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 – 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.

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!