Atlantic Transport News – April 2022

Welcome to the April 2022 installment of Atlantic Transport News!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LITTLE JOY FOR TRANSIT IN THREE PROVINCIAL BUDGETS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

URBAN TRANSIT: “CLAWING ITS WAY BACK TO NORMAL”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATES UNCHANGED THIS SUMMER ON MARINE ATLANTIC FERRIES

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

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

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

OVERSEAS FLIGHTS RETURNING TO HALIFAX STANFIELD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TAA’S ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING SET FOR MAY 28

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

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

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

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

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

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.