Atlantic Transport News – February 2022

Welcome to the February 2022 installment of Atlantic Transport News!

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

VIA HOLDS “MARKET DAY” FOR LONG-HAUL EQUIPMENT SUPPLIERS

One of the first of VIA’s new Siemens Charger locomotives and its consist of Venture rolling stock undergoes real-world winter testing during a snowstorm on the Alexandria Sub near Ottawa in January. The long-haul version of this engine will no doubt be in contention to replace an aging fleet of GMD F40s, now in their fourth decade of active service. PHOTO – David McCormack

VIA Rail Canada has confirmed it is preparing a business case for the renewal of its aging long-haul locomotives and cars – some of which are more than 70 years old. The Crown corporation hosted a virtual “Market-Day” event with suppliers on January 20 to discuss the project and seek their input on various elements including schedule, budget, procurement and delivery timeline. Those discussions will inform the submission to the federal government, which will ultimately have to approve the necessary funding. The latest version of VIA’s 5-year Corporate Plan, which has just been released to the public, is rather pessimistic on how long the process will take, suggesting that delivery of new equipment may well be 10-15 years in the future.

VIA is being somewhat coy about which potential suppliers might be involved. The invitation posted in December on the MERX public tendering website was extended to “all tier 1 original equipment manufacturers of intercity and long-distance rail cars and locomotives”, adding that the day would be dedicated to both informing the market about the fleet renewal opportunity and addressing the context of the Government of Canada’s 2022-2023 Budget.

A spokesperson in the office of CEO Cynthia Garneau did say the participating suppliers at the market day came from “across the world”, but was not in a position to say how many there actually were. However, it’s a safe bet that Siemens Mobility will be among the contenders to at the very least build new locomotives. Siemens is already supplying 32 bi-directional trainsets to replace VIA’s entire corridor fleet by the end of 2024. The first of these is currently undergoing testing in real-life winter conditions on the Alexandria Sub between Ottawa and Coteau QC. The first revenue service is set to take place later this year. The testing is reportedly going well.

Each of the new VIA trains includes a Siemens Charger locomotive, the current state-of-the-art in low-emission diesel-electric traction. The company also builds a long-distance version of the Charger. As of February 8, Amtrak now has a total of 125 of the so-called ALC42 units on the way, having just exercised an option to add 50 more to its current production order.

The ALC42 boasts a 1000-kilowatt head-end power capability for car heating and hotel services, compared to 600 kilowatts on the ones in VIA’s current order, as well as 20% more fuel capacity for longer range. Amtrak has had the first two units for testing over the past six months, and they’ve just been placed in revenue service on the Chicago-Seattle Empire Builder.

Meanwhile, the union representing many of VIA’s employees wants Ottawa to pour “significant dollars” into the corporation’s long-haul fleet renewal, and it views the Halifax-Montreal Ocean as a priority.  Unifor spokesperson Scott Doherty told the Campbellton Tribune that upgrading passenger rail transportation is a key factor across the country. He said that the Trudeau Government needs to follow the lead of the Biden White House, which as just committed to the largest public investment in Amtrak’s entire history.

“It can’t just be fast rail service from Toronto to Ottawa or Montreal to Windsor,” he said. “That can’t be the only place where investments get made.” He added that rail travel is “a green, environmentally acknowledged form of transportation, and it’s got to be affordable.”

 -Ted Bartlett

HALIFAX AIRPORT TRAFFIC “STALLED” IN 2021

This view of the main departures concourse at Halifax Stanfield International Airport on a November afternoon in 2021 was all too typical of the feeling of emptiness that prevailed here and at other terminals throughout the region last year. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

2021 was another turbulent year for air traffic through Atlantic Canada’s busiest airport. For the second year in a row, passenger activity at Halifax Stanfield airport was down roughly 75 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels. 1.1 million passengers travelled through the airport in 2021, compared to 4.2 million passengers in 2019.  Domestic travel reached roughly a third of 2019 levels in 2021, but US and international travel was nearly non-existant due ongoing international travel restrictions, and limited direct international flights to and from Halifax. This has resulted in significant financial losses for the Halifax International Airport Authority (HIAA).

“The past two years have been the most challenging years in Halifax Stanfield’s history,” said Joyce Carter, President and CEO, HIAA, in a news release. “We anticipate that it will take several more years for the airport to fully recover from the effects of COVID-19, and the recovery path will have many ups and downs along the way.”

After a slow start to the year, travel began to pick up through the late summer, as travel restrictions eased, and increasing vaccination rates helped raise traveller confidence. The return of air service created a sense of optimism, and more passengers were served during the month of August than the months of January to July combined. However, much of this progress was blunted by the pre-Christmas spike in COVID-19 cases due to the Omicron variant and restored caution against non-essential travel.

The overall decrease in passenger traffic during the pandemic has had a significant financial impact on the HIAA, airlines, and other businesses connected to the airport, including food, beverage, and retail concessions. According to a news release from the HIAA, approximately 45 per cent of concessions in the air terminal building remain closed because of the low passenger volumes, while others have reopened on limited hours due to less frequent flight activity and ongoing labour shortages.

Other airports throughout the region reported similar news, while also looking ahead with some cautious optimism. St. John’s International, Atlantic Canada’s second largest in terms of passenger numbers, has yet to release statistics for 2021, but Greater Moncton’s Roméo LeBlanc Airport – number three in the region – confirmed that its passenger arrivals and departures showed only slight improvement from the previous year.

In a media release on February 7, the airport authority acknowledged the uncertainty hanging over YQM in 2021. Even though it was the only New Brunswick airport handling passengers during the first half of the year, the facility saw only 10% of normal activity during that period.

A stronger recovery over the summer months meant that YQM was able to close the year at 177,040 passengers – a slight improvement over the prior year’s total of 173,404. Still, this remains down 74% compared to pre-COVID 2019 activity levels of 674,406 passengers.

-Tim Hayman, with files from Ted Bartlett

ST. JOHN’S AIRPORT PARALYZED BY FIREFIGHTERS DISPUTE

Chris Bussey, regional vice-president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, said St. John’s Airport firefighters complained about harassment and bullying after bringing health and safety concerns to their employer. PHOTO – Jeremy Eaton/ CBC

It was neither a consequence of COVID nor winter weather, but for a four-day period in mid-January the region’s second busiest airport was brought to an effective standstill. The issue was a long-festering labour dispute with firefighters at St. John’s International Airport.

The first flight cancellations came on January 17, after two-thirds of fire hall staff went on leave due to concerns about what they claimed was a toxic workplace. Chris Bussey, the regional vice-president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, told CBC News that firefighters were complaining about harassment and bullying after bringing health and safety concerns to their employer. Mr. Bussey said his members had reached a point where they had nowhere else to turn.

He said six out of nine firefighters asked their family doctors to take them out of the workplace to “protect their psychological health and safety”, leaving just three to respond to potential emergencies. He noted that airport firefighters require specialized training under international aviation regulations, which means staff can’t be supplemented by the St. John’s Regional Fire Department. At that point there was only one firefighter with one crash truck serving the airport – a service level sufficient for small planes, like a Dash 8, but not for larger aircraft.

A spokesperson for the St. John’s International Airport Authority confirmed operations had been affected by staffing levels, but declined to specifically address the issues with the media. By next day YYT was essentially at a complete standstill, except for medevac and cargo flights. For obvious geographic reasons, St. John’s is arguably more dependent on its airport than any other Canadian city of comparable size. Federal Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan, who represents one of the city ridings, said he was working with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to try to find a resolution.

It took several days of apparently-intense negotiation with the aid of senior federal mediator Barney Dobbin, during which time a limited number of flights were able to operate under an interim arrangement, while others were diverted to Gander. A cryptic media release from the airport authority late on the fourth day of the disruption announced that the matter had been resolved and normal operations could now be resumed. Without giving any details, the statement said only that the issues had been addressed, adding that “we are committed to work with the union to ensure that this does not reoccur.”

It was several days more before flight schedules had fully returned to their COVID-reduced normal levels.
-Ted Bartlett

CAT TO SET SAIL FROM YARMOUTH AGAIN IN 2022

After more than three years of inactivity, the CAT may be about to resume service from Yarmouth NS. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

After yet another year out of service due to ongoing pandemic related travel restrictions, Bay Ferries is finally anticipating a return to service for the much maligned CAT ferry between Yarmouth and its new terminus of Bar Harbor, Maine. The company has announced a service resumption date of May 19, beginning with four crossings a week – Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Monday. The service will expand to daily crossings from June 23 to September 11, dropping to six days a week until October 10, when sailings will end for the season.

The ferry will depart from Yarmouth at 9:30am, and depart for its return trip from Bar Harbor at 3:00pm. The shorter schedule facilitated by the new US terminus, at 3 ½ hours, makes this tighter turnaround possible, and facilitates better scheduled times in each direction. Tickets for the season can be booked via the Bay Ferries website. Adult fares are $115 one-way for walk-on passengers, or $210 for a round trip ticket, with discounted rates for seniors and youths; children under 6 years of age are free. Vehicle fares begin at $199 for a standard car, with increasing rates for larger vehicles and trailers, added to the initial passenger fare. Fares for smaller vehicles are lower, beginning at $20 for a bicycle. A special “Atlantic Adventure” package is also available, which offers discounted rates for walk-on round-trip travel where both crossings are completed within 72 hours. Canadian passengers may be disappointed to realize that all fares are presented in US funds, which means that the ferry pricing will be much steeper for Canadians depending on the exchange rates.

As with any travel in this time, scheduling and the actual return to service remain contingent on the public health situation, and any cross-border travel restrictions that may exist or evolve as the year unfolds. Full refunds are available on any trips cancelled at least 24 hours before departure.

FOOT-DRAGGING ON CAMPOBELLO FERRY ISSUE “OUTRAGEOUS”, SAYS NEW BRUNSWICK’S NEWEST SENATOR

Former Port Saint John CEO Jim Quinn is the newest member of the Senate from New Brunswick, and he intends to take an active role on transportation matters – including the Campobello ferry. SUBMITTED PHOTO

The normally-seasonal ferry serving Campobello Island has received yet another extension – this time until May. Scheduled to tie up for the season at the end of December, the tug-and-barge operation linking Campobello to the New Brunswick mainland via Deer Island is continuing to run four days a week, weather permitting and at the discretion of the operator. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure foots the bill, which is about $60,000 a month.

Reaction among the island’s 800 permanent residents was generally positive, even though it’s widely recognized that the current ferry is poorly suited to the task at hand for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it was never designed for operation under winter conditions. Advocates are seeking a permanent, year-round solution with a more suitable vessel that ensures residents won’t have to travel through the US to access services in mainland New Brunswick. The Province has balked at the idea, maintaining that the island has a bridge to the state of Maine, and the federal government has so far refused to come to the table – even though an ACOA-funded study identified clear economic benefits from a year-round ferry, both to the island and the province as a whole.

It’s a situation that the province’s newest member of the Red Chamber in Ottawa finds “outrageous”. In a wide-ranging virtual discussion with a delegation from Transport Action Atlantic, Senator Jim Quinn said it’s a matter he’s prepared to pursue, and that a situation like this just wouldn’t happen in a part of Canada considered more politically important. He’s in a good position to know, having served many years as a senior federal public servant before becoming CEO of Port Saint John.

Senator Quinn is a member of the non-partisan Canadian Senators Group. He’s supportive of many of the issues on TAA’s sustainable transportation agenda.
-Ted Bartlett


REMEMBERING TWO ATLANTIC TRANSPORTATION LEADERS

Two prominent industry personalities from the late 20th Century, have passed away in recent weeks. Harry Steele and Rupert Tingley were both in their 90s. Mr. Steele, who died in St. John’s on January 28, has been widely described as a business titan. He achieved initial fame at Eastern Provincial Airways –“the little airline that could” – and served as chairman of Canadian Airlines International for over a decade. Mr. Tingley passed away in Moncton on February 2. He was a railroader whose career track led him down to the sea, whose name was synonymous with ferry service in Atlantic Canada for 15 years.

Lieutenant Commander Harold R. Steele was a career navy man, whose final military posting placed him in command of CFS Gander, not far from his birthplace in the remote Newfoundland outport of Musgrave Harbour. While there, he and his business-savvy wife Catherine acquired a bankrupt hotel named, perhaps somewhat inappropriately, the Albatross. By the time he left the forces in 1974 the hotel was doing well, and he accepted an offer as a vice-president with Eastern Provincial Airways, then part of the Crosbie group of companies. He lasted less than a year in that job – but long enough to recognize the struggling airline as an opportunity.

Harry Steele acquired control of struggling Eastern Provincial Airways in 1978, turned it around in just four years, and sold it to Canadian Pacific at a handsome profit. Before exiting the transportation business completely in the late 1990s, his interests also included stakes in Halterm, Oceanex, and Clarke Transport. PHOTO – Langan Business Report

The Steeles mortgaged their home and the hotel to augment the money they’d earned in some astute stock market trades, and by 1978 had acquired control of EPA. He turned it into a money maker, built a reputation for customer service and satisfaction, played politics and overcame the Transport Canada bureaucracy to defeat the much-larger CP Air in a struggle to win the lucrative Halifax-Toronto route, and took on striking pilots in a bitter and very public dispute. (During the labour troubles, Harry Steele was widely quoted as referring to the strikers as “overdressed, overpaid, oversexed bus drivers” – something he always maintained he never said – but the legend persists to this day.)

He also lost some friends in Newfoundland, and Gander in particular, by moving the airline’s operational hub to Halifax. It was a sound economic decision in light of the new Toronto routes, and no doubt facilitated the sale of EPA to CP Air at a substantial profit in 1984.

Mr. Steele was soon named to the board of CP Air, and eventually became non-executive chairman of Canadian Airlines International. But his aspirations to lead the new carrier into an enduring national and world-wide presence came to naught. Battered by the turbulent skies of the 1990s, Canadian ceased to exist with the arrival of the new millennium, and was acquired and merged into Air Canada. In later years, Harry Steele’s business focus was in broadcasting, but it was said he always refused on principle to fly Air Canada. At the time of his death, the Albatross Hotel was still in the family.

Rupert J. Tingley, shown here front and centre with his senior management group, was named Marine Atlantic’s first president and CEO when it became an independent Crown corporation in 1986. He was previously V-P and general manager of East Coast Marine and Ferry Service and CN Marine from 1973. PHOTO – Marine Atlantic Archives

Rupert J. Tingley, a native of Petitcodiac NB, also served in Canada’s military as a member of the RCAF. On release from the service he attended the University of New Brunswick, earned his engineering degree, and like many young New Brunswickers of the postwar era found employment with Canadian National Railways in 1952. His assignments around Atlantic Canada involved him in a number of marine-related projects, including building a dock for the new Newfoundland ferry William Carson at North Sydney.

Returning to the region after postings in Montreal and London Ontario, he became interested in a new and emerging technology – containerization. It was still early days, but he became an avid student, as was soon assigned to establish the railway’s container development branch. This led to a promotion as regional marketing manager, and then came a move that plunged him head-long into the ferry business as area manager for Newfoundland. To his everlasting embarrassment, he became deathly seasick on his first voyage from Argentia to North Sydney.

A few years later CN management and Transport Canada agreed to consolidate the various railway-run marine services into a single operating entity. The unwieldy-named East Coast Marine and Ferry Service was launched in 1973, with headquarters in Moncton just down the street from CN’s regional HQ building. Rupert Tingley was appointed general manager of the division, which was renamed CN Marine and given the now-familiar “wavy-navy” logo in 1976.

He oversaw the development of the region’s first custom superferry design that resulted in the 1980s construction of MV Caribou and MV Smallwood, and on creation of a separate Crown corporation to manage federally-supported ferry services in the region, he was logical choice to lead it. Following passage of enabling legislation in Parliament, Marine Atlantic was officially inaugurated on September 3, 1986, with Rupert Tingley as its first president and CEO.

Soon after his 1988 retirement, maybe remembering the long-ago encounter with mal de mer, or perhaps correctly anticipating that the immense concrete Confederation Bridge would replace the PEI ferries within a decade, he purchased controlling interest in two companies specializing in the trucking of cement.

-Ted Bartlett

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 – November 2021

Welcome to the November edition of Atlantic Transport News!

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

VIA TO ADD SECOND OCEAN FREQUENCY – BUT TRI-WEEKLY SERVICE WON’T RETURN UNTIL NEXT SUMMER

Passengers head down the platform to board the Ocean at Moncton. With an increase to 2/week frequency in December, travelling by train around the holidays will be just a little bit easier. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

The return to service for VIA’s services in Atlantic Canada has continued to be painfully slow coming, but there is finally a clearer roadmap for when the Ocean will get back to “normal” service levels (even if 3/week service is still far from adequate). On October 18th, VIA announced the final phase of the railway’s service resumption plans, which would see the Ocean expand to a twice a week service in December, and finally to the full thrice weekly service ahead of the 2022 peak season (i.e. by June 2022). This week, VIA confirmed that the first departures on the expanded 2/week service will take place on December 8, 2021, with departures from both Montreal and Halifax on Sundays and Wednesdays moving forward. This will require the return of a second train set, with a meet between the trains overnight.

It is notable that none of VIA’s other non-Corridor services (with the exception of Winnipeg-Churchill) will see any expansions beyond their current once a week service until next spring. It seems evident that the decision to expand the Ocean to 2/week operation in December is an effort to capture the heavy Christmas holiday traffic that the train typically carries. Indeed, the press release announcing the date for the second frequency quotes VIA President and CEO Cynthia Garneau as saying “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.” At this time, it’s not clear how much additional capacity VIA may plan to add for the holiday season. There will be no extra trains beyond the 2/week schedule, but adding cars to the consists would be consistent with past practice and should help capture more ridership – indeed, some trains around Christmas are already close to being sold out, as riders have been returning to the service despite the long hiatus and limited departures.

The on-board environment has also been slowly returning to more normal, with VIA once again allowing passengers to make use of the Renaissance service cars, and returning full dining car service for Sleeper passengers, with a full hot menu and the traditional dining car environment, as of October 24th. This will undoubtedly have made the on-board experience more welcoming than it was in the earliest days of service resumption, but there is still no word on any suitable replacement for the Park car, lost to history with the new bidirectional operation of the train.

-Tim Hayman

COVID NUMBERS SLOWLY IMPROVING IN REGION – BUT TRANSPORTATION CHALLENGES REMAIN

Maritime Bus is maintaining its six-days-a-week modified schedule with extra weekend trips, despite sluggish traffic numbers driven by the uptick in COVID cases. PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

The so-called “circuit-breaker” public health measures to combat COVID-19’s alarming fourth wave were still in effect across much of New Brunswick as the calendar rolled into November. Even though the surge in cases that struck all four Atlantic provinces to varying degrees had shown encouraging signs of retreat, the travel industry’s recovery from the pandemic was clearly inhibited.

Maritime Bus reported a daily average of 270 passengers in October, while maintaining its six-days-per-week reduced operating schedule, with extra weekend departures on Saturday and Sunday. It represented a slight improvement over the same month in 2020, when the buses were running only four days a week, but well short of where the company had hoped it would be at this point. Nevertheless, management feels it would not be wise to reduce service at this time. And, on the bright side, reduced travel has produced an increase in the parcel business, which helps offset the drop in passenger revenue.

The check-in area of Halifax Stanfield International Airport was largely deserted on the afternoon of November 4.
PHOTO – Ted Bartlett

Two New Brunswick cities are once again without air service to and from Halifax. St. John’s-based PAL Airlines had stepped in to partially fill the void last summer when it became apparent that Air Canada would not be resuming the local services it had provided pre-pandemic. PAL began offering flights five days a week connecting Stanfield International with Fredericton and Saint John. But while passenger loads were encourging during the summer, the airline reached the conclusion that the service wasn’t sustainable through the fall and winter months. The same situation arose with a service between Halifax and Charlottetown that lasted for only two months. A PAL spokesperson says they hope to be back in those market eventually, and meantime plan to continue their services to Ottawa, St. John’s and Deer Lake from Fredericton and Moncton on alternate days. Those routings have been using a larger Q-400 aircraft since last summer. A separate Halifax-Moncton-Wabush flight continues to offer service between YHZ and YQM twice a week.

Both airlines and airport authorities are hoping that the mandatory vaccination requirements for both passengers and crew now in effect will improve the level of public confidence in flying. Halifax Stanfield Airport reports that passenger traffic in August and September 2021 remained at about 40% of pre-pandemic traffic volumes, but officials are optimistic that the vaccine mandate will improve the picture. They are also looking forward to upcoming non-stop international services being added by various airline partners as the “sun season” approaches, when many Canadians enjoy travelling south. New or reinstated non-stop destinations from YHZ in the coming months include Cancun, Orlando, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, Punta Cana, Varadero, and Montego Bay. Direct Air Canada service to Toronto’s downtown Billy Bishop Airport is also scheduled to resume in December. Still awaiting confirmation are resumption of service in 2022 to several US and overseas destinations.

Meanwhile, St. John’s International was on the list of a limited number of Canadian airports that will be once again permitted to handle cross-border and overseas flights as of November 30. In a CBC interview, YYT’s CEO Peter Avery said no routes have yet been confirmed, but they are hoping that at least some of the direct flights to sun destinations will soon be back. He welcomed the Transport Canada announcement as a good first step toward eventual resumption of overseas flights as well. He noted that while international flights accounted for only about 10% of the airports traffic in pre-pandemic times, they mean a lot to the business community and the province at large.

YYT reported handling a total of 76,046 passengers in September – three times as many as the same month last year but well short of the 134,387 travellers that passed through the terminal pre-pandemic in September of 2019. There were 1107 arrivals and departures during September 2021, versus 707 a year earlier and 2007 in 2019.

Interestingly, both Marine Atlantic and Maritime Bus are exempt from the mandatory vaccination requirements. Spokespersons for both carriers said they are considered essential services. However, Marine Atlantic is continuing to observe extensive public health protocols.

And the Campobello ferry has been granted yet another one-month extension to its operating season. The link to the New Brunswick mainland via Deer Island will continue until the end of November, avoiding the challenges inherent in travelling through the US. The most critical issue for islanders at this point is the requirement to produce proof of a negative COVID test when entering Canada through the border crossing at St. Stephen NB.

PEI TAKES FIRST STEP TOWARD ISLAND-WIDE PUBLIC TRANSIT

Prince Edward Islanders in outlying communities are one step closer to escaping their dependence on private automobiles under a new provincial government initiative that launched in October. This 14-passenger vehicle is one of two serving the eastern portion of the province on two separate routes, each running three round trips daily, Monday through Friday. PHOTO – Cassidy Group

There’s been a game-changing development on the rural transit front in Prince Edward Island. Two new routes linking communities on the eastern end of the island with Charlottetown launched on October 12. The so-called “toonie transit” makes three trips a day Monday through Friday on each route, serving the Montague, Georgetown, Souris, and St. Peter’s areas. Riders pay just $2 each way, and seats can be reserved online.

The service is officially branded Island Transit, and is a division of the Cassidy Group which also operates Maritime Bus, the T3 Transit system in Charlottetown, and a link to Summerside several times a day. The provincially-funded initiative is the first step in what Premier Dennis King says is a commitment by his government to an island-wide public transit system, that will be extended to include communities west of Summerside in early 2022. He calls it an “easy decision to make”, and one that will help reduce the province’s carbon footprint.

Mike Cassidy, founder and CEO of the transportation company, says the response to date has been very encouraging, with the primary users so far being students and commuters. Feedback has been very positive, he says, while recognizing that it will take time for the public to become fully aware of the benefits and the full potential the system offers. With the very affordable fares, he anticipates considerable use by seniors and family groups, as well as for school outings.

The two separate routes each normally use a 14-passenger vehicle, but the company has the flexibility to substitute a larger bus seating 24 people if the online booking system indicates a need on a particular run.

-Ted Bartlett

TRANSIT RIDERSHIP GROWING IN NB’S LARGEST TOWN

Codiac Transpo offered an alternative to commuters while Riverview was reduced to a single crossing to Moncton. The new bridge is now open, but the enhanced transit option proved so popular it will remain in place. PHOTO – City of Moncton

The bedroom community of Riverview NB has a long-standing reputation for being very car-dependent. But that’s finally beginning to show signs of change, and transit ridership is at last showing significant growth. By an interesting twist of fate, it’s largely thanks to a new bridge across the Petitcodiac River.

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose last spring, with the removal of an environmentally-controversial causeway dating from the 1960s. The final completion and commissioning of a $60-million bridge replacement that would fully restore the free flow of the river meant that the town’s 20,000 residents would have to make do with a single river crossing for an estimated six months, beginning in April 2021.

Planning to alleviate anticipated traffic congestion included an enhanced public transit offering that would encourage Riverview commuters to leave their cars at home. And it worked – so much so that the Town Council and Codiac Transpo have agreed to leave it in place, at the current service level pending further evaluation. The new bridge opened on budget and ahead of schedule in September, but bus ridership remained high. Codiac Transpo’s director of operations Alex Grncarovski says the numbers are still about double what they were before the causeway closed, describing the outcome so far as “fabulous”, with the qualifier that it’s still too early to draw final conclusions. It’s likely that ridership will improve still further once office employees complete the transition back to their downtown work locations.

Director of operations Alex Grncorovski says for a small transit agency Codiac Transpo is doing very well indeed.

Meanwhile, across the system, improved technology will soon offer greatly improved monitoring of ridership. New fareboxes combined with back-office software are expected to yield a wealth of data for future planning purposes. Mr. Grncarovski noted that Moncton City Council recently approved additional service hours, effective November 7, that brings a number of routes another step closer to what they were before the pandemic struck.

“We’d love to be back to where we were pre-covid,” he says, adding that it’s hoped there will be evening and Sunday service extensions in place by February. “Of course, we can’t please all the people all the time, but for a small transit agency we’re doing very well indeed.”

Having worked in a supervisory role at the Toronto Transit Commission before moving to Moncton eight years ago, he was quite surprised on arrival that Codiac Transpo offered wifi on all its buses – something the TTC still doesn’t have. And Codiac users can now use their smartphones to find out exactly where their bus is. Another big-city innovation coming soon is an automatic annunciator, which will give an audio and visual message to passengers to alert them to their stop.