Atlantic Transport News – October 2022

Welcome to the October edition of Atlantic Transport News.

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

RECORD-BREAKING STORM HITS TRANSPORTATION SERVICES

Fallen trees and other widespread storm damage in the wake of hurricane Fiona shut down both urban and rural transit on PEI for a full four days. The cleanup and recovery effort was hampered by numerous downed power lines, with many households still without electricity two weeks after the storm. PHOTO – Sheehan Desjardins/CBC

“Conditions are like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Charlottetown Police Services tweeted on the night of September 23-24, as hurricane Fiona smashed into Atlantic Canada, leaving a widespread swath of devastation stretching from southeast New Brunswick to the southwest corner of Newfoundland. That was probably an understatement. Fiona was indeed the storm of a lifetime, and its aftereffects will surely be felt for many months to come. In fact, many structures demolished by the high winds and heavy seas will likely never be rebuilt.

Transportation services throughout the region ground to a halt. On PEI, one of the hardest hit areas, both T3 Transit in Charlottetown and the Island Transit rural network remained shut down for a full four days. Mike Cassidy, owner of Coach Atlantic which operates both services under contract, said they realized early Saturday morning as the storm subsided that they “weren’t going anywhere”. Not only were streets and highways blocked by fallen trees and downed power lines, but there was a potential serious issue with refuelling their vehicles. With the power knocked out virtually everywhere, there would be no way to replenish when the gasoline or diesel on board was exhausted. On Monday, the third day after Fiona hit, he said there were lineups stretching two kilometres at the few fuel pump locations with power. It was Tuesday before scheduled transit service was resumed.

The intercity routes operated by Maritime Bus in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were only out of action for one day, but the effects on the company’s charter business presented a much larger financial challenge. Numerous cruise ship visits and multi-day tours were thrown into chaos, resulting in a substantial hit to the company’s bottom line, Mr. Cassidy said, adding that the impact was severe throughout the tourism and hospitality industry – something it did not need as it struggles to recover from more than two years of COVID-induced losses.

Stevedores secured MV Leif Ericson to the dock in Port aux Basques as Fiona headed their way. Although the seaport town was devastated with numerous buildings destroyed and one fatality reported, Marine Atlantic’s vessels and terminals sustained no significant damage.
SUBMITTED PHOTO – Marine Atlantic

Another location lashed by the full fury of Fiona’s wrath was the ferry terminal town of Port aux Basques on Newfoundland’s southwest coast. Homes that had stood on the edge of the Cabot Strait for generations were washed away by the record storm surge. Two residents were carried away by gigantic waves, but one was miraculously rescued. Tragically the other was not. While iconic images of the devastation were seen around the world, the Marine Atlantic ferry terminal and the two vessels tied up there reported no significant damage. Company spokesperson Darrell Mercer said planning for the oncoming storm involved docking two vessels in both North Sydney and Port aux Basques, with extra mooring lines securing all four.

“We’re going to be losing a number of sailings this weekend,” he told Saltwire News. “We expect there’s going to be significant demand next week to travel, especially from a commercial perspective. So, having two vessels in each port will allow us to resume operations fairly quickly and move as much traffic as we can fairly quickly,” It was not until Sunday evening that normal schedules resumed. The storm forced cancellation of the final round trip of the season between North Sydney and Argentia.

Air service started returning to normal on Saturday, with no significant damage reported to airport infrastructure. VIA Rail cancelled its departures of the Ocean from both Halifax and Montreal on Friday, and when service resumed on Sunday there were substantial delays as power outages had knocked out numerous grade crossing warning signals, requiring manual protection of train movements.

-Ted Bartlett

VIA “BUFFER CARS” ORDER HIGHLIGHTS DESPERATE NEED FOR NEW FLEET

Early evidence of the new “buffer” policy, as VIA 73 arrives at Brantford ON on Oct. 17th. Normally a fully HEP2 consist, the tail end is followed up with an LRC car as added protection. An additional LRC car is included at the head end between the locomotive and the first HEP2 car. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

In what seemed to be a rather abrupt development, news broke last week of a new policy at VIA Rail – all trains operating with either HEP1 or HEP2 stainless steel equipment, cars built in the 1940s and 1950s by the Budd company and refurbished by VIA Rail, would be required to operate with “buffer” cars at either ends of the consist. Depending on the train, these may either be unoccupied HEP (“Head End Power”) cars, an unoccupied locomotive, or other equipment. It was not immediately clear what prompted this decision, but more news has been forthcoming in the days since, culminating with a ministerial order directing VIA Rail to operate with this practice until several tests are complete.

The origins of this operating change began in 2020, when structural deficiencies were discovered in several HEP cars during a rebuilding program. This resulted in the cancellation of a more comprehensive rebuild of 17 HEP1 coaches by Bombardier, and also prompted an immediate inspection of the entire HEP fleet. By chance, these inspections took place when nearly the entire fleet was sidelined due to the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing VIA to complete the work with minimal service disruptions. Following these inspections, VIA hired engineering consulting firm Hatch to prepare a more thorough inspection and report on the state of the equipment.

It was the completion of this report that prompted the sudden change in operating practices. While Hatch and VIA have deemed the cars safe to continue operating, the inspections raised serious concerns about the crashworthiness of the nearly 70-year old cars, and the buffer car solution has been implemented as a temporary measure while additional simulations, tear-down inspections, compression-testing, and repairs can be completed.

On October 19, Transport Canada published a ministerial order requiring that VIA implement this buffer practice (though it had already done so a week earlier), and further requiring an engineering simulation by the end of October; a tear-down inspection of four defective cars by January 31, 2023; compression tests on at least two unrepaired cars by January 31, 2023, with a report on how this will inform future repairs; a full report on these tests by March 31, 2023; and finally, a compression test on a fully repaired car to inform and validate the repair methodology, due by December 31, 2023. Presumably, successful tests should allow VIA to end the use of buffer cars, but it is not at all clear at which point in the process this might be allowed.

The immediate implications of this new policy will stretch fleet availability, as all HEP consists must be lengthened with the addition of buffers. In the case of the Canadian, a buffer car behind the Park car will be at least a minor inconvenience to passengers hoping to enjoy the view from the rear of the train. On the Skeena, the Jasper-Prince Rupert train, it seems that the Park car will simply be off limits to passengers instead of operating with a buffer. Baggage cars serving as head-end buffers will not be able to be occupied by crew during the trip, which has also resulted in VIA not allowing pets in baggage cars for the time being.

In the east, the current Ocean consist, despite all of its shortcomings, will be relatively immune to this change. The HEP end of the train is already bracketed by a baggage car at one end and Renaissance equipment at the other end, so the only operational change is the end of pets being allowed in the baggage car. Presumably, they could be accommodated in the Renaissance baggage car instead, but it is not at all clear if VIA is considering this. There may also be some limit on available equipment, particularly as consists need to expand around the holidays and into next summer, presuming this requirement remains in place for an extended period of time.

The current Ocean consist already features an unoccupied baggage car on the HEP-end of the train, as seen here at Moncton last December, so there’s no need for a change to the operation; but the baggage car is now off-limits even to pets, and HEP fleet capacity may be strained as cars are needed as buffers elsewhere. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

Beyond any of these temporary issues, the much more significant concern that this highlights is the ongoing deterioration of the HEP fleet, which remains the backbone of all VIA services outside the Corridor. New equipment from Siemens will replace the HEP2s and few HEP1s in the Corridor within a few years, but there is still no committed funding or order in place to replace the long distance fleet. To date, the only serious plan was to continue funding incremental refurbishments to try to keep the 70 year old cars hobbling along indefinitely. Now more than ever, it is readily apparent that their time is running out, and in the absence of a replacement order in the immediate near future, VIA may soon find itself with no choice but to shut down service to the majority of the country.

An order for new equipment should have been placed years ago, but absent the ability to step back in time, VIA needs to be authorized to proceed with a procurement process as soon as possible. A business case for a new long distance fleet has reportedly been prepared by VIA and submitted to Transport Canada for consideration; hopefully, this very public display of the dire state of the HEP fleet will help convince the government to let VIA move Canadians from coast to coast into the 21st century, not merely those between Windsor and Quebec City. Time is quickly running out.

-Tim Hayman

WESTJET OVERSEAS PLANS FOR 2023 REMAIN UNCLEAR

The Halifax International Airport Authority is still in discussion with WestJet about the possibility of overseas flights from Stanfield Airport in 2023, but there’s no indication yet if any of the Calgary-based airline’s non-stop trans-Atlantic routes from YYT will be returning next year. PHOTO John McArthur/Unsplash

If you’ve been visiting WestJet’s website with an eye to booking a direct overseas flight from Halifax Stanfield International Airport next year and keep coming up empty-handed, apparently you shouldn’t give up just yet. The airport authority says it is still in discussions with WestJet about their 2023 summer season routes from YHZ.

“To our knowledge, no decisions have been made,” says spokesperson Tiffany Chase, “which is why you wouldn’t be able to see what will be available in the system yet. We hope there will be news on this in the next couple of weeks as they finalize their plans for next year.”

In previous years the Calgary-based airline has been offering direct flights from Halifax to London Gatwick, Paris, Dublin and Glasgow from May to October. Some of the schedules terminated earlier than planned in 2022, ostensibly due to operational issues such as crew shortages. But in June the company’s new CEO announced a major refocusing of their service offerings, which involve going back to their western Canada roots where they enjoy a substantial market share. Some industry analysts have expressed the view that WestJet has been less successful in competing with Air Canada in eastern and overseas markets, suggesting that they are essentially giving up fighting a war they cannot possibly win.

More recently, WestJet announced it would be suspending flights between Halifax and St. John’s for almost four months this coming winter and early spring. It’s believed to be the first time the airline has not offered service on that route since they first started flying in Atlantic Canada some 25 years ago. However, they evidently plan to reinstate the service beginning April 30, as online bookings are now being accepted for two return WestJet Encore Q400 flights daily between YHZ and YYT.

Also returning on the same date is service between Charlottetown and Toronto Pearson, initially four times per week but ramping up to daily in July. Interestingly, this restored service will feature Boeing 737 jets, as will a returning daily service between Sydney and YYZ beginning in August. There is no indication yet as to if or when the airline will restore service between Fredericton and Toronto. Service will continue through the winter on a reduced basis between Moncton and Pearson.

MV HOLIDAY ISLAND TO BE SCRAPPED

The MV Holiday Island, a veteran of the Caribou NS – Wood Islands PEI ferry crossing, has sailed for the last time. Three months following the dramatic fire and evacuation of the ferry on its July 22, 2022 crossing, Transport Canada has issued a tender for the disposal of the vessel. According to the posted tender, the successful bidder will have until November 30 to remove the vessel from its berth at Wood Islands, and until February 28, 2024 to complete the ship breaking (disposal) work.

The replacement for the 52-year old Holiday Island is already on order, but is not expected to be delivered until 2027. In the interim, Northumberland Ferries intends to continue with a 2-vessel service through some form of vessel lease, similar to the arrangement with Quebec’s Saaremaa I over the last few months of the 2022 season. It is not yet clear, however, whether there will be opportunity to continue a lease of the Saaremaa I, or if a different vessel will be brought in for the 2023 sailing season.

TRANSIT CAPE BRETON STRUGGLING TO KEEP UP WITH RIDSERSHIP GROWTH

Ridership increases are good news for any transit agency, but rapid ridership growth can result in capacity being unable to keep pace with demand. Such is the case with Cape Breton’s transit agency, which has seen ridership increase four-fold in the last 5 years. Much of the ridership growth has been tied to increased enrollment at Cape Breton University, thanks in large part to more international students coming to Cape Breton to study.

As CBC reports, riders are now frequently finding themselves left on the side of the road as full buses pass, unable to pick up more passengers. With buses running on a half-hour (or less frequent) schedule, full buses make the system increasingly difficult to use, and may leave some students seeking out cars or other options to get around.

The municipality is evidently aware of the issue and would like to add capacity to the bus fleet, but few buses are available to bring in on such a rapid timeframe. Further, funding for that sort of capital investment may be limited, particularly for conventional diesel buses. Cape Breton is investigating the viability of adding electric buses to the fleet, but that isn’t likely to proceed quickly enough to be able to address the current crunch.

MARINE ATLANTIC MARKS SOMBRE ANNIVERSARY

Eighty years ago this month, the Newfoundland Railway’s flagship SS Caribou became a casualty of war while en route from North Sydney to Port aux Basques. IMAGE FROM TWITTER @MAferries

The harsh reality of the Battle of the Atlantic came home with a vengeance across Newfoundland on October 14, 1942. The Newfoundland Railway ferry SS Caribou had sailed from North Sydney at 2145 the previous evening. In the pre-dawn darkness, about 25 nautical miles from Port aux Basques, a torpedo fired from a German U-boat struck her amidships on the starboard side. The mortally wounded vessel sank in just five minutes, with only 101 survivors among the 237 passengers and crew on board. The dead included 31 of the ships officers and crew, 56 military personnel, and 48 civilain passengers.

Among those lost were veteran Captain Benjamin Taverner, and his two sons Stanley and Harold, both of whom were deck officers. Some 20 years after the tragedy, Canadian National, which had inherited the ferry operation upon Confederation in 1949, named a new coastal vessel Taverner in their honour. And when a new superferry, custom-designed for service between North Sydney and Port aux Basques, was being built in 1985, it was decided that she should bear the Caribou name. When the new flagship of the fleet made her maiden voyage in May 1986, all known survivors of the 1942 tragedy were invited along for the voyage. At daybreak, 25 miles from Port aux Basques, the superferry stopped, and one of the invited guests threw a wreath overboard at her namesake’s final resting place.

Lest we forget.

-Ted Bartlett

Atlantic Transport News – July/August 2022

Welcome back to Atlantic Transport News! Summer is moving along quickly, and with lots of other things going on outdoors, we’ve decided to combine our July and August news into a single issue. Hopefully you’re able to peruse these stories while relaxing and enjoying the summer days, perhaps even back out and travelling around the country.

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

VIA WOES – SUMMER TRAVEL RETURNS, BUT DELAYS ABOUND

Running 7½ hours late following an altercation with a moose on the Bas-Saint-Laurent, VIA #14 catches the glow of the setting sun arriving at Moncton on July 4. On time performance has been a more severe issue than usual for the Ocean this summer, with missed connections at Montreal and very late arrivals in Halifax being a common occurrence. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

The summer of 2022 has brought a full return of VIA Rail service in Atlantic Canada, even if only at the ever-inadequate tri-weekly schedule of the Ocean, and the travelling public seems to have returned to fill the trains. No doubt buoyed by the resurgence of travel across the board, coupled with delays at airports and shortages of rental cars, the majority of departures in both directions have been nearly or entirely sold out.

Despite the evident demand, VIA has been slow to add capacity. More Chateau sleepers have been added to the Ocean train, but on-board accounts suggest that often only one of these cars is actually in revenue service. This appears to be tied to staffing issues, and VIA’s inability to provide sufficient crew to staff any additional cars that could be added. No doubt the long layoffs and painfully slow return to service, which included an exhausting on-train staff schedule with extended time away from their home terminal, have made it increasingly difficult to retain and attract new on board crews.

Delays have become a chronic issue through the course of the summer. Most recently, track work projects on the Mont Joli subdivision (Mont Joli to Campbellton) are causing routine delays in both directions, typically of at least 2 hours. A notice on Reservia reads “Due to operational issues experienced by the railway infrastructure owner, trains 14 and 15 are expected to incur a delay en route and upon arriving at final destination. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.” Connections in Montreal to trains 65 (for Toronto) and 35 (for Ottawa) have been removed from the reservations system for the time being, recognizing the high likelihood of missed connections. This work is anticipated to be complete by September, but it is certainly an inconvenience during some of the busiest travel time of the year.

Easily the worst example of delays and staffing issues took place on July 22, 2022. VIA 15, scheduled to depart Halifax that day at 13h00, had its departure time pushed back due to “operational issues”. Anecdotal reports from passengers suggest that there was no qualified Service Manager (SM) available to work, which put VIA in the position of either having to find another available SM (a challenge with schedules and few available qualified employees), or run the train without an SM – something the on board employees and union would oppose, and also something that would require authorization from Transport Canada. The result was a cascade of rolling delays that extended, hour by hour, through the entire afternoon and evening. Passengers were provided with extremely little information about what was taking place, and little indication of what their options might be in the long run.

Eventually, passengers in Halifax were allowed to board the train, but a call was made late at night that the train would be cancelled. Passengers were allowed to stay on board overnight, but by the morning they were left to fend for themselves. Refunds and travel credits were issued, but there was little to no assistance with any alternate travel arrangements. Passengers at some stations farther along the line may have been bussed, but this isn’t entirely clear. The train deadheaded back to Montreal the next day, with crew members on board and no passengers.

More details about this experience can be found in this report from a veteran VIA traveller. With the trip proving to be this disillusioning for even a seasoned traveller, one can only imagine how much this experience would do to deter those trying out the train for the first time. It seems that VIA managed to avoid any seriously negative press for this incident, but that is likely just indicative of how miniscule their presence is in the Atlantic Canada transportation scene.

VIA RAIL ANNUAL PUBLIC MEETING – NO IMMINENT IMPROVEMENTS FOR ATLANTIC CANADA, BUT OPTIMISM FOR FLEET RENEWAL

VIA’s Annual Public Meeting Q&A confirms that the Ocean will continue to operate without a dome car, not only on the end, but no mid-train Skyline either. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

VIA Rail’s Annual Public Meeting was held on August 9, 2022. You can watch the live stream of the public meeting at the YouTube link below.

As usual, VIA provided an opportunity for questions to be submitted in advance, and answered some of the most commonly asked questions in a separate Q&A Document.

There were a number of questions related to VIA’s Ocean service and the prospect of any improvements in Atlantic Canada. Unsurprisingly, there’s no indication of any plan to expand services – though there was at least some acknowledgement of the interest in increased frequencies within the region. Even less surprising, there was a further reiteration that any plan for the regional services pitched under the tenure of Yves Desjardins-Siciliano has been suspended, with infrastructure issues (i.e. the high demands from CN) cited as the reason for abandoning the project. On that infrastructure note, there are also no plans for work on the Newcastle Sub to improve trip times, though this would seem to be the most obvious way to speed up travel.

On a disappointing note for passengers, the Q&A confirmed that the Ocean will “continue to operate…without a dome car until further notice”, due to “various factors including operational and equipment considerations.” The equipment considerations may very well be related to the state of the electrical equipment and the ongoing need for refurbishment work. Skyline cars – the mid-train domes that would be most appropriate for the bidirectional Ocean train – have mostly not had any major refurbishment work in recent years, although they were included in VIA’s original plans for an update to the carriages on the service. It certainly seems possible that there may not be sufficient cars in decent condition to meet the demands of both the Canadian and Ocean. Regardless of the reason, this means that all passengers on the train will have to suse two Renaissance service cars instead, which are not as attractive.

Though there’s relatively little to be excited about in this update, there is at least a hint of optimism related to plans for much needed long-distance fleet renewal. In response to a question on the topic, VIA provided this answer:


“Long-distance and regional services are closely linked to our mandate, our mission, our vision and the fleet that runs on these routes will need to be replaced since it is no longer reasonable to extend its operational life.
For these reasons, we have submitted a business case to the federal government, and we look forward to working with the appropriate stakeholders in the Government of Canada during the evaluation of this business case.
The replacement of this fleet will allow VIA Rail to provide a more comfortable, reliable, accessible and sustainable travel experience all the while continuing to contribute to the tourism industry and regional economic development.
We look forward to sharing more details on this process in due course.”

VALUE FOR MONEY IS AN ISSUE FOR MARINE ATLANTIC USERS

Vehicles boarding Marine Atlantic’s MV Atlantic Vision at Argentia NL. The company has seen a drop in its customer satisfaction scores in the first part of 2022, but gets its lowest rating by far on value for money. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has apparently had a “statistically significant” impact on how the Marine Atlantic ferry service is perceived by its customers. The Crown corporation published the results of its most recent customer satisfaction survey in the July issue of its employee newsletter.

A random sample of between 100 and 200 customers each month is polled on the company’s behalf by Narrative Research, and the results have been encouraging – until recently. The three-month rolling scores from the May 2022 survey show a number of noteworthy declines that are unlikely to have occurred by chance, with a confidence level of 95%. Marine Atlantic is clearly concerned by the numbers, and management evidently hopes that sharing the data with employees will inspire them not to rest on their laurels in what is predicted to be the busiest tourist season in years.

The survey revealed that a respectable 77% of customers are highly satisfied with their ferry experience, but that’s down by nine percentage points from a year ago. Yet 95.6% of users would recommend Marine Atlantic to others – a statistic that changed very little year over year. In the area of reliability, 81.2% provided a positive rating, down 4.8% from 2021.

But the area where customers are most dissatisfied will come as little surprise. Only 60.1% of customers rate Marine Atlantic’s value for money positively. That’s down 11.4% from last year, and clearly reflects a growing public perception that the ferry rates are far higher than they should be.

Although there has not been an increase in passenger fares since 2019, over the past two decades ferry rates have risen at a rate far in excess of the cost-of-living index. It’s not a matter over which the Crown corporation has direct control, as the cost recovery target for the constitutionally-mandated service is dictated by the Government of Canada. It currently stands at 66% – far higher it was in years gone by. It’s an issue that Transport Action Atlantic has been passionate about for quite some time, and continued political pressure will be necessary to prevent further burdensome rate hikes in future years.

-Ted Bartlett

PEI FERRY BURNS, SUBSTITUTE VESSEL FROM QUEBEC ARRIVES

Smoke billows from the MV Holiday Island, as passenger and crew evacuations were completed just outside of Wood Islands PEI. PHOTO – CBC News, Shane Hennessey

The MV Holiday Island, one of the two ferries plying the Northumberland Strait between NS and PEI, ran into serious trouble on July 22, as a fire broke out in the engine room shortly before arrival in PEI. All 225 passengers on board had to be evacuated, with the aid of the vessel’s lifeboats and some local fishermen. Fortunately, there were no injuries to passengers or crew. With the fire still burning, the vessel remained just outside of the harbour at Wood Islands for two days before the fire could be extinguished, and vehicles could finally be offloaded and returned to their owners. The vessel is now sidelined indefinitely, with the extent of the damage and potential for repairs in need of further evaluation.

With one vessel immediately out of service, Northumberland Ferries Ltd. (NFL) adjusted the sailing schedule to allow the MV Confederation to make more trips during the day and pick up some of the slack. A process was also launched to seek out a potential replacement vessel. In impressively short order, NFL was able to track down a suitable substitute vessel from Quebec. The MV Sareema I, a vessel built in Norway in 2010 and used by Société des traversiers du Québec (STQ) on the Traverse Matane – Baie-Comeau – Godbout crossing, travelled to Caribou NS for testing in the first week of August. If the tests go well and the vessel is able to function with the dock infrastructure, the vessel will enter service on the Northumberland crossing as early as mid to late August.

The MV Sareema I is seen docked at Caribou NS next to the MV Confederation. The vessel could be in service as early as late August if tests go well, and will provide a unique experience for travellers on the route while it substitutes for the MV Holiday Island. PHOTO – CBC News, Patrick Morrell

The MV Holiday Island was already slated for replacement in the 2019 federal budget, but delivery of a new vessel was not expected until 2027. At this stage, it isn’t clear if the Holiday Island will be repaired and returned to service, or if some sort of substitute arrangement will be made until its successor is delivered.

DETAILS REMAIN SCANTY ABOUT WESTJET REFOCUS

Following a “strategic review”, WestJet’s new CEO has announced an operational refocus on Western Canada for the airline – but the implications for Atlantic Canada remain vague. PHOTO – Halifax International Airport Authority

WestJet services to, from and within Atlantic Canada appear to be in for some significant changes, but the full extent of the airline’s planned refocusing of its operations remains unclear. Canada’s second-largest airline announced on June 16 that it plans to concentrate its routes and fleet on its home turf in Western Canada.

Chief executive officer Alexis von Hoensbroech, who joined the company in February, made the announcement following a strategic review. “We think the West has more room for growth for us that the East,” he told the Globe and Mail, announcing that the number of flights within eastern Canada will be reduced while schedules and capacity would be boosted in the airline’s western stronghold. The airline claims it will continue to be a national carrier with a significant presence in Eastern Canada, but primarily through direct connections to western cities.

Exactly what this all means for Atlantic Canada is still unclear, more than a month after the announcement. The original media release (which is no longer available on WestJet’s website) did say its regional fleet of Q400 turboprop aircraft would be “shifted and right-sized” to focus on Western Canada. As of this writing, the indefinite cancellation of the carrier’s services linking Fredericton, Charlottetown and Sydney with Toronto effective in October are the only announced changes for the region. But other routes such as Halifax-St. John’s and Moncton-Toronto also use the WestJet Encore turboprops and could potentially be affected as well. And there’s also the question of the trans-Atlantic flights to and from Halifax. This summer has seen the return of direct services from YHZ to London Gatwick, Dublin, Glasgow and Paris. It remains uncertain whether these will survive the refocusing exercise. It’s already known that two of those routes will be ending earlier than their originally-planned October dates, attributed to operational and crewing challenges that are widespread throughout the commercial aviation industry.

Halifax Airport spokesperson Tiffany Chase confirms that no detailed longer-term plans have yet been forthcoming from WestJet. “We remain in discussions with them to identify the opportunities and benefits Halifax Stanfield provides as a strong partner and market going forward, in alignment with their new strategy, as we have successfully done in the past,” she wrote in an e-mail to TAA. “We can’t say what routes may be affected by their new strategy in future or what new opportunities will emerge – it’s early days on those discussions. I wouldn’t want to speculate at this point about the impact on routes that have been traditionally served by WestJet in our market or who else may fill any gaps.”

One player that may be looking for opportunities arising from WestJet’s new strategy is St. John’s-based PAL Airlines. The growing regional carrier now boats a fleet of seven Q400 planes, as well as six smaller aircraft. PAL’s acting director of business development Stephen Short says their concentration is on what he calls “underserved markets” – one of which is connecting New Brunswick and Newfoundland.
Their plans were disrupted by the pandemic, but the airline is now flying direct between Moncton and St. John’s six days a week, with the same aircraft also providing non-stop Moncton-Ottawa service. In addition there are three round trips per week between YQM and YYT with a stop at Deer Lake, and tri-weekly service between Fredericton and St. John’s, also stopping at YDF.

He’s not disclosing any other opportunities PAL might be eyeing, but points out that they have interline agreements with both major national carriers, enjoy good relationships with airports throughout the region, and are nimble enough to adapt quickly to changing market conditions. He adds that they are committed to further growth in New Brunswick, and capacity and schedules will be dictated by demand. Current schedules are in effect until mid-October.

Meanwhile, the region’s largest airport, Halifax Stanfield, has been spared most of the chaos that has plagued major hubs in Canada and around the world. Mountains of lost or unclaimed luggage and hordes of angry passengers have not been a common sight anywhere in Atlantic Canada, but travellers in this part of the country have not been entirely immune from domino effects resulting from crew shortages and terminal overload at Toronto Pearson and Montreal Trudeau.

Tiffany Chase says YHZ views the rebound in traffic as encouraging, despite the uncertainty about WestJet’s future plans. While both major airlines have cut frequencies on some routes as they grapple with crewing and other challenges, seat capacity reduction has been to some extent offset by the use of larger planes.

“We are excited to see more people travelling through the airport again, for leisure, reconnecting with family and friends, and for business purposes, and we will continue to do everything we can to attract and retain air service connections to key markets and destinations around the world for the benefit of our communities,” she said. Passenger traffic through YHZ in June totalled 333,731, about 15% fewer than the same month in pre-pandemic 2019, but up astronomically from the 21,645 passengers handled in June of 2021.

-Ted Bartlett

PUBLIC TRANSIT: STAFFING ISSUES CAUSE HEADACHES, BUT RIDERSHIP CONTINUES TO RETURN

Halifax Transit has been plagued by staffing issues this summer, leading to cancelled trips. PHOTO – CBC News/Robert Short

The summer of 2022 has seen a resurgence of travel and increasing numbers of passengers on public transit systems, but this positive trend has run up against serious staffing issues across the transportation sector. Labour shortages are an issue in virtually every industry at the moment, but transit systems seem particularly hard hit, owing in part to the turbulent years of 2020-2021 and challenging working conditions that persist today. The union representing Halifax Transit drivers has cited poor pay and a demanding work environment, including frequent mandatory overtime, as factors that have left the agency critically short of front line staff.

Halifax Transit has been forced to continue cutting departures, with cancelled trips now in place on more than 50 routes in the system. Though these service cuts have been planned to try to minimize disruptions by focusing on lesser used departures, they are still having a disruptive impact on the travelling public. Halifax Transit has also postponed all but one of the route changes planned for later this year under the Moving Forward Together Plan.

Codiac Transit’s Route 51, also known as the Green Line, now provides high-frequency service from Plaza Boulevard in Moncton’s North End to Champlain Place in Dieppe from 0600 to 2200 on weekdays, running on headways as close as every 13 minutes in peak periods. Most connecting buses operate every 30 minutes, making transit a more attractive option in New Brunswick’s largest urban centre. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

Despite these challenges, with high gas prices and a continuing return to more aspects of pre-pandemic life, transit agencies throughout the region have been seeing ridership return. Metrobus in St. John’s, NL reported record rider numbers in June, and Greater Moncton’s Codiac Transpo is seeing the same trend as well. Operations manager Alex Grncarovski attributes the upswing to several factors, including the return of many people to their normal workplace, and the high price of gasoline being an incentive to leave cars at home. More frequent service on most routes is also no doubt a contributing factor.

Codiac is also exploring the possibilities for bus electrification, with a study expected to be completed by early 2023. The consultants will determine what’s needed in the way of infrastructure, and identify next steps to get to that point. In the meantime the agency is also having suppliers bring their buses to Moncton for evaluation, including a vehicle that St. John’s is considering for purchase. “Exciting times,” Mr. Grncarovski says.

Back in Halifax, a long-anticipated electronic fare payment system is finally on the way, with a tender out for a mobile fare payment system that could be in place in a few months time. The first phase will involve a mobile app that passengers can use to pay fares and display proof of payment to the driver on boarding. Later phases will move to a more comprehensive electronic fare system, allowing tap card payments on the bus.

TRANSPORT ACTION CANADA LAUNCHES CANADA-WIDE MOTORCOACH SURVEY

Transport Action Canada is inviting Canadians to participate in a research project regarding the public transport needs of Canadians and the state of motorcoach services in Canada following the demise of Greyhound and the impact of the pandemic on Canadian motorcoach operators.

Please take a few minutes to fill out the survey with the information you feel comfortable sharing about your use of motorcoach services, and share this with others across your networks who may also be interested in sharing their views.

TAC Motorcoach Survey

Atlantic Transport News – April 2022

Welcome to the April 2022 installment of Atlantic Transport News!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LITTLE JOY FOR TRANSIT IN THREE PROVINCIAL BUDGETS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

URBAN TRANSIT: “CLAWING ITS WAY BACK TO NORMAL”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATES UNCHANGED THIS SUMMER ON MARINE ATLANTIC FERRIES

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

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

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

OVERSEAS FLIGHTS RETURNING TO HALIFAX STANFIELD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAA’S ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING SET FOR MAY 28

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

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

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

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

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