Atlantic Transport News – May 2022

Welcome to the May 2022 installment of Atlantic Transport News!

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

TRANSIT AGENCIES STRUGGLE AMID RECORD FUEL PRICES

Public transit – just recovering from devastating COVID deficits – faces another budget crisis amid soaring prices for diesel fuel, and there’s apparent reluctance on the part of most provincial governments to come to the rescue. SUBMITTED PHOTO

The soaring price of diesel fuel is having a severe effect on already-struggling municipal and urban transit systems and intercity bus operators in Atlantic Canada.  In most areas, the price per litre is at least a dollar higher than it was at the beginning of the year. In both New Brunswick and Newfoundland cities are calling on their provincial governments to take advantage of federal joint funding offers to help transit.

In St. John’s alone, Metrobus is predicting fuel costs will push the system $1.4 million over budget unless fares are raised or service reduced – which neither the agency nor City Hall wants to do. So far there’s no sign the Province is prepared to respond favourably. In fact, even though private autos and light trucks are getting a 50% rebate on registration renewals to help offset fuel costs, no such offer has been made with respect to transit vehicles.

A similar situation exists in New Brunswick, where the Premier Blaine Higgs has reached an agreement with Ottawa, under which federal contributions earmarked for transit and matched by the Province can be used for purposes other than what was originally intended. For NB, that means investment in highways and bridges, including highway twinning. Transport Action Atlantic views this as a most unfortunate turn of events – one that can only strengthen the car culture in a place where residents spend a far higher proportion of their income on motor fuel than any other Canadians.

PEI’S ISLAND TRANSIT REACHES MILESTONE AS ROUTES EXPAND WESTWARD

Funded by the provincial government and operated by Maritime Bus, PEI’s Island Transit now operates from Souris in the east to Tignish in the west. Soaring motor fuel prices are encouraging many islanders to park their cars and use the low-cost subsidized transit service instead. PHOTO – Maritime Bus

Canada’s smallest province continues to be a leader in public transportation. PEI’s Island Transit network was extended to the western end of the province effective 19 April. Residents are now able to effectively travel from one end of the island to the other for just a $2 fare, which includes a transfer to the T3 Transit service in Charlottetown.

Island transit reached a significant milestone on May 10. For the first time, the early morning bus arriving in Charlottetown from Souris had every seat occupied – a strong indication that Premier Dennis King’s transit-friendly policies are having the intended effect. Service in eastern PEI began in October 2021, and ridership has been growing steadily to the point where additional equipment may soon be needed.

Meanwhile, Mike Cassidy of Maritime Bus says the daily average of paid fares on their system continues to climb, from 266 in March, through 300 in April, to 349 for the first eight days of May. The fuel surcharge is set jointly by the regulators in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick based on a three-month weighted average, a process in which the company plays no part. It is currently 9.5%, but will increase for the next period based on the current price of diesel. Mr. Cassidy notes that base fares haven’t increased in ten years, because of the automatic adjustment for fuel costs. He says his corporate value philosophy is to keep fares affordable, and his biggest fear is overpricing the service.


VIA RAIL CEO RESIGNS ABRUPTLY

After just three years on the job, VIA Rail resigned – effective immediately – on May 20. PHOTO – theglobeandmail.com

Once again there has been a change in command at VIA Rail Canada. In a tersely-worded statement just before the May long weekend, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announced the immediate departure of Cynthia Garneau, after just three years on the job and two years before her order-in-council appointment was due to end.

“I would like to thank Ms. Garneau for her service and her work over the past three years in contributing to the modernization of VIA Rail, and adapting VIA Rail operations during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, while always ensuring the health and safety of employees and passengers,” the minister said, adding “I wish Ms. Garneau the best of luck in her future endeavours.”

No reason was given for the sudden resignation, with the former CEO saying only that her train had arrived at its destination, and she was leaving with a sense of accomplishment.

Ms. Garneau faced a difficult challenge from the day she arrived at VIA. She was new to the company and its culture, she had no railroad background, or any experience in an organization carrying passengers or with a need to appreciate customer relationships on a large but very personal scale. She’d been at VIA only ten months when COVID struck.

Her tenure will not likely be remembered as being positive for Atlantic Canada, or anywhere else outside the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City corridor, where her focus had been clearly concentrated. Transport Action Atlantic was not able to obtain a meeting with her – not even a virtual one – during those three years, further reinforcing the perception that, in VIA’s view, Canada ends at Quebec City.

VIA board chair Françoise Bertrand announced that Martin Landry, who has served as the corporation’s chief commercial officer for the past eight years “will ensure business continuity”. Mr. Landry, who previously served in various senior roles at IBM, was recruited by former VIA CEO Yves Desjardins-Siciliano.

Martin R Landry, VIA Rail’s chief commercial officer for the past eight years, has been named interim CEO at the Crown corporation. SUBM ITTED PHOTO


VIA TRI-WEEKLY SERVICE RESUMING – BUT AMENITIES REMAIN UNCERTAIN

VIA’s Ocean consist for the peak travel season in 2022 is expected to resemble this view from last summer, with a mix of Renaissance and Budd stainless steel cars. However, there’s still no indication of anything to replace amenities no longer offered to sleeper class passengers with the loss of the Park-series observation dome cars. PHOTO – Tim Hayman

Restoration of pre-COVID service frequency by VIA Rail’s Ocean is just a few weeks away. The Crown corporation confirmed in a mid-April media release that the tri-weekly schedule would resume effective June 3, with departures from both Montreal and Halifax on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. However, it’s still unclear what the summer consists will look like. The online reservation system indicates that additional sleeping car capacity is on offer, using Chateau stainless steel cars, but there has been no word on what, if anything, will replace the Park-series observations cars which can no longer operate because the train cannot be turned in Halifax. Unless this issue is addressed, it will represent a significant downgrading of service quality for the higher-revenue sleeper-class passengers – one that will clearly make the product less attractive than it previously was.

Although dining car service is now available to sleeper passengers, other safety measures in response to COVID-19 remain in effect. Those include a continuous masking policy on trains (except in enclosed sleeper accommodation) and in stations, as well as mandatory vaccination as required by the federal government.

NS AIRPORTS GET GOVERNMENT CASH AS TRAFFIC REBOUNDS

Halifax Stanfield International is now a much busy place than it was just a few months ago. Overseas flights by both Air Canada and WestJet have resumed, and more transborder routes will reopen in June. PHOTO-Ted Bartlett

Activity at airports across Atlantic Canada is slowly rebounding, as people gradually regain their confidence about travelling. Although horror stories abound about excessive security and customs delays at some of Canada’s larger airports, this region appears to have been spared most of the grief, which has been generally attributed to staffing shortages. Schedules are slowly becoming more frequent, as both airliners and airport authorities look ahead to summer with cautious optimism.

Governments generally appear to be more focused on encouraging people to fly than on promoting greener forms of transportation. As a case in point, on May 6 the Nova Scotia government handed out nearly $20 million in funding to help airports in Sydney and Halifax recover from the pandemic and attract new airlines and flights. Of this $6.3 million goes to Sydney and $13 million to Halifax. In the latter case, the money will be spent on attracting U.S. and international flights, and also to re-establish domestic services that were cut during the pandemic. However, as reported last month in this space, both overseas and transborder operations at YHZ are already showing encouraging signs of recovery.

Meanwhile, at annual meetings held recently both the Moncton and Saint John airport authorities reported a much improved outlook for their respective bottom lines. Even the smaller airports are seeing increased numbers of arrivals and departures, with new flights being introduced at bargain prices by low-cost carriers.

LIVELY DISCUSSION EXPECTED AT TAA’S ANNUAL MEETING

Veteran NL politician Gerry Byrne believes the answer to the Marine Atlantic ferry rates paradigm may be “hiding in plain sight.” He’ll be discussing his theory as one of the confirmed speakers at TAA’s AGM on May 28.
PHOTO – NL House of Assembly

The agenda is almost finalized for Transport Action Atlantic’s annual general meeting, to be held virtually using the ZOOM platform on Saturday, May 28, beginning at 1400 ADT (1430 NDT). In addition to the required business, there’s extensive discussion planned on three major issues that TAA has been closely following over the past year – public transit, passenger rail, and Marine Atlantic ferry rates. Confirmed or tentative speakers and panellists include Newfoundland and Labrador cabinet minister Gerry Byrne, Maritime Bus founder Mike Cassidy, New Brunswick transit advocate Yves Bourgeois, long-time Trains magazine passenger rail columnist Bob Johnston, and Deatra Walsh, policy and advocacy director for the NL municipalities federation.

The business agenda includes annual reports and financial statements, appointment of an auditor, election of a board of directors, and any other organizational matters that may arise. This is expected to require about 45 minutes, after which the discussion portion of the meeting will begin.

As always, our AGM is open to the general public and the media. Non-members who’d like to attend should request credentials by e-mail to atlantic@transportaction.ca.

Atlantic Transport News – March 2022

Welcome to the March 2022 installment of Atlantic Transport News!

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

PEI TAKES GREEN INITIATIVE AGAINST SOARING FUEL PRICES

PEI residents are being offered unlimited affordable public transit pass for six weeks to help them through the fuel price crisis. PHOTO – T3 Transit

Canada’s smallest province is leading the way in offering its residents a unique form of relief from rapidly escalating world-wide fuel prices. Instead of urging rebates or deferments of carbon taxes to give citizens a break, PEI Premier Dennis King is offering a climate-friendly alternative.

As part of a $20 million dollar fund to confront the rising cost of living, the Province of Prince Edward Island and T3 Transit have partnered to reduce the price of a monthly bus pass for islanders. Effective Monday, March 14, the cost of a public transit pass valid until the end of April will be $20 for adults and $10 for students (18+) and seniors. Everyone under 18 will ride for free during this period. The passes are valid on both T3 Transit in the provincial capital area and on the so-called “toonie transit” rural routes which currently extend from Souris and Montague west to Summerside. The rural initiative is expected to be extended westward to include service as far as Alberton and Tignish by mid-April.

“Right now, islanders are struggling with the increased cost of living and the unpredictable price of high fuel and heating oil,” Premier King said. “As a government we need to be there to help lessen the burden for islanders and help make life more affordable. This is a stressful time for everyone, and it is important that we ensure there are no additional barriers for islanders to get to work, school and the essential services they need.”

In another climate-friendly move, the PEI Government has announced a $100 point-of-sale rebate on bicycle purchases for a limited time. However, there’s concern that supply-chain issues may prevent many residents from taking advantage of the program. Bike retailers are urging government to consider extending the program until inventories recover.

MARITIME BUS OWNER ENCOURAGED AFTER MEETING WITH TRANSPORT MINISTER

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra (second from left) in conversation on March 7 with owner Mike Cassidy (right) in the Maritime Bus garage on Bayne Street in Halifax. Also in the photo are Matthew Cassidy and Kings-Hants MP Kody Blois.
(Image from Twitter @OmarAlghabra)

After many months of trying to get his message through to the top about the need for a helping hand to the motorcoach industry, Mike Cassidy has at last had his persistence rewarded. The Maritime Bus owner recently won an opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with federal Transport Minister Omar Alghabra – and on his own turf, at that.

The minister, a frequent flyer in the world of social media, embarked on a well-publicized swing through Atlantic Canada in early March. Mr. Cassidy has been working closely with politicians of all stripes in the course of his “public transit on provincial highways” campaign, and several members of the Atlantic Liberal Caucus helped facilitate bringing Mr. Alghabra for a tour of the bus garage in downtown Halifax.

According to Infrastructure Canada, the Rural Transit Solutions Fund seeks to help Canadians living in rural and remote areas get around their communities more easily day-to-day and connect with nearby communities. The $250-milliion program was unveiled last year, but up to now Ottawa has insisted that only not-for-profit agencies qualify for the capital assistance it offers. That specifically excludes companies like Maritime Bus and DRL Coachlines in Newfoundland – despite the fact that both have been losing money by the busload over the past two years.

Mr. Cassidy was able to use the meeting opportunity to explain to the transport minister why this policy was unreasonable, and should be changed to allow struggling for-profit operators to acquire new equipment. He’s encouraged by Mr. Alghabra’s apparent awareness of the intercity bus issue, and believes that progress is being made and the dialogue will continue.

It now appears that the political will is there, he says, at least on the federal level. But because accessing funding is contingent on provincial participation, there’s still more work to be done. The program requires a three-way split, with Ottawa, the province, and the applicant each investing an equal share. Therefore it’s essential that the provinces come on board. For now, Mr. Cassidy is “laser focused” on the three Maritime provinces where he operates, but the model could easily apply in Newfoundland and Labrador, and elsewhere across Canada. There’s a demonstrated need, he believes, for an interconnected motorcoach network that can sustainably carry both people and parcels from coast to coast.

SAINT JOHN EMPHASIZES TRANSIT IN CLIMATE INITIATIVES

The City of Saint John believes incentives should be offered to users of public transit in efforts to achieve climate change goals. PHOTO Discover Saint John

The City of Saint John says the New Brunswick government needs to recognize the important role public transportation can have in achieving greenhouse gas emission targets. In a submission to the five-year review of the Province’s Climate Change Action Plan, the City recommends the introduction of incentives to residents who use public transit. It’s music to the ears of transit commission chair Nick Cameron.

“It has taken a while for folks to realize just how much of an impact transportation has on our greenhouse gases,” he told the Telegraph-Journal, adding that transportation represents one of the highest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in New Brunswick. “We really need to make sure that transportation is part of our plans going forward. And although electric vehicles are certainly part of that solution, focus on public transit is a much more affordable and impactful solution.”

The commission sent a letter of support to supplement the City’s submission, detailing some initiatives currently underway, including exploring on-demand service to feed more heavily-travelled and frequent transit routes. A consultant has also been hired to examine various options for greening the system, including electric, hydrogen, or natural gas powered buses.

In a late development, the City of Saint John has written Premier Blaine Higgs urging him to buy into the federal government’s recently announced $750-million program to help municipal transit systems rebound from two years of low ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic. Matching provincial funding is a condition for municipal transit systems to get their share, and New Brunswick has shown considerable reluctance in the past toward participation in such initiatives. Premier Higgs once infamously remarked flippantly that “Fredericton doesn’t need a subway system.”

Mr. Cameron said getting access to a share of the federal money is crucial to helping Saint John Transit rebuild ridership. He told CBC News that annual ridership was now less than 1.2 million – down from over two million pre-pandemic. He’s concerned that the lost riders may have found other, less climate-friendly, means of transportation, and it may not be easy to win them back.

A BUSY SUMMER EXPECTED FOR MARINE ATLANTIC, WITH NO RATE INCREASE SO FAR

Marine Atlantic has announced off-peak vehicle and passenger discount fares for travel to and from Port aux Basques and Argentia up to June 30. So far the dreaded announcement of another general rate increase hasn’t come, and advance bookings for the summer season are reportedly exceeding pre-pandemic levels. (Image from Twitter @MAferries)

It looks like a busy summer lies ahead for Marine Atlantic ferries – and so far there’s been no announced increase in the controversial rate structure. Despite lingering uncertainty as to where COVID-19 will trend in the months ahead, the Crown corporation says its advance bookings between Newfoundland and Cape Breton to date are more than double those for the same period in pre-pandemic 2019. And, there’s an added incentive for travellers using the ferries from mid-May until the end of June, with off-peak savings of up to 22 percent on vehicle and passenger fares.  

Marine Atlantic spokesman Darrell Mercer told VOCM News that about 8000 reservations were made for the summer period between January 1 and March 7, compared with just 3300 in the same time frame three years ago. He attributed the surge to pent-up demand and the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Come Home Year 2022 promotion. Cabin accommodations on many overnight sailings between North Sydney and Port aux Basques in July are already sold out.

It’s still unclear if the federal government will insist that Marine Atlantic meet its 65% cost recovery target this year, but so far there’s been no general rate increase announced. In 2021 planned increases were rescinded just days after their April 1 effective date when Ottawa relented on the requirement, for reasons attributed to the pandemic.

Part of this is no doubt due to continued pressure from politicians and advocacy groups. Transport Action Atlantic has recently ramped up its campaign to have ferry rates reduced to the cost of travelling the equivalent distance by highway. TAA continues to insist that this was the intent of the 1949 Terms of Union, in order to shield residents of the province from the burden of the added transportation costs of the Cabot Strait crossing.

Meanwhile, the rapid escalation of fuel prices arising from the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unlikely to have an immediate effect on Marine Atlantic’s fuel surcharge. The company’s website says it purchases and stores large volumes of fuel in bulk, which protects customers against unpredictable price swings and consequent frequent fuel surcharge adjustments.

-All items above by Ted Bartlett

ESKASONI FIRST NATION LAUNCHES COMMUNITY-RUN TRANSIT SERVICE

Eskasoni Transit operations manager Kennis Gould is flanked by drivers Ricky Young, left, and Dave Simon on Monday as the new service launched. (Image from Maisyn Sock/CBC)

Eskasoni First Nation, a Mi’kmaw community in Cape Breton NS, is home to Nova Scotia’s newest transit service, with the community run operation making its first runs on March 14, 2022. The band launched the transit service to provide transportation options for people needing to get around the community, as well as getting in to Sydney for shopping, medical appointments, and other needs.

The service consists of a door-to-door van service, operating by request, and a bus operating a fixed route through the community and in to Membertou and Sydney. Van trips cost $5 anywhere in Eskasoni ($10 return trip), while the fixed route is $10 one-way or $20 for a return trip. The service to Sydney includes stops at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital, the Sydney Shopping Centre, and the Mayflower Mall. The bus makes two round trips daily, once in the morning, and once later in the afternoon.

The two accessible vehicles purchased for the service, at a cost of $170,000, were paid for with the assistance of the provincial government, who contributed $110,000 of the cost, with the band paying the remainder. The agreement to purchase the vehicles was first announced early in 2021, but the service has only now gotten underway.

You can read more about the service by visiting the Eskasoni Transit Service’s Facebook page.

UPDATE: LONG-AWAITED CHIGNECTO ISTHMUS REPORT RELEASED

In our January newsletter, we reported on mounting frustrations about the delay of a long-awaited report on protecting the Chignecto Isthmus, and the critical rail and highway infrastructure that passes over it, from the effects of climate change and worsening flooding. Just after we put the current newsletter to bed, news broke that the report has been released.

In a news release on March 18, 2022, the study outcomes were summarized with three options:

  • raising the existing dikes
  • building new dikes
  • raising the existing dikes and installing steel sheet pile walls at select locations.

“Work on the Chignecto Isthmus Climate Change Adaptation Engineering and Feasibility Study started in 2018, and collaboration between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the federal government was key to ensuring this vital economic link between both provinces remains protected,” said New Brunswick Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Jill Green. “Not only will this ensure the continuation of the trade corridor, but it should provide additional protection for residents in Sackville and surrounding areas.”

The provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick will decide on a course of action after discussing these options with the federal government. The cost of each option ranges from about $190 million to more than $300 million.

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.