Atlantic Transport News – April 2021

Welcome to the April edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

MARINE ATLANTIC RATE INCREASE CANCELLED FOR 2021

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

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

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

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

ATLANTIC BUBBLE MAY RETURN THIS MONTH

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

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

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

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

Theo Moudakis – Toronto Star

AIRLINE SERVICE SHOWS SIGNS OF RECOVERY

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEANWHILE, ON THE GROUND…

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

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

SUBSIDY PRESERVES CAPE BRETON RAILWAY FOR ANOTHER YEAR

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

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

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

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

TRANSIT UNION MOUNTS ADVOCACY EFFORT

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

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

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

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

PETITCODIAC CROSSING CLOSURE BRINGS TRANSIT OPPORTUNITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAMPOBELLO FERRY ISSUE MAY BE TESTED IN COURT

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

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

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

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

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

REFOCUSING OUR PUBLICATION EFFORTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Vision for Public Transportation in the Maritimes

We can get there from here – it just takes co-operation

By David Coon

The old saying in downeast Maine that says, “You can’t get there from here,” nearly became reality for people needing to travel between northern and southern New Brunswick last month, unless they could drive. 

The federal Crown corporation that provided passenger rail service between Campbellton, Moncton and Halifax stopped its trains from venturing east of Quebec last year.  Next, PEI-based Maritime Bus came close to taking its buses off the road as the pandemic ate into its ridership.  An 11th hour decision by Premier Higgs to provide a $750,000 grant kept the bus links between Fredericton and Edmundston, Moncton and Campbellton, and Fredericton and Moncton, for now.

In the extreme southwest of the province, the Higgs government has been funding the tiny summer tourist ferry between Campobello Island and Deer Island to provide service through the winter. This enables Campobello residents to avoid the long trip through the hot zone that America has become, while providing a link to the island for mainlanders who can no longer cross into the U.S.  Service is spotty since it was never designed for the wind and seas that winter brings.

How has our public transportation network become so fragmented and brittle?  Like Grand Manan and Deer Island, Campobello was once linked by ferry to the mainland. Commuter trains linked Fredericton and Saint John. Daily rail service linked North with South. Bus service was available just about wherever you lived.

The need for public transportation services is growing with an aging population, the rising cost of vehicle ownership and insurance, increasing numbers of immigrants, the regionalization of public services, and the imperative of cutting transportation-related carbon pollution.

With public transportation services in disarray, it’s as if there is no one in charge – which there isn’t.  In fact, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure has no mandate to oversee the coordination of public transportation services. No civil servant has that turf. New Brunswick has only ever had a highway strategy. There has never been an integrated transportation strategy. 

This partly explains why New Brunswick hasn’t touched a dime of the $120 million in federal funding for public transportation projects allocated to the province as part of the ten-year $673 million infrastructure agreement that was signed with Ottawa in 2018.

There was no one to provide advice on how the transportation funding might be tailored to meet New Brunswick’s needs.  A ten-year public transportation strategy written for government, on the initiative of the Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation, could have provided guidance, but it was gathering dust on a shelf.  The infrastructure agreement with Ottawa got inked with $120 million for public transportation restricted for use by city transit services alone.

The Premier wants us to become more self-sufficient, but if you can’t afford to own a vehicle or are unable to drive one, that self-sufficiency becomes an impossible goal.  Just as deep cuts to our carbon footprint are impossible without shifting driving time to commuting time on a bus or train. 

To achieve our social, economic and environmental goals we must become more self-sufficient in public transportation.  How do we build a public transportation network that meets our needs, and what revenue will fund the necessary public investments?

This is a job for a public institution that crosses provincial borders.  I propose the creation of a Maritime Transportation Authority, a regional Crown corporation, that can quarterback the development of a public transportation network that enables us to travel where we need to go, when we need to go, throughout the Maritimes. 

I envision a seamless system of regional passenger rail, motor coach, and local transit services that are a mix of private, public and community enterprises.  We already have PEI-based Maritime Bus delivering some bus services, which could be expanded.  There are community-based transit services in some areas, ferry services in others, but no rail.  It is time for a Maritime rail service to be knitted into the mix. One ticket should get you where you want to go, from door to door.  Carbon tax revenues can help support operational costs.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is promising to spend nearly $15 billion on public transportation over the next eight years.  Let us seize that opportunity for the Maritimes, together, to increase the well-being of our citizens and propel us toward a greener economy by breathing life into a serviceable public transportation network that we can count on to get us there from here.


David Coon is leader of the New Brunswick Green Party and the MLA for Fredericton South. He is shown here addressing TAA’s annual general meeting in 2017.

Atlantic Transport News – February 2021

Welcome to the February edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

NORTHERN NEW BRUNSWICK MOTORCOACH SERVICE SAVED

With Jacques Pelletier at the wheel, Maritime Bus departs Moncton for Campbellton on the afternoon of February 1. This essential service for residents of northern New Brunswick will keep rolling through 2021, after a last-minute deal was reached among the bus company and three levels of government. 

New Brunswickers in the northern part of the province will continue to benefit from motorcoach passenger and parcel service through the remainder of 2021, after an eleventh-hour solution involving Maritime Bus and three levels of government was reached. Faced with mounting operating losses, the bus operator announced indefinite closure of its services between Moncton and Campbellton and Fredericton and Edmundston, effective January 15, unless the provincial government was prepared to lend a helping hand. The deadline was subsequently extended to month-end to allow more time for a solution to be worked out.

Although the governments of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island had declared their willingness to offer financial support to keep buses running through the pandemic, Premier Blaine Higgs refused to contribute, saying his government wasn’t going to fund for-profit corporations. The position ignored the harsh reality that the company lost nearly $4 million on its line-haul operations in 2020 because of COVID-19 – not to mention the massive revenue losses when its charter operations were brought to a standstill by the pandemic.

Under pressure from a wide variety of interests (including Transport Action Atlantic), the government finally backtracked. In a rare display of non-partisan solidarity, 21 senators from the Maritime provinces signed a letter to the Prime Minister urging help for the struggling bus industry. With a federal government contribution under the Safe Restart program on the table, the Province allocated some money through its Regional Development Corporation, and saved face by transferring the provincial share to the City of Edmundston to be passed on to Maritime Bus.

The northern municipalities, although pleased that a solution has been reached, were less than satisfied with the process. Apparently, this money was diverted from funding that the RDC was already holding for eventual distribution to towns and cities under the Safe Restart agreement, so the already cash-strapped municipal coffers were in effect paying for what they viewed as a provincial responsibility.

Mike Cassidy of Maritime Bus credits Local Government Minister Daniel Allain and Frédérick Dion of the Federation of Francophone Municipalities with brokering the eventual outcome, with the support of the senators and federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc. Curiously, the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure apparently wasn’t involved in the process at all.

Mr. Cassidy tells TAA that the level of political action in all this was incredible, commenting that it isn’t right to be so involved with politics when you are trying to save your company and industry, especially after the other two provinces agreed participate. Meanwhile, he is deeply concerned about the future of the motorcoach industry nation-wide, and is working with other operators to promote bus connectivity across Canada for both passengers and parcels post-COVID.

“Governments must understand that busing is part of the mobile infrastructure,” he says, adding that the first step should be getting all the provinces to co-operate in building back a cohesive coast-to-coast network.

MARINE ATLANTIC RATES INCREASED AGAIN

If you’re planning on taking Marine Atlantic’s Argentia ferry this summer, it’s going to cost you more. The Crown corporation has announced that most of its rates will be increasing as of April 1, in order to satisfy Transport Canada demands for 65% cost recovery.

It appears that Transport Canada is totally without mercy in its demands for 65% cost recovery on the constitutional Newfoundland ferry service provided by Marine Atlantic – global pandemic notwithstanding. On February 1 the federal Crown corporation announced that most of its rates would be going up at the start of the next fiscal year, beginning in April. A company spokesman told NTV News that Marine Atlantic had failed to meet its financial targets in 2020 because of dramatically reduced passenger revenues, and had no option but to aim for making up the shortfall in 2021.

There will be no increase in passenger and passenger vehicle rates on the North Sydney- Port aux Basques route, but both passenger and commercial users of the seasonal Argentia route (where Transport Canada requires full recovery on marginal costs) will pay 2.5% more. That, of course, assumes that the service actually runs this summer. It was cancelled entirely for 2020, but reservations are now being accepted for two round trips a week beginning in late June, with the possibility of a third sailing being added should demand materialize.

But far more critical is the two percent increase for commercial traffic on the company’s main route to Port aux Basques, coupled with a 3.4% hike in the drop trailer management fee. This is expected to have a noticeable impact on the cost of living on the island, as a large proportion of groceries and everyday household needs as well as building supplies are carried by drop trailers.

For the hospitality industry the fare hike comes at a particularly inopportune time. In the aftermath of COVID-19, with air transportation in serious crisis and unlikely to recover in the near future, affordable ferry service will be particularly important to the struggling tourism sector. If the Atlantic Bubble is restored by summer 2021, Marine Atlantic will be uniquely positioned to bring significant numbers of visitors from the Maritimes – if the price is right.

With no expectation the rate increase was imminent, Transport Action Atlantic had already initiated an effort to get ferry rates on the table as an issue in the February 13 provincial election. Although the service is clearly a federal responsibility, TAA believes the issue will only be addressed if there is a strong protest from provincial politicians. Accordingly, the parties had been asked to present their positions by answering two questions:

  • Does your party support the principle that the ferry service between Port aux Basques and North Sydney is a part of the Trans Canada Highway, and as such the cost to users should be comparable to travelling the equivalent distance by road?
  • Regardless of the outcome of the February 13 provincial election, will your party demand a full review of the existing Marine Atlantic ferry rates to ensure that the Government of Canada is compliant with the spirit of the 1949 Terms of Union?

TAA plans to post any responses received on its website prior to polling day.

ANOTHER SEASON LOST FOR BAR HARBOR FERRY

The Cat will sit idle for another year, as the full 2021 ferry season has been cancelled. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

It will be at least another year until the international ferry service between Yarmouth and Maine resumes. On February 1, the provincial government announced that the entire 2021 sailing season would be cancelled, citing ongoing COVID concerns, continued international border restrictions, and the likelihood that a critical percentage of the general population will not be vaccinated until the summer. The move is anticipated to save on certain costs such as marketing and season preparations and hiring crew, which would otherwise have taken place if the season was scheduled and later postponed or canceled. Still, there will be certain fixed costs to keep up basic maintenance and infrastructure work in the interim.

This will be the third year in a row that the high-speed Cat ferry will sit idle. The service for the 2019 season was slated to move its American terminus to Bar Harbor after previously serving Portland, but the move ran into hurdles with the completion of the new American facility, resulting in repeated postponements and then full cancellation of the season. With the terminal then complete, the 2020 season was anticipated to see a return, but COVID restrictions once again caused postponements and an eventual cancellation of the full season.

The absence of the ferry service has continued to be a blow to the tourism industry in southwest Nova Scotia, though as COVID continues to restrict non-essential travel, those challenges will persist with or without the ferry in operation. Hopefully the 2022 season will find the region (and the broader world!) in better shape.


AIRPORTS PLEAD FOR HELP AS SERVICE CUTBACKS CONTINUE

Graphic by James Fraser

Just when we thought the air travel situation in Atlantic Canada couldn’t get much worse – it did. Just days after indefinitely suspending all service from Sydney and Saint John, Air Canada added Fredericton to its no-fly list. As of January 23, the only airport in New Brunswick with scheduled passenger service is Moncton. And, on the same date, the direct Air Canada service between Toronto and St. John’s which had existed for decades came to an end.

The cutbacks in scheduled service have had a drastic effect on all airport authorities in the region.  Even for those now deserted by Air Canada and WestJet, the bills still have to be paid as the runways must be kept open for general aviation and emergency medical flights. The total revenue loss for 2020 among members of the Atlantic Canada Airports Association is estimated a $140 million, which the ACAA says will have a substantial impact on cash flow and future financial viability, with a severe trickle-down effect on the respective communities. They’re asking for federal government help to keep the lights on while they await the end of the pandemic. But even then, they aren’t expecting a rapid recovery.

Meanwhile, a retired airline executive told CBC News that he isn’t anticipating a quick resumption of the cancelled services once the pandemic subsides. Duncan Dee, former COO at Air Canada, said reactivating idle aircraft and personnel takes time, adding that he suspects management will take a “wait and see” attitude and evaluate demand at Moncton before making a decision on other New Brunswick airports.

The chambers of commerce in New Brunswick’s three largest cities are not content to wait. They’ve joined together in a united campaign to oppose those who suggest that single airport scheduled passenger service for the entire province may the way of the future. That possibility was raised in the recent provincial budget speech.  Moncton, Fredericton and Saint John were all profitable airports pre-pandemic, with a combined economic impact of $765 million, the chambers note, insisting that economic prosperity demands that scheduled service be returned to all three as the public health threat subsides.

The one airline that seems to be bucking the pandemic trend has been forced to adjust its services from Moncton to Newfoundland and Labrador to accommodate the latest round of travel restrictions. St. John’s-based PAL Airlines has abandoned its service between Charlo NB and Wabush NL, and combined it with a new route linking Moncton with Deer Lake. And, until interprovincial travel restrictions are eased, non-stop service between YQM and YYT has been temporarily eliminated. As of January 10, a tri-weekly DASH-8-300 is flying St. John’s – Deer Lake – Moncton – Wabush and return. PAL’s Janine Brown says a daily St. John’s – Moncton – Ottawa routing is still their post-pandemic objective, with a separate service planned for Deer Lake and Wabush.

VIA SERVICE WON’T BE BACK BEFORE MID-MAY

It will be May 15 at the earliest before VIA Rail’s Ocean again pulls out of Montreal’s Gare Centrale – and likely not even then if interprovincial pandemic travel restrictions are still in place.

In what continues to be a pattern fitting of Groundhog Day, VIA has extended the cancellation of the Ocean through at least May 15, 2021. This continues the rolling pattern of recent months, where bookings for the next few months were first blocked and then outright cancelled as time approached. It also now guarantees that the earliest possible service resumption on the east coast will be the beginning of what would normally be the peak season for the year, though it’s unlikely to be anything resembling the normal travel season, and leaves Atlantic Canada without passenger rail service for more than a year. It still remains to be seen what exactly the service offering will look like when the train does resume.

The exact date that service will actually resume still remains unclear. The passenger carrier continues to insist that it intends to resume service when it is safe to do so, but it is likely that this date will be dependent on when travel restrictions between Quebec and the Atlantic provinces ease – and that remains heavily dependent on COVID case numbers and dynamics between the provinces.

VIA has also extended the modified service offering on the Canadian, with only one weekly departure west of Winnipeg and heavily modified onboard services, through the middle of May, and the Winnipeg-Churchill’s economy-only service will also continue through that time. Meanwhile, further Corridor service reductions have rolled out in recent weeks in light of further restrictions in Ontario and Quebec. It’s clear all across the country that the interruptions to VIA will be here for some time yet.


TAA AWARD HONOURS TRANSIT AND MOTORCOACH DRIVERS

Metrobus operator Amy Bonnington is one of hundreds of transit and motorcoach drivers who’ve kept essential public service rolling throughout the pandemic. Transport Action Atlantic has collectively honoured all of them with the 2020 John Pearce Award.

Transit systems throughout the region continue to struggle under the pandemic burden of greatly reduced ridership revenue coupled with higher operating costs. But they were pleased to receive a bit of recognition from Transport Action Atlantic recently. TAA has decided to confer its John Pearce Award for 2020 collectively on all the transit and motorcoach drivers throughout the four provinces who have continued to report for duty without interruption during COVID-19 in order to transport essential workers to their jobs and ensure mobility within their communities. They faithfully fulfilled their daily responsibilities, and not without significant risk to their personal health and safety despite all the precautions that had been put in place.

“Halifax Transit’s bus operators and ferry crews’ pride in public service during COVID-19 has been exemplary,” said Dave Reage, director of Halifax Transit. “I am so proud of their ongoing commitment to our customers and community. Throughout these challenging times, they have worked together to keep Halifax moving!”

Judy Powell, general manager of Metrobus Transit in St. John’s commented “During this difficult time, they put our customers ahead of themselves to ensure the people of our communities could access essential goods and services.”

The John Pearce Award is given annually to recognize an outstanding contribution to the public transportation cause. It was created by TAA in 2017 to commemorate the lifetime achievements in public transportation advocacy by the late Mr. Pearce, a founding father of the association’s predecessor Transport 2000 Atlantic, a past president, and long-time member of the board.