POLICY UNCLEAR FOLLOWING NOVA SCOTIA ELECTION UPSET

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

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

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

VIA WALKS BACKWARD ON SERVICE RESTORATION PLAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRAVEL INCREASED IN AUGUST – DESPITE COVID CHALLENGES

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRANSIT IS ON THE ROAD TO RECOVERY

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARINE ATLANTIC FERRY PLAN HITS ROUGH SEAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ted Bartlett

Atlantic Transport News – June 2021

Welcome to the June edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

DECISION MAKERS NEED PASSION AND COMMITMENT SAYS MOTORCOACH INDUSTRY LEADER

Maritime Bus owner Mike Cassidy (second from left) wants to hand over a successful motorcoach business to his sons Ryan, Matthew and Stephen – but he fears for the future of the industry because governments aren’t taking the public need seriously.  PHOTO – Maritime Bus

There’s an evident lack of passion and commitment about the public transportation needs of Canadians among key government decision makers, according to the Prince Edward Island entrepreneur who rescued line-haul motorcoach service in the Maritimes from the brink of oblivion nine years ago. Mike Cassidy was guest speaker at the virtual annual general meeting of Transport Action Canada held on May 27. 

In an hour-long “fireside chat” with TAC members, the Maritime Bus owner expressed his frustration with all the politics inherent in the struggle to re-establish a coast-to-coast network of motorcoach operators to transport both people and parcels between communities that are badly underserved by public transportation. Mr. Cassidy is one of several independent bus company operators from across the country that are working together in an effort to jointly assemble a coherent national system from the wreckage left in the wake of Greyhound’s abandonment of its Canadian operations.

Although the technology exists to establish an integrated system for reservations and package interlining, the support of governments – especially the Government of Canada – is essential to make it happen, he insists. And there’s little indication of any appetite or sense of urgency at the top. While some individual politicians, including some Liberal MPs, have been supportive, there’s no passion for public transportation among those with the authority to make decisions and who ultimately control the purse-strings.

There is indication that the federal government’s new Rural Transit Fund is only available for non-profit organizations, which could be another nail in the coffin for companies like Maritime Bus. Senior officials are evidently not prepared to acknowledge that commercial motorcoach operators are in dire straits and in need of a helping hand because of the pandemic. His company was modestly profitable prior to 2020, Mr. Cassidy says, and he’s built his business on passion and a commitment to the industry. He’s proud of the fact that he was able to succeed where big corporations like the multi-national transportation giant Keolis could not. And during the COVID crisis buses have continued to carry people to their destinations when trains and flights have been suspended. Now should have been the time to invest in motorcoach, but it is not happening. Even Greyhound’s demise has not been enough to ignite the passion. 

“I just wish the Canadian government believed in Canadian bus companies,” he concluded, adding that a modest investment of $30 million over ten years would be sufficient to restart and maintain the coast-to-coast motorcoach system.

-Ted Bartlett

NL MOTORCOACH OPERATOR MAY BE FORCED TO SHUT DOWN

Despite several interruptions during COVID-19 peaks, DRL Coachlines has for the most part maintained its daily service across Newfoundland. But ridership is a fraction of pre-pandemic levels, and mounting losses may soon force the company to shut down. PHOTO – Canadian Public Transit Discussion Board

The owner and general manager of the motorcoach company that operates a 900 km daily service on the Trans-Canada Highway across Newfoundland’s cross-island bus line says ridership has hit rock bottom because of COVID-19. Without some form of financial relief from government, Jason Roberts says the mounting losses may force his operation to shut down as early as this month.

“It’s very, very disheartening,” he told CBC News, adding that he’s been asking both the federal and provincial governments for months to extend a helping hand that would enable his company to weather the pandemic storm – but to no avail.

There’s plenty of precedent for taxpayer assistance to for-profit companies during the pandemic, Mr. Roberts said, pointing to massive federal bailouts for air carriers and interim funding offered for bus operations by provincial governments in the Maritimes.

“Everyone’s trying to stay put as much they can so, I don’t expect them to travel, but the ones who got to travel, they still need a means to go,” he said, adding that if he has to suspend DRL’s daily services, it might not make sense to start them up again a few months down the line. “It’s not going to be easy to pick it up and put it back on the road, and make it something that’s going to be very flourishing again, so it’s very important for us to keep going,” he said. DRL acquired the trans-island bus service from newly-privatized Canadian National in 1997. The so-called “Roadcruiser Service” had replaced the CN passenger train in 1969, and federal government responsibility to ensure continuing service at fares consistent with passenger rail elsewhere in Canada was acknowledged in the 1988 federal-provincial Memorandum of Understanding that provided for final abandonment of the Newfoundland Railway.

LITTLE GOOD NEWS FOR REGION AT VIA PUBLIC MEETING

When VIA’s Ocean returns post-pandemic, it will have a different look and feel – and be lacking certain amenities. However, the company is providing few details on its plans for future service, beyond confirming that the train will be back at some point in some form. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

For the second year in a row, VIA’s Annual Public Meeting was an entirely virtual affair, featuring a pre-recorded video update from CEO Cynthia Garneau and other senior VIA management. The 22-minute video, which can be found on both YouTube and the VIA Rail website, offered little by way of specific details, but the overall message was clear – 2020 was an extremely unusual and difficult year for VIA, and the railway isn’t out of the woods yet. Recently released annual and quarterly reports tell much the same story, with ridership plummeting through 2020 as the combination of rail blockades and the pandemic restricted travel and curtailed most of VIA’s services. Still, with the first of the new trains for the Corridor nearly ready to arrive for testing and vaccination roll-outs moving at full speed across the country, there are some reasons to have optimism about things improving in the near future. 

At the time of writing, the Ocean is currently suspended through the end of July 2021. However, with vaccinations continuing at a rapid pace and the various Atlantic provinces unveiling reopening plans that could see less restricted travel from the rest of the country by late July or early August, there is actually some hope that this could really be one of if not the last extensions of the now nearly 16-month service suspension. At TAA’s recent AGM, Philippe Cannon, VIA Rail’s director of public affairs and government relations, explained that the corporation is continuing consultation with representatives from both the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia governments to discuss when conditions will allow the resumption of service. He did acknowledge, however, that the train won’t be back until border restrictions have been lifted and all parties involved are satisfied that it’s safe and feasible to do so.

In addition to the public meeting itself, VIA provided a Q&A document addressing common questions that were submitted in advance of the meeting. As is often the case, the answers were not as thorough as one might hope, nor do they provide much clarification beyond what was already known. For the Ocean, there’s a reiteration of the plan for a bidirectional train using a mix of Renaissance and HEP equipment, but beyond that the answers offer no new details. Responses about whether any sort of dome car will be in the consist to replace the Park car offer only a look at what may be the case while the pandemic is still a concern (and while the Ocean is still unlikely to be running!), and no forward-looking plan. There is also still no commitment to improve service frequency or track conditions, and no further details about what plans may be in place to replace the rapidly deteriorating long distance train fleet. https://corpo.viarail.ca/sites/default/files/media/pdf/speeches/2021%20Annual%20Public%20Meeting_VIA%20Rail_Q&A_EN.pdf

At the very least, both the comments in the public meeting itself and the Q&A document reiterated a commitment to restore service on the Ocean – albeit at the inadequate tri-weekly schedule in place since 2012 – as soon as conditions allow. One answer in the Q&A document even states that The Ocean is a pillar of VIA Rail’s service offering providing essential intercity travel as well as attracting tourists from around the world. VIA Rail remains committed to serving communities in Eastern Canada, and to a full recovery of this route when conditions will allow it”. Now if only VIA would actually treat the Ocean as though it were the “pillar” that they claim it to be, by making the service offering more attractive and useful to the communities it serves!

-Tim Hayman

TWO VIA STATIONS IN NORTHERN NB FACE DEMOLITION

The VIA Rail station in Jacquet River NB is shown in happier times, about 15 years ago, when the Canadian flag was still proudly flown on the property. Unstaffed for many years and with no apparent community interest, the structure is one of two on the Ocean route reportedly slated for demolition. PHOTO – Steve Boyko Collection

Two unstaffed VIA Rail stations in northern New Brunswick are about to be demolished, according to informed sources in the area. The “request stops” for the Ocean at Charlo and Jacquet River, two small communities located between Bathurst and Campbellton, have been unstaffed for many years. The sources are telling TAA that there’s been no apparent interest from either community in taking over the facilities, as has been done with some other stations in the Maritimes and elsewhere where there wasn’t sufficient traffic to warrant the continued presence of VIA employees.

The buildings have reportedly been deteriorating over time, particularly at the Jacquet River location where the roof is said to be in need of major repairs if the building were to be once again made available as a shelter for rail travellers. TAA was not able to confirm reports that tenders had been called by VIA for demolition of the buildings, and at this writing there had been no response to questions directed to the company. It is not known if the Ocean will continue to stop on request at Jacquet River and Charlo when it returns to service post-pandemic.

LIVELY DISCUSSION AT TAA’S VIRTUAL ANNUAL MEETING

Perhaps the current federal government really does believe that Canada ends at Quebec City – at least as far as political influence is concerned. That not-so-encouraging thought was just one of many that emerged during Transport Action Atlantic’s annual general meeting held on May 15. For 2021 the AGM was once again a virtual affair, using the Zoom platform. The now-familiar technology, which admittedly lacks the social benefit of face-to-face contact, does have the advantage of enabling participation by members for whom distance might make attending an in-person meeting difficult or impossible. The online turnout was quite impressive, with representation from all four Atlantic provinces – and beyond.

University of New Brunswick economist Herb Emery told the meeting that the Trudeau Government appears to be firmly focused on the vote-rich territory of Canada’s six largest urban areas. That makes it extremely challenging for smaller cities to get attention, and to reap a fair share of infrastructure funding.

UNB’s Dr. Herb Emery says the Trudeau government is focusing heavily on Canada’s six largest urban centres, to the detriment of smaller cities and rural areas.

TAA’s old familiar refrain that “Canada doesn’t end at Quebec City” would seem to be well directed, Dr. Emery suggested. He senses it will be an uphill struggle to persuade the federal cabinet to invest in “building back better” through climate-friendly projects such as passenger rail and public transit outside the areas of the country that they evidently have identified as priorities.

Meanwhile, the transportation implications of “The Big Reset” – Newfoundland and Labrador’s recently unveiled economic recovery report – were reviewed by TAA board member Tom Beckett. He told the meeting that there are many aspects or opportunities missing or overlooked in the document, noting that the work was directed from the UK by ex-pat Newfoundlander Dame Moya Greene, former head of both Canada Post Corporation and Britain’s Royal Mail, who is known as a strong supporter of privatizing public services.

Included in the report are a suggested 1.5 cents per litre tax on gasoline, a recommendation to support electric car adoption (without the recognition of a need to replace the gasoline tax as electric vehicles become a larger portion of the fleet), an acknowledgement the provincial ferry service is very expensive, and an obvious statement that the provincial road system is quite large and costly to maintain.

One missed opportunity, according to Tom Beckett, is the new ro-ro ferry service between NL and the French enclave of St. Pierre off the island’s south coast, which now can accommodate all vehicles up to and including transport trucks. St. Pierre itself has a trans-Atlantic marine service subsidized by France which has plenty of room on the return crossing.

“This places the EU directly accessible to Newfoundland through Fortune. Live Fortune Bay lobster in Paris, Newfoundland beverage alcohol on the Champs-Élysées, and other products routed to new EU markets. More money in the pockets of Newfoundlanders,” he said. “St. Pierre also has seasonal service by Air France. This provides a spectacular opportunity to draw tourists into the province. Perhaps a strategic private sector partnership orchestrated by government but funded entirely with private sector capital?”

The Big Reset makes no mention of the need to get the 65% cost recovery on Marine Atlantic rates reduced substantially to the benefit of the entire economy, or the significant savings on school busing that could be attained by providing Metrobus passes and service within St. John’s and Mount Pearl. Tom also suggested that significant revenue could be obtained from placing a small toll of perhaps a dollar a trip on the four-lane divided highways in the northeast Avalon which have free alternatives – a concept similar to the 407 north of Toronto. Finally, there is no suggestion of incorporation of transportation elements into the provincial pandemic recovery.

SAINT JOHN AND HALIFAX DIVIDED ON US RAIL MERGER

Hapag-Lloyd’s Liverpool Express docked at Saint John on May 27, the first arrival in the shipping line’s new Mediterranean Canada service. CP Rail is heavily promoting its renewed connection with the port (through Irving-owned NB Southern) as part of its “East Coast Advantage”. Saint John is the only port in the Maritimes served by both of Canada’s major railways. PHOTO – Port of Saint John

A multi-billion dollar battle between Canada’s two major railways over a potential merger with smaller US carrier Kansas City Southern has put Atlantic Canada’s two largest seaports in opposing corners. The high-stakes conflict began when Canadian Pacific and KCS made their merger plans known earlier this year. It was too much for arch-rival Canadian National, which promptly countered with a higher bid that was ultimately accepted by the KCS board of directors. CP declined to sweeten its offer, expressing confidence that the CN proposal would not get the approval of US regulators.

Kansas City Southern serves multiple destinations in Mexico, so the merged railway would link all three countries in the North American free trade pact – a substantial competitive advantage.

Some three decades after selling its “short line” to the Maritimes, CP is now once again involved with the Port of Saint John in a big way through its connection with the JD Irving-owned shortline NB Southern. Although CN also runs to Saint John, it is the only railway serving Halifax. As might be expected, both the Nova Scotia government and the Halifax Port Authority are strongly supporting the CN bid.  Premier Iain Rankin has written a letter backing CN’s proposal.

“Any growth in the CN network is a growth opportunity for the Port of Halifax,” said port CEO Capt. Allan Gray in an interview with CBC News. “We’re reaching deeper into the U.S. market. So this is a whole new market space for the Port of Halifax.”

Meanwhile, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs has written to US regulators, urging them to reject the CN bid.

UNCERTAINTY SURROUNDS ATLANTIC BUBBLE

The four Atlantic provincial governments seem to be on different pages when it comes to an Atlantic Bubble agreement for summer 2021. While NB appears poised to allow visitors from PEI without quarantine in the first half of June, crossing Confederation Bridge in the reverse direction without restriction may not be possible until much later. NS and NL also have varied recovery plans that threaten to complicate summer travel between provinces. PHOTO – Maritime Bus

With summer in the air, an Atlantic Bubble that would permit unrestricted travel among the four provinces is far from a done deal. Originally planned to launch on April 19, the agreement that was so successful in 2020 has now been postponed twice. The sudden and severe third wave of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia truly upset the apple cart, and blossom time was devoid of out-of-province visitors. In fact, for most of May even travel between adjacent communities in the fabled Annapolis Valley or elsewhere in NS was prohibited.

As the calendar turned into June, the overall case count in the region had improved considerably, but each provincial government seemed intent on a different path for return to normalcy. On June 1, NS was reporting 369 active cases – down by nearly half from the beginning of May. It had peaked at well over 1500 at mid-month. NL reported 90 cases – up from 33 on May 1 – resulting from outbreaks in the central and western regions of the province. NB’s count was essentially unchanged at 142, while PEI had only four cases, down from 12 a month earlier.

In 2020 a remarkable spirit of co-operation led to a highly-successful four-province agreement that attracted national attention. By allowing freedom of movement at a time when COVID case counts were relatively low throughout the region, many tourism operators were able to salvage at least something from the summer and fall seasons. Despite a few bumps in the road, Atlantic Canada is still in a relatively good situation, but some alarming occurrences since late last year have apparently made officials and politicians nervous. In addition, there are two new premiers who are still feeling their way through difficult times. In Nova Scotia, Iain Rankin is being quite cautious about opening his province to visitors, while Premier Andrew Furey seems to have yielded somewhat to tourism industry advocates who want to see NL opened to the rest of Canada this summer. However, barring a change of heart, it would appear that visitors from Ontario won’t be able to travel through Nova Scotia to get to Newfoundland. There’s also an evident lack of reciprocity between New Brunswick and PEI. And the situation seems to get ever more complicated as the peak travel season approaches. The earliest suggested date for a 2021 Atlantic Bubble is now July 1 – but that’s certainly not carved in stone.

All this has serious implications for transportation companies, as well as tourism operators. There have already been postponements of announced start-ups and restarts of air services around the region, motorcoach services in the Maritimes remain on a four-days-per-week schedule and the line-haul operator in Newfoundland says it may have to shut down entirely by the end of June if some financial relief isn’t forthcoming. Meanwhile, VIA Rail has confirmed that its return to service in the region will not happen until travel restrictions between Quebec and New Brunswick are lifted.