Atlantic Transport News – December 2021

Welcome to the December edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

ATMOSPHERIC RIVER SEVERS TCH IN WESTERN NEWFOUNDLAND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ted Bartlett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Ted Bartlett

SECOND OCEAN FREQUENCY STARTS IN TIME FOR HOLIDAY SEASON TRAVEL

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Tim Hayman

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

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

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

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

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

• Corridor Routes (Routes 1 – 9) 

• Local Routes (Routes 20 – 99)

• Express Routes (Routes 100 through 199)

• Regional Express Routes (Route 300 – 399)

• Rural Routes (Routes 400 – 499)

• Ferry Routes (Routes 500- 599)

• School Routes (Routes 700-799)

• Access-A-Bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

METROBUS TO LAUNCH “ZIP NETWORK” IN JANUARY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-with files from Justin Tinker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HAPPY HOLIDAYS! YEAR END DONATION REMINDER

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

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

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

Atlantic Transport News – July 2021

Welcome to the July edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

ELECTRIC FERRIES PLANNED FOR HRM

A look at the proposed new ferry routes under Halifax’s Rapid Transit Strategy. The first route from Mill Cove to downtown Halifax got a major boost in the past month, with funding from all levels of government to move the project ahead. GRAPHIC – Halifax Regional Municipality

Halifax Transit has received a major boost to one of their rapid transit plans, as all levels of government have stepped in with funding to move ahead with a plan to launch a fast, electrified ferry service from Bedford into downtown Halifax. Halifax Transit had announced the plan as part of their Rapid Transit Strategy, and in June the federal, provincial and municipal governments announced funding support to move the project toward becoming reality.

The full project, which will involve the construction of new ferry terminals, replacement of the downtown Halifax terminal, and the purchase of new vessels for the service, is estimated to cost $134.5 million. An initial $3.3 million study to plan and engineer the service will be supported by $1.1 million from the province of Nova Scotia, $1.3 million from the federal government, and another $917,000 from the Halifax Regional Municipality. This phase of the project is expected to be complete in 2022, with hopes that the ferry service will be able to launch in 2024.

In a separate announcement, the HRM announced a tender for design concepts for the rebuild of the downtown terminal and the design of the new Mill Cove terminal. The downtown terminal will need to be expanded significantly to accommodate the new electric vessels planned for the service, and the Mill Cove terminal will need to include bridges across the CN rail line.

A fast ferry service has been proposed a number of times over the years as a solution to traffic congestion on the Bedford Highway, and as a way to provide a more efficient public transit connection into the downtown core. When recent attempts at commuter rail fell through, the ferry service has again risen to the top as a viable option, promising travel times to downtown that can beat driving even at off-peak times, and far exceed anything that is possible by car or bus during peak rush hour. With the new addition of exploring an all-electric ferry, the service is even more attractive to multiple levels of government that are prioritizing a shift to clean, sustainable public transportation options. All being well, this will turn out to be the first step in an important expansion of Halifax’s transit network.

-Tim Hayman

ATLANTIC BUBBLE OFF TO A SHAKY START – AT LAST!

Traffic was backed up as far as the eye could see on the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst NS as protesters expressed their displeasure with more stringent provincial travel restrictions imposed just days before the 2021 version of the Atlantic Bubble was launched. This year there’s less consistency among the provincial governments, so travellers would be wise to check the rules in advance before attempting to cross provincial boundaries. PHOTO – RCMP on Twitter

It will be a bit different from last summer’s successful formula, but the 2021 version of the Atlantic Bubble is finally up and running. Postponed several times, the arrangement permits travel (with a few restrictions) among the four provinces, without the requirement to self-isolate. The four governments had evident difficulty in reaching a consensus, perhaps due in part to the presence of two new premiers in the mix this year. In any event, it did not come together without a rather public difference of opinion between the premiers and chief medical health officers of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick – one that resulted in a protest blockade of the Trans-Canada Highway near Amherst that required RCMP intervention, and got the local MLA booted from the NS PC caucus over her apparent role in the illegal activity.

With the rapid acceleration of COVID inoculations throughout the region and a steep decline in active cases during June, the travel outlook is certainly looking brighter for the summer of 2021. As of July 1, Nova Scotia was reporting 51 cases, down from 369 a month earlier; New Brunswick had 24 compared to 142; NL had just five, a drop from 90; and PEI had only one, having gone for over three weeks during June without a single new case being reported. Nonetheless, visitors to the Island this year must apply online for a “PEI Pass” prior to arrival. That’s just one of many variations in the rules among the provinces, so travellers would be well-advised to check in advance before hitting the road to avoid any unpleasant surprises.

VIA RAIL PREPARES TO RESUME OCEAN SERVICE – BUT IT WON’T BE THE SAME

When the post-pandemic Ocean returns, among the missing amenities will be the iconic Park-series domed observation cars. Designed to operate in the forward-facing direction only, they can no longer be turned at Halifax. VIA hasn’t yet provided full details of future train consists, but we will soon find out when a train makes its way to Halifax for the service resumption. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

It’s been a long 17 months, but VIA Rail’s Ocean service is finally returning to the Maritimes – even if it won’t look quite the same as it did when the last train departed in March of 2020. VIA has just announced that the Ocean will resume its operations from Halifax on August 11, 2021, with a single weekly departure in each direction.

https://media.viarail.ca/en/press-releases/2021/rails-ocean-service-gradually-resume-starting-august-11

The first train will depart Halifax on August 11th, and the first eastbound trip will depart Montreal on August 15th; this will make for a schedule featuring Wednesday departures from Halifax and Sunday departures from Montreal, presumably following the same timetable as before the pandemic. VIA has labeled this a “gradual” resumption of service, and expressed optimism that additional frequencies will follow shortly; at the time of writing, an advisory on the VIA website shows tri-weekly service resuming in October, but this is always subject to change.

Consistent with trains like the Canadian that have been operating up to this point, the Ocean’s on board service offering will be much different during the first days of operation. Both Economy and Sleeper classes will be offered, in a mix of Renaissance and HEP1 stainless steel equipment, but passengers will not have free movement throughout the train. Sleeper passengers are asked to stick to their rooms for the duration of the trip, and Economy passengers to stay at their seats aside from trips to the washroom, or presumably stretch breaks at longer station stops. Passengers must wear masks on board, in keeping with federal requirements, except when eating or drinking or when in their own private rooms. Food service will be provided by cart to Economy passengers, and by room service to sleeper passengers – no meals in the dining car, for now. There will also be no lounge access for the time being, and while a Skyline dome may eventually be included in the consist, there won’t be one for the time being. As has been the case throughout the pandemic, all of these restrictions are subject to change as the situation evolves.

A special deadhead train will soon head east to ferry equipment from Montreal to Halifax to allow for crew training and the first departure from Halifax (*UPDATE: This deadhead train arrived in Halifax on the morning of July 13th). With the service shut down for such an extended period, quite a number of crew members have no doubt chosen to take retirement or have found other employment, so new on board crew training will be essential. Once this consist heads east, we should finally get a look at the new incarnation of the Ocean, now that the train cannot be turned. We expect to see a hybrid hodge-podge of Renaissance and HEP equipment, with baggage cars on both ends and no Park car, on account of the need to run the train in reverse for the return trip.

Regardless of the changes to the train, it is still a positive sign to see VIA’s return to the region, and TAA will continue to advocate for a full service resumption as soon as possible, and further improvements moving into the future.

VIA’s return to Halifax – on July 13, 2021, a full 16 months after the last train #15 departed on March 13, 2020, VIA equipment has at last returned to Halifax. With the locomotives back to back and the new bidirectional consist in tow, this consist will be used for on board crew training over the next several weeks, and depart Halifax as train #15 on August 11th. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

“OPEN WITH AN ASTERISK” – A DIFFERENT SUMMER AT MARINE ATLANTIC

MV Atlantic Vision will be making fewer appearances at Argentia this summer. Pandemic precautions have reduced the maximum passenger numbers to 300 per crossing, and a reduced level of customer amenities will be offered. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

More than two weeks delayed from the originally planned date, MV Atlantic Vision docked at Argentia NL on the morning of July 5, marking the launch a scaled-down 2021 seasonal service. Although it is a significant improvement over 2020 when the route did not operate at all, the Vision will be sailing this summer under the dark cloud of COVID-19. Consequently, many of the onboard amenities that had helped make the trip a special travel experience in recent years won’t be offered. And, there will be only two weekly round trips instead of the usual three.

Colin Tibbo, Marine Atlantic’s chief information officer and acting vice-president of customer experience, says there is sufficient flexibility in their operational plan to allow for a third return crossing should demand exceed expectations. But for now the departures from North Sydney will be at 1730 ADT on Sunday and Wednesday only, sailing from Argentia at 1700 NDT on Monday and Thursday. To allow for social distancing there will be a limit of 300 passengers per crossing, which means much of the auto deck space will be empty. Most of the passengers are expected to be in cabin accommodation, and Mr. Tibbo notes that demand for private rooms is stronger than ever. In fact, he senses a trend where this is a make-or-break condition for many prospective customers. However, the good news for unberthed passengers in lounges is that they will be sufficiently spaced so that wearing of masks will not be required once they are seated.

The popular buffet dining option on the Vision has fallen victim to the pandemic – perhaps permanently – and the upscale dining room experience will also not be offered this year. The only alternative to the ship’s rather small snack bar will be a light meal service available in the bar lounge area.

Mr. Tibbo said the company did not want to cancel the Argentia run again this year, despite the pandemic uncertainty, because they consider it to be an important part of their summer service offering. He noted that, despite the limited amenities, the initial July 4 departure was booked to 98% of its reduced passenger capacity a few days prior to sailing, which attests to the popularity of the seasonal route. The online “rolling schedule” that now allows customers to reserve up to 16 months in advance shows a return to three weekly crossings in 2022.

A similar passenger limitation applies to the year-round North Sydney-Port aux Basques route, where there are a minimum of two daily sailings. Public health measures are likewise in effect, and passenger amenities have been reduced accordingly. Commercial drivers are now berthed in single-occupancy cabins, which places additional pressure on accommodations aboard the Blue Puttees and Highlanders. The volume of commercial traffic hasn’t been significantly affected during the pandemic, and passenger bookings as of early July were running between 30 and 40 percent higher than corresponding dates in 2020.

Customer expectations for Marine Atlantic appear to have adjusted somewhat because of COVID-19, just as they have elsewhere in the transportation and hospitality industries, but Mr. Tibbo expects they will become higher with the passage of time. He’s reluctant, however, to predict timelines for the return to a higher level of customer amenities.

“We’ll see how it unfolds,” he says, “For now, we’re open – with an asterisk!”

-Ted Bartlett

MARITIME BUS BEGINS SIX-DAY OPERATION; DRL SOLDIERS ON

After a financially-challenging winter and spring, maintaining service only three times a week, Maritime Bus increased to a daily-except-Saturday schedule at the end of June. Owner Mike Cassidy is looking ahead to better days, but there’s still no indication of any federal support for a national integrated motorcoach network. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

With the rejigged Atlantic Bubble now in effect, Maritime Bus owner Mike Cassidy is looking ahead to better days – but he finds it hard to be optimistic. In anticipation of increased travel, the company bumped its schedules up to six days a week effective June 23, but uptake has been very slow, with three different reopening plans in the Maritime provinces having a dampening effect on ridership.

There’s been no response to date to the industry’s urgent pleas for federal support and a modest financial commitment to help rebuild a national intercity motorcoach network in the wake of Greyhound’s complete abandonment of Canadian service and the devastation of COVID-19.

“It appears as if there is no champion at the federal or provincial level,” Mr. Cassidy commented. “All I can say is that busing in Canada needs help.”

Meanwhile in Newfoundland, the orange DRL coaches are still plying their 900 km. route, serving 25 stops along the Trans-Canada highway from St. John’s to Port aux Basques. This despite a warning from owner Jason Roberts last month that financial pressures might force the company to cease operations. There’s been no word on the possibility of any assistance from the cash-strapped provincial government, along the lines of emergency aid extended earlier this year to Maritime Bus by Nova Scotia, PEI, and (after some prodding) New Brunswick.

But unlike elsewhere in Canada, there appears to be some onus on Ottawa to support DRL, which 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. However, none of the province’s six Liberal MPs have as yet weighed in on the issue.

SHUTTERED AIRPORTS REOPEN – WITH SOME NEW SERVICES

A water cannon salute greets PAL flight 905 on its inaugural arrival at Fredericton from Newfoundland on June 28. YFC was one of three Maritime airports to reopen late last month, after being closed since January. PHOTO – PAL Airlines

With the gradual lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, the aviation industry in Atlantic Canada is at last on final approach to what may prove to be a long period of recovery. Three regional airports in the Maritimes that had been completely devoid of scheduled passenger service for more than five months reopened for business in late June, and flight frequencies at others that had maintained limited service during the pandemic were noticeably increased. There were even some new destinations on departure boards around the region as airport spokespersons expressed cautious optimism.

Notable among recent developments was the return of scheduled service to Saint John, Fredericton and Sydney, which had been in hibernation since January. In addition to the return of Air Canada services to Toronto and Montreal, and WestJet flights to Toronto, YFC welcomed its first-ever direct service to and from Newfoundland with a tri-weekly flight by PAL Airlines to and from St. John’s with an intermediate stop at Deer Lake. In addition to the return of Air Canada service, discount carrier Flair Airlines was offering flights to Toronto from YSJ for as little as $49 one-way on a once-a-week 737 jet. At Sydney, WestJet resumed service to and from Halifax, while Air Canada was offering direct flights to Toronto.

St. John’s welcomed the return of direct service to Toronto by both Air Canada and WestJet, after an absence of several months. It would appear that Air Canada has no plans to resume local services between Halifax and various Maritime airports, but it looks like PAL is moving in to take up where the national carrier left off. PAL’s ambitious expansion plans also include offering service to Ottawa beginning in August. And by the time Porter Airlines returns to the skies in September, they may find the field a little bit crowded.

But make no mistake: air travel is by no means back to normal, or even approaching a new normal. The majority of the reinstated services are at greatly reduced frequencies – less than daily in many cases. Even the most optimistic air travel advocates will acknowledge that the road back will be a difficult one. Many restrictions remain in place, with most airports limiting access to their facilities strictly to passengers holding tickets. Most food and beverage concessions have not reopened, and masks must be worn continuously from entering the departure terminal until the exit on arrival.

There’s been no indication as to if or when overseas flights might return to Halifax Stanfield International Airport. For the foreseeable future, Atlantic Canadians destined to Europe or the UK will be obliged to fly several hours in the wrong direction before heading across the big pond.

NEW RURAL AND SMALL TOWN TRANSIT INITIATIVES UNDERWAY

A new fully-accessible transit service in Nova Scotia’s Pictou County launched on May 17, bringing public transportation back to New Glasgow and Stellarton after a 25-year absence. PHOTO – PC Transit

Residents of the Nova Scotia towns of New Glasgow and Stellarton are once again able to avail of public transit. Pictou County has not seen such a service since 1996, and the three-year pilot project should provide ample opportunity to prove that it is both needed and sustainable. 

Ridership numbers will determine if the service continues past the three-year trial, and promoters emphasize it is very important the community support the service by using it. 

The route is a one-hour bus loop through the two towns, but it’s been named Pictou County Transit in the hope that other communities will join in. 

The new, fully accessible, one-door-for-all, low-floor bus made its inaugural run on May 17.  The $190,000 capital cost was underwritten by the Province of Nova Scotia, which is also fully funding the first year of operations. Years two and three will see Stellarton and New Glasgow pay $50,000 and $100,000 annually, respectively. 

Meanwhile in New Brunswick, the community group Eastern Charlotte Waterways (ECW) has been awarded a rural transit pilot project grant by Environment and Climate Change Canada.  The federal funding will provide a new ride-share transportation system to the community of Blacks Harbour and the southwest New Brunswick region.

A media release says that issues of mobility and accessibility in rural communities are well documented, and Blacks Harbour is no exception. This pilot project aims to address these transportation issues by providing a fleet of electric cars for community-wide use. It will act as an on-demand door-to-door service. The new rideshare system which will launch in the fall of 2021, is the natural next step in working towards designing sustainable systems for rural communities in Charlotte County.

“ECW’s mandate has always been supporting sustainable projects that benefit local residents and the environment,” says Rick MacMillan, the group’s chair. “This investment will improve accessibility and the livelihoods of people in our community while raising the profile of the village to attract new businesses, visitors, and residents. Providing this climate-friendly ride-share program helps facilitate the community’s potential growth through connectivity.”

Blacks Harbour and the greater southwestern New Brunswick region has not had a public transportation option since the end of the RuralLynx project in 2020. With federal support, ECW will be able to operate an integrated public transportation model, built upon eight years of extensive research and reports from the Southwest Transit Authority Board as well as other community organizations both in and outside the province of New Brunswick. The announcement notes that the ECW team will be working collaboratively with key community partners that include the Charlotte County Multicultural Association and Vibrant Communities Charlotte County to ensure the pilot project is successful in providing all community members with an efficient, affordable and climate-friendly way to get around. This rural transit pilot project is described as an investment in social infrastructure that prioritizes rural communities and facilitates future growth.

FARES REMOVED FROM NOVA SCOTIA PROVINCIAL FERRIES

Passengers on the Englishtown Ferry in Cape Breton will no longer have to pay a fare, nor will users of any other of the intraprovincial ferries in Nova Scotia. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

Drivers in Nova Scotia will no longer have to pay to use any of the province’s seven intra-provincial ferry services, as the provincial government announced the permanent removal of ferry fees in late June. The ferry services, operated by Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, include those at Englishtown and Little Narrows in Cape Breton, Country Harbour on the Eastern Shore,  Tancook and LaHave on the south shore, and Petit Passage and Grand Passage on Digby Neck.

When announcing the permanent removal of user fees, which had been waived in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, Premier Iain Rankin said the change will make transportation more “affordable and accessible for Nova Scotians”. Transportation Minister Lloyd Hines noted that the fees only covered a small percentage of operating costs, and were inefficient to collect and becoming an increasing burden to administer.

The province hopes that the removal of fees will help to encourage tourism by making more parts of the province more easily accessible, though it’s likely no coincidence that a provincial election is expected in the coming months.

Transportation and COVID-19 – an Atlantic Canada update as of June 1, 2020

Atlantic Canada continues to fare better than the rest of Canada under the COVID-19 emergency, with Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador showing a significantly improving public health picture over the past month. New Brunswick, unfortunately, suffered a setback in the Campbellton area late in May, and at month end was reporting a total of 12 active cases, out of a total of 30 in the four provinces. The Atlantic premiers remain focused on keeping the infection away from the region, and rigid travel restrictions remain in effect. The tourism outlook for 2020 is bleak indeed.

The only interprovincial travel now available in the region (other than private auto and a single daily Q-400 return flight between Halifax and St.John’s) is the tri-weekly service still being maintained by a struggling Maritime Bus on all its major routes. While the company is clearly hurting, owner Mike Cassidy remains optimistic about its post-pandemic future:

Perhaps taking a cue from the tight provincial border controls, VIA Rail announced on May 6 that its Ocean service would remain suspended until at least November 1. Beyond some vague references to using the hiatus as an opportunity to upgrade the aging HEP-1 stainless steel long distance equipment, VIA offered no real explanation as to why they were going so much farther than any other passenger carriers, and cancelling service nearly six months into the uncharted future.

https://media.viarail.ca/index.php/en/press-releases/2020/rail-extends-suspension-canadien-and-ocean

When it does return, the train will apparently be very different than before. In a written statement responding to an enquiry from the Moncton Times &Transcript on May 26, the Crown corporation said it was “pleased to announce an operational plan that will allow to continue operating the Ocean without access to the Halterm rail loop.” Pressed for further details, VIA declined to answer any of the newspaper’s questions. Neither has the company had any apparent engagement on the issue with provincial governments or the municipalities it serves. It is evident, however, that the product will be further downgraded from the already inadequate service offered at the time of the abrupt shutdown on March 13.

Meanwhile, public transit in the region’s larger urban centres continues to struggle, while remaining operational on a limited basis. Expenses have not fallen in proportion to the greatly reduced ridership, and of course many systems are suffering a further revenue shortfall because they are unable to collect fares from their few remaining riders. Transport Action Atlantic has urged the mayors of all cities and towns in the region that operate public transit to get behind the campaign for federal funding to ensure survival and recovery of these systems in the post-COVID era.

As the COVID restrictions gradually ease in Halifax, capacity on city buses was increased as of May 30 by once again allowing passengers to stand. A maximum of five standees are now permitted on conventional buses, at any given time. Standing passengers are asked to monitor physical distancing and should avoid positioning themselves immediately next to seated passengers or other standing passengers. Alternating seats will continue to be blocked off with appropriate signage. Mask usage is encouraged, and those who are feeling ill are warned not to use any transit service until their health returns to normal. Buses and ferries continue to operate on a reduced schedule, and fare collection remains suspended until further notice. The head of the transit workers union, meanwhile, warned that it could take up to two weeks to restore a full schedule.

https://www.halifaxtoday.ca/local-news/public-transit-will-not-be-a-back-at-full-strength-by-june-5-2392144

In St. John’s, Metrobus Transit reports ridership was down close to 85 percent in the first quarter of 2020. The “Snowmageddon” blizzard in January was a contributing factor, but COVID-19 had the most drastic effect, according to a May 28 story in the Telegram, resulting in an increased subsidy requirement of nearly a quarter million dollars for the three-month period.

https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/metrobus-ridership-down-85-per-cent-during-pandemic-454712/

Marine Atlantic’s constitutionally-mandated ferries between North Sydney and Port aux Basques have continued to maintain twice-daily departures throughout the pandemic emergency, with enhanced measures introduced to protect the health of passengers and crew. Initially maximum passenger limits of 250 per sailing were imposed to facilitate social distancing, but this has been subsequently reduced to 100 per departure. Meanwhile, the seasonal Argentia ferry, which is heavily dependent on tourism traffic, has been cancelled for the entire 2020 season. The other seasonal federally-funded “constitutional alternative” ferry service, between Nova Scotia and PEI is now operational – but only for large commercial trucks and their drivers. Bay Ferries Saint John-Digby vessel is continuing to offer one daily round trip, again with limits on maximum passengers permitted. And, the restart of the troubled “Cat” service between Yarmouth NS and Bar Harbor, Maine, has been postponed to mid-July at the earliest, and probably won’t run at all in 2020 if the US-Canada border remains closed.

Air access remains very limited, but so is demand. With continuing border restrictions imposed by all four Atlantic provinces, it appears that there is little difficulty maintaining social distancing even on infrequent flights by smaller aircraft. Some regional airports are showing only two or three flights a week on their departure boards, while Saint John is shut down completely. The normally-bustling Halifax Stanfield terminal was showing just seven flights a day at the end of May, with St. John’s likewise hosting just a handful of landings. Among the smaller terminals, Fredericton appears to have the most frequent service, with two daily Air Canada departures to Montreal and tri-weekly WestJet flights to Toronto. Air Canada is tentatively planning to ramp up its service at a number of locations effective June 22. Many of WestJet’s domestic routes are suspended through July 4, and Porter Airlines has extended its complete shutdown to July 28. It remains to be seen what demand will be like as we move into summer, and how long it might take for travel to again become an attractive proposition.

The deepening concerns about air transportation in the post-COVID era have prompted revival of the long-standing suggestion of a single, centrally located airport for New Brunswick. The concept appears be gaining some traction, drawing the surprising comment from one airport CEO that it just might have some merit. At least one respected columnist has endorsed the idea, with the caveat that high speed rail linking the cities of Moncton, Saint John and Fredericton must be part of the package. We’re not holding our breath on that one!

For updates on public transportation issues across the country, check out the latest newsletter from our national affiliate, Transport Action Canada:

https://myemail.constantcontact.com/-Transport-Action–June-Newsletter—Standing-up-for-transit–inter-city-rail-and-motor-coach-services.html?soid=1126215294753&aid=2a7kLan7_qs