VIA Rail’s services across Canada are nearing a critical point. The fleet that supports VIA’s long distance services, including the Ocean, VIA’s last remaining service in Atlantic Canada, is rapidly approaching the end of its serviceable life. If VIA is not able to launch procurement for new equipment as soon as possible, this could mean the end of all Canadian long distance passenger service in the early 2030s.
Transport Action Atlantic and our national and regional affiliates are working hard to tell the federal government that action is needed immediately.
There are two things that you can do today to help:
Fill out the Budget 2024 survey to voice your support for funding for VIA’s long distance fleet renewal.
Please read on below for more details on how to take action today, and please share this message with those you know who also support the future of passenger rail in this country.
As always, your support is critical to keep passenger rail on track in Atlantic Canada and beyond!
Tim Hayman President, Transport Action Atlantic ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
House of Commons Petition
A campaign is underway to help VIA Rail maintain its services and increase on-time performance as well as make other improvements to ensure it can deliver sustainable rail transportation across Canada, through a petition to the House of Commons.
Created by Transport Action Canada (www.transportaction.ca), a national public transportation and passenger advocacy group (TAA’s national affiliate), the petition asks that the government ensure funding to renew VIA Rail’s long-distance fleet is provided in the 2024 federal budget, to avert service cuts in Atlantic and Western Canada.
VIA is entering a second federal budget cycle asking for funding to replace its aging long-distance fleet. Engineering reports show that the fleet is nearing the end of its serviceable life, with many cars at 70 years of age. Given the timeline for ordering and manufacturing, if funding is not provided this spring to order a new, fully accessible, modern fleet, VIA will no longer be able to provide train service beyond the Quebec-Windsor corridor by the early 2030s.
This would mean the demise of ‘The Ocean’ between Montreal and Halifax, the world-famous Toronto-Vancouver ‘The Canadian’, and all other routes that serve smaller cities, remote, and Indigenous communities across the country, as well as the tourism sector.
The public rail operator also often suffers greatly from delays beyond its control, as new CEO Mario Peloquin made clear in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail in October. VIA’s on-time performance has declined to only 60% on railways where freight trains have right of way, while it is 90% on tracks owned by VIA — unfortunately VIA only owns 3% of the tracks it runs on.
The petition therefore asks the government to restore right of way for passenger trains, as envisaged in NDP MP Taylor Bachrach’s private member’s bill C-371, to ensure passengers arrive on time and reduce the padding in train schedules, which would also result in substantial cost savings.
“It’s not just a few hours. Three whole days have been added to the time it takes to travel from Halifax to Vancouver.” says Terry Johnson, President of Transport Action Canada
Advocates are also asking that the government and transport minister Pablo Rodriguez implement several other measures to help VIA Rail provide reliable and environmentally friendly transportation from coast to coast. This would include providing VIA Rail with a legislative mandate to maintain and expand passenger rail service in Canada, which the Crown Corporation has lacked since its creation in 1978; providing for passenger and worker representation on its board of directors, which contributes to the success of other national carriers in Germany and France; and addressing outsourcing concerns by ensuring the public operator’s continued role in the High Frequency Rail project.
The federal government is currently accepting submissions from Canadians with their priorities ahead of Budget 2024. This is a key opportunity to provide your input and voice support for public transportation issues that matter to you.
TAA will be making a formal pre-budget submission covering both passenger rail and other key transportation issues in the region (intercity buses, ferries, and freight rail), but we also encourage you to fill out the survey to voice your support. You can access the “Let’s Talk Budget 2024” form here: https://www.letstalkbudget24.ca/let-s-talk-budget-2024
The deadline to make submissions is Feburary 9th (this Friday), so please take a few minutes to fill out the questionnaire in the coming days.
If you’re looking for guidance on your submission as it relates to VIA Rail’s long distance fleet renewal, please see the sample below from TAA’s draft budget submission. Please also add your own perspectives on why maintaining and improving passenger rail service is important to you!
The federal government needs to immediately provide the funding for VIA Rail Canada to proceed with a formal procurement process to replace the entire train fleet used on its long distance, regional and remote services.
Critically, this funding should support an order for enough trains to provide at least daily service on long distance routes. In the case of the Ocean, this would mean sufficient equipment for 3 full trainsets (with appropriate spares). It is critical that VIA be able to use this opportunity to ensure a return to former levels of passenger rail service nationwide.
It’s time for Canadians across the country to be provided with a rail service that is modern, reliable, sustainable, and fully accessible.
Welcome back to Atlantic Transport News! We’ve been quiet through the last several months, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been lots going on, both in terms of regional transportation news developments and ongoing advocacy work from our members throughout the region.
As an all-volunteer organization, keeping these monthly newsletters going has always been a challenge, and through this summer we simply haven’t had the bandwidth to keep them going on a monthly basis. We’re always looking for help with submissions and assistance to keep these newsletters alive and going – please see the last item in this issue for more information, and consider if you or someone you know might be able to assist.
Here’s the run-down of what you’ll find in this “catch-up” issue:
VIA RAIL NEWS RECAP – NEW EQUIPMENT RFI, A NEW PRESIDENT, AND SUMMER SERVICE DISRUPTIONS
There has been a fair bit of news on the VIA Rail file over the past several months.
In May, the results of the testing of VIA’s HEP fleet finally came out, and the much maligned “buffer car” requirement was dropped. This had never had a significant impact on the Ocean’s current configuration, aside from restricting the ability to carry pets in the baggage car; but the need to use otherwise serviceable equipment as “buffers” had an impact on fleet availability.
At the end of April, VIA formally issued a Request for Expressions of Interest (RFI) to potential suppliers for its long distance fleet replacement program, marking a more formal step in this procurement. We were disappointed that the federal government did not provide funding for this much needed long distance fleet replacement in the last budget, but the fact that VIA continues to do the ground work on moving this program ahead is encouraging. Given the timeline for new
The launch of VIA’s much-anticipated and oft-delayed new reservations system continues to be pushed off. One unfortunate and unanticipated impact of this pending new system, which we discovered to great dismay earlier this year, is that all intermodal ticketing has been dropped by VIA. The new system, apparently, will not (at least initially) be able to accommodate this function, so interline ticketing with partners including Maritime Bus and the REGIM bus shuttles to Gaspé were dropped earlier this year. Even though the reservations system still hasn’t launched as of this fall, the REGIM shuttle was dropped for the entire summer. There was undoubtedly room for improvement in the intermodal partnerships, but this is a huge step backwards, and not the sort of “improvement” we hoped for with the new system.
TAA is generally encouraged by Péloquin’s background and what we’ve heard about his work in the VIA c-suite so far. We extended our congratulations to him on his appointment, and have also requested a meeting when the opportunity arises. We will be sure to update if and when we have such an opportunity.
At the end of August, VIA released their second quarter report for 2023. The news was generally positive, and for the Ocean, revenues for the quarter were up 55% over the previous year, with ridership up 46.4%. This is of course in part due to the fact that the train’s frequency for much of that quarter in 2022 was still only at 2 departures each way per week, increasing back to 3/week shortly before the end of the quarter. By contrast, the train has operated at the full 3/week frequency for all of the equivalent quarter in 2023. You can read the full report here: https://media.viarail.ca/sites/default/files/publications/VIA%20Rail_Second%20Quarter%20Report%202023.pdf
Locally, the Ocean has continued to operate in its new incarnation as usual this summer. Anecdotally, ridership appears to be consistent, though capacity on the trains continues to be less than what was offered pre-2020. This summer has once again been plagued by chronic delays, as a CN track work program on the Mont-Joli sub, compounded by heat related speed restrictions, has resulted in both trains 14 and 15 experiencing delays in excess of 2 to 3 hours (and on occasion as much as 6 to 8 hours) on the regular throughout this summer. This has resulted in the loss of early connecting trains in Montreal, and frequently late evening arrivals in Halifax. These issues are no doubt made worse by the ongoing long-term slow orders along many parts of the Newcastle Subdivision, for which there is no clear remedy in sight.
Train service was disrupted a few times by extreme weather events. In July, parts of Nova Scotia received unprecedented rainfall, with a number of washouts of the rail line including a major washout between Truro and Halifax. All service on the Bedford Subdivision was curtailed for nearly a week, while CN crews worked to repair the washout. VIA service was truncated at Moncton for several trips. Though VIA provided buses for the first trains affected by this washout, passengers going beyond Moncton were left to fend for themselves on the following trips. Fortunately, Maritime Bus stepped in to offer additional buses from Moncton to help accommodate passengers, a good move on their part and something we would have hoped to see coordinated by VIA.
Further train cancellations took place in September, with the arrival of post-tropical storm Lee. CN suspended all train operations in the region on Saturday, September 16th. VIA initially indicated that trains 14 and 15 would be delayed by 24 hours to avoid the storm, but they then cancelled both trains instead. Passengers were refunded, but offered no alternate transportation.
Both of these service interruptions highlight a change in VIA policy that TAA finds particularly troubling: a shift to cancelling trains with no accommodation for passengers, aside from offering refunds and in some cases additional travel credits. VIA once had a reputation for going to great lengths to accommodate disrupted passengers, but their current attitude seems to have shifted to a “sorry, you’re on your own” approach. While it’s entirely understandable that trains sometimes have to be cancelled due to extraordinary circumstances, the new approach to customer service seems more likely than ever to leave affected passengers thinking twice about returning to the rails.
PEI – FEDS TO PURCHASE NORWEGIAN FERRY REPLACE MV HOLIDAY ISLAND
After the MV Holiday Island burned last year, PEI has been borrowing a ferry from Quebec to provide a second vessel on the Caribou – Wood Islands service. In August, the federal government announced that they will be purchasing the Norwegian ferry MV Fanafjord as a replacement for the MV Holiday Island. This will allow the service to continue with two dedicated vessels starting in 2024 and until the Holiday Island replacement vessel is built and delivered, which won’t be earlier than 2028.
Meanwhile, as the respective parties bicker, the isthmus remains vulnerable and major work to protect it for the future continues to be put off.
HALIFAX TRANSIT – NEXT ROUND OF SERVICE CHANGES IS MORE POSITIVE, BUT ELECTRONIC FARE PAYMENT DELAYED AGAIN
Halifax Transit has announced their next round of service changes, coming November 20, and after a series of scale backs to routes due to shortages of drivers, it seems recruitment and retention efforts are finally starting to bear some positive fruit. The new changes include several added and adjusted routes, as well as the return of many departures that were previously cancelled due to low driver availability.
TRANSIT SYSTEMS AROUND THE REGION SEE CONTINUED PASSENGER GROWTH, PILOT NEW INITIATIVES
Municipal transit systems throughout the Maritimes have been continuing to see growth in passenger numbers, due to a combination of returns to pre-pandemic commuting patterns, population growth, and perhaps some shift to transit with increasing fuel prices.
We at TAA feel that these news updates are a useful way to keep our members and supporters updated on important transportation news in the region, and we’ve heard from folks who enjoy reading and following along. Unfortunately, this work is time consuming, and as an all-volunteer organization we are often stretched for bandwidth to keep these going, while also trying to focus on our core advocacy work.
We can always use help with this work. Do you have a particular story you’re interested in and following closely? Can you write up a short description of the issue, an update on developments, or some local perspective on what’s happening? As you can see from past issues, this doesn’t have to be lengthy or in-depth, but it always helps to have a bit of perspective from someone who has been following the issue. This doesn’t have to be a regular recurring contribution either – anything you can contribute in a given month is welcome!
We also have a publication for our membership, The Bulletin, which is focused more on longer-form content, analysis, and opinion pieces. We’re also always interested in submissions for this publications. If you’re interested, have a look at some recent past publications for ideas about what that content looks like, and please reach out if you have something you’d like to contribute.
If you have ideas for stories for either this newsletter or The Bulletin, feel free to reach out any time. You can email your stories, ideas, and any other feedback to email@example.com
We are also always looking for volunteers to support our advocacy work, and to potentially join our board of directors. If that’s something you’d be interested in and feel you could contribute to, please let us know.
Welcome to the November/December edition of Atlantic Transport News! With the holidays quickly approaching, this may well turn out to be our last newsletter for the year. All of us at TAA wish you a happy and healthy holiday season!
Here’s a look at what you’ll find in this edition:
VIA 3RD QUARTER REPORT SHOWS RIDERSHIP RECOVERY, BUT HIGHLIGHTS DIRE EQUIPMENT SITUATION
VIA Rail Canada recently released its 3rd quarter report for 2022. The overall ridership picture is positive. For the Ocean, ridership this quarter was up to 23,000, a whopping 505.3% increase over 2021, thanks, no doubt, to the increase from 1/week and then 2/week service back up to the full 3/week service in 2022. Revenues also increased by 514.3% over 2021. VIA’s figures put the increase in capacity in terms of seat miles at 429% for the quarter.
Comparing figures to pre-pandemic ridership, the Ocean carried 29,500 passengers in Q3 2019, and 29,000 in Q3 2018. By this comparison, Q3 2022’s figure of 23,000 is lower than pre-pandemic totals. It’s difficult to determine exactly what is behind this relative figure; a slow return to pre-pandemic travel patterns may be one factor, but limited capacity may be another. The new bidirectional Ocean consists offer less passenger capacity than the previous configurations, in part due to equipment constraints, but also due to staffing shortages that prevented running longer trains. Many trains through the summer months were sold out, and it’s hard to say how many more passengers VIA could have carried had they been able to run longer trains and offer more space for sale.
The Q3 report is otherwise light on details, but the Risk Analysis section is notable. “Asset Management” is highlighted as an increasing risk, and the report states “The Corporation’s HEP rolling stock equipment has essentially reached the end of its operating life. Its reliability has deteriorated in the past few years, resulting in delays and additional operating costs to maintain a state of good repair. Maintenance costs are projected to increase significantly in upcoming years until a replacement fleet of equipment is introduced, both in the Corridor where the Corporation counts on 31 HEP2 coaches representing more than 25 per cent of current Corridor capacity and non-Corridor services, as reliability of the aging fleet will continue to deteriorate, as well as all of the non-Corridor services who depend on HEP equipment to provide services to communities.” This follows on comments made in recent VIA annual reports and corporate plans, and comes on the heels of recent developments that have shone an even greater spotlight on the dire situation facing the bulk of VIA Rail’s equipment fleet.
Thanks to an Access to Information request, railway blogger Eric Gagnon was able to acquire and publish a copy of the summary report provided by Hatch Engineering, which prompted the most recent inspections and tests of HEP equipment, as well as the “buffer car” policy. Eric posted the report in full on his Trackside Treasure blog.
Here are a couple of notable excerpts:
“As fleetwide inspections continued during the Heritage Program, the findings suggested that all HEP cars likely have some degree of structural degradation of the strength of the car body.“
“The conditions identified on the HEP fleet do not affect the structural performance of the HEP cars under normal operating loads, meaning that they will not fail in regular service….Unfortunately, in most cases, the remaining car body strength of the HEP fleet cars is likely less than original design standards.“
“Considering the age of the current fleet and the planned operation until 2035, Hatch has provided VIA Rail with key recommendations around fleet replacement, a structural reinforcement program for the current fleet, temporary operational mitigations and updates to VIA’s risk assessment to support decisions around proposed mitigation measures.“
Perhaps most notable is this first of the key recommendations:
“Initiate a replacement program for the HEP fleet. By 2035, most of VIA’s HEP fleet will be greater than 80 years old. Considering the age of the fleet, continued deterioration due to corrosion is expected despite any further mitigations taken in the interim. The only long-term solution is the replacement of the fleet.”
In the interim, Hatch also provided recommendations for inspection and repair work to ensure that the HEP fleet remains in safe operating condition. “Buffer cars” will remain in place while this work is being done, and can hopefully be removed once suitable repairs are complete. In any case, it is becoming increasingly clear that VIA is in urgent need of a replacement for its long distance fleet. The HEP fleet can simply no longer be rebuilt indefinitely, and the Renaissance fleet that makes up the balance of the Ocean’s equipment pool is also past its initial planned withdrawal date. Train services from coast to coast are in severe jeopardy if no replacement is sought in as timely a fashion as possible. VIA has reportedly already submitted a business case for the fleet replacement to Transport Canada. It’s well past time for the federal government to take note, and provide VIA with the go ahead to launch this desperately needed procurement.
Meanwhile, day to day on time performance of the Ocean has finally improved from the routine delays during the late summer and fall, as track work programs in Quebec are complete. With train 15 routinely back on schedule, VIA has restored the earlier connection to Ottawa on train 35. For Toronto or southwestern Ontario bound passengers, VIA is still only guaranteeing a connection with the later train 67, which requires a 3 hour layover in Montreal. The connection to the earlier train 65, which would require only a 57 minute connection and arrive in Toronto over 2 hours earlier, is shown as returning as of January 12, 2023. It’s not clear why the return of this connection has been delayed.
The Christmas holidays promise to be a busy travel time in the Maritimes, as usual. There are no extra trains for the holidays this year, and no schedule adjustments either, as even the trains scheduled for Dec. 25th will still run on their usual day and schedules. However, after having only 2 trains a week running by this time last year, the return of the full 3/week service still marks an increase over the past season. There is evidence that VIA has added additional passenger capacity to these trains, based on increased inventory in the reservations system, but even with added equipment several trains are fully sold out for end-to-end travel several weeks in advance. This was no doubt aided by a recent “Black Friday” sale, which included holiday-time travel (with no blackout dates) for the first time in several years. Bus shuttle service continues to be provided to connect passengers in the Gaspe via Campbellton. In any case, it is encouraging to see that passengers are coming back to the train, even after the hiatus of service – hopefully, VIA will take note!
HAPPY BIRTHDAY! MARITIME BUS MARKS 10 YEARS IN OPERATION
In the summer of 2012, travellers in the Maritimes were shocked by the news that Acadian Lines, the sole intercity bus service in the region, would be shutting down operations entirely after November 30th. Coupled with news that VIA’s Ocean service would be cut in half (from 6 to 3 days a week operation) at nearly the same time, this marked a staggering blow to the intercity public transportation network in the region. Mike Cassidy, owner of Coach Atlantic, was similarly shocked by the news – but also saw an opportunity to step in to fill the void. Thus, Maritime Bus was born, and officially started operations on December 1, 2012.
This December 1st marked 10 years of operation for Maritime Bus. The road hasn’t always been smooth, especially through the recent years of the pandemic, but the carrier has continued to provide bus service through New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and PEI, and has worked to continue expanding their network as opportunities arise. Key to that success has been Cassidy’s commitment to providing scheduled bus service through the region. Speaking with CBC News, Cassidy said of his decision to launch Maritime Bus: “We just said … busing is needed in the region and we are the ones to do it, and that’s how Maritime Bus started.”
Here’s to the next 10 years!
MARINE ATLANTIC REPORTS SUCCESSFUL SUMMER
Was it the relaxation of public health restrictions, the Come Home Year promotion launched by the provincial tourism department, or simply an explosion of pent-up demand by ex-pat Newfoundlanders? Whatever the reason, passenger traffic on Marine Atlantic ferry service showed a dramatic recovery in July and August. The Crown corporation accommodated nearly 160,000 customers during that two-month period this past summer. That’s almost 20,000 more riders than the service carried in the same period in 2019 – the last pre-pandemic tourist season.
The figures were given at the company’s annual public meeting on October 20, at which the Annual Report for the fiscal year ending March 31 was released. CEO Murray Hupman was clearly pleased at the resurgence in traffic, but wasn’t entirely sure why the summer was so successful.
“Is it the new normal? We’re not certain. But it definitely was a rebound from the previous two years,” he told CBC News. Whether this summer’s impressive ridership will enable the corporation to meet the controversial 65% cost recovery target set by Transport Canada remains to be seen. They failed to meet the target in 2021-22, as expenses increased and traffic continued to be affected by the pandemic. The federal subsidy requirement for the year was $131 million.
Interestingly, ferry traffic to Newfoundland is rebounding at a much higher rate than air travel, according to Colin Tibbo, Marine Atlantic’s chief information officer, who also holds responsibility for the customer experience portfolio. The often-chaotic conditions experienced at some of the country’s busier airports this summer may help explain why. But there are other factors at play, including the severe shortage of rental vehicles this year – a factor that’s especially critical at a destination where having a car is considered a necessity to enjoy the full visitor experience.
Marine Atlantic’s customer satisfaction ratings are showing a slight decline this year compared with 2021 scores, but that was not unexpected, Mr. Tibbo said. The levels recorded during the pandemic were “unrealistically high” he noted, and maintaining ratings received under such unusual circumstances wasn’t a reasonable expectation. Nevertheless, the most recent scorecard from Narrative Research shows that 78.7% of customers are “highly satisfied” with their crossing, and 95.2% say they would recommend Marine Atlantic. Not surprisingly, the lowest rating went to “value for money” with only 64.1 % of respondents viewing it positively.
In a late development, Marine Atlantic announced a ground-breaking five-day Black Friday sale on passenger and passenger vehicle fares, with a 50% discount offered on every sailing between Port aux Basques and North Sydney from November 24 through January 8. This includes the entire Christmas-New Year travel period, with no blackout dates. Onboard accommodations, meals, fuel surcharges and security charges are excluded from the discount, but the sale is strong incentive to travel in what is largely a slow period for passenger travel on the ferries.
CHARLOTTETOWN’S T3 TRANSIT CONTINUES TO SET RECORDS
While urban public transportation across Canada is at long last winning back significant slices of traffic lost because of COVID-19, Charlottetown’s T3 Transit is showing phenomenal growth in 2022. The city-funded but privately operated service just set another new monthly record for ridership with over 106,000 trips recorded in October. That’s an increase of nearly 38 percent from July – just three months previous. Canada’s smallest capital city is riding the crest of a nationwide trend, but appears to be leading the pack both nationally and regionally.
According to data released by Statistics Canada on November 21, transit services countrywide in September had recovered ridership to about 73.5 per cent of what it was in the corresponding month of 2019. The agency reported that the number of urban transit passenger trips in Canada hit a pandemic-era high, reaching 120.6 million for the first time since the COVID alarm sounded in March of 2020. More employees returning to the workplace, along with schools reopening, were suggested as the reason behind the positive results.
The StatsCan data showed a total of 120.6 million riders on urban transit coast-to-coast in September 2022, an increase of 25.4% from May. Atlantic Canada overall showed a significantly stronger resurgence than the national average, with the region reporting 2.5 million passengers carried for the month, up 31.6% from May.
Meanwhile, the PEI Government will continue to subsidize both urban and rural transit on the Island until at least the end of the current fiscal year. Transportation Minister Cory Deagle announced the extension of the $20 monthly pass on October 27. The incentive to wean Islanders away from private automobile use has been in effect since June. The cost of a monthly pass for seniors and post-secondary students is just $10, while children and students from K-12 ride for free.
PAL AIRLINES ENCOURAGED WITH NB-NL SERVICE
PAL Airlines sees plenty of traffic potential on its routes between Newfoundland and New Brunswick – even though it has temporarily discontinued service to Fredericton. The regional airline’s fall schedule shows service six days a week between Moncton and St. John’s, with a stop at Deer Lake. This frequency remains in effect up to and including the Christmas travel period. The same aircraft provides service between Moncton and Ottawa three days a week, and runs to Mont-Joli and Wabush on alternate days.
Janine Browne, director of business development and sales, says there’s a strong demand for service between the two provinces with both YYT and YDF generating significant traffic. Not sufficient, evidently, to justify at this time of year the non-stop routing between YQM and YYT that was part of the summer schedule. But although the exact schedule for the new year hasn’t yet been announced, indications are that PAL will continue to offer service consistent with anticipated demand through the winter.
BARK AND FLY AT HALIFAX STANFIELD
While there may be a dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over Halifax Stanfield International Airport about the future of WestJet’s seasonal overseas services that may or may not be back in 2023, there’s a new business at YHZ that has tails wagging.
Air Buddies Pet Services is an overnight pet boarding facility located conveniently in the terminal building. It’s billed as a unique service for both travellers and those employed at the airport. Additional services are coming soon, including dog daycare, grooming, and retail.
NOVA SCOTIA TRANSIT OPERATORS RECEIVE COVID RELIEF FUNDING
Transit systems reeling from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are seeing some financial relief, as a joint federal-provincial funding program will provide one-time payments to transit operators to help compensate them for lost revenues. The $10.9 million grant will be distributed to a total of 28 transit operators across the province, with $8.6 million going to Halifax Transit, $359,809 to Cape Breton Transit, $332,392 to Kings Transit, and the remainder going to a variety of fixed route and community operators.