There’s been more progress in the campaign for fair and reasonable ferry rates between Cape Breton and Newfoundland. One of Transport Action Atlantic’s allies – the Town of Channel-Port aux Basques – was granted an audience to press the case before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transportation. The appearance was scheduled to take place on May 14, and Mayor John Spencer, who’s been in regular contact with TAA in recent months, was delighted at the opportunity.
Under the Terms of Union that brought Newfoundland into Confederation in 1949, Canada was to provide a ferry service “in accordance with the traffic offering” between North Sydney and Port aux Basques. To mitigate the cost of living on the island, the language of Term 32 clearly implies that the 100-nautical mile Cabot Strait crossing was to be treated like a bridge, with rates equivalent to transporting people and goods over an equal distance by land. But ferry charges have skyrocketed in recent years, following a Transport Canada directive under the Harper Government for 65% cost recovery by operator Marine Atlantic. During the 2015 election campaign, Justin Trudeau declared this demand “unreasonable” – but the Liberals have not addressed it since taking office.
Transport Action Atlantic’s annual general meeting is happening this Saturday in Halifax!
Saturday May 11 – 2:00pm
Halifax North Memorial Library Auditorium
2285 Gottingen St.
We are delighted to announce that the AGM agenda will include a panel discussion on current transportation issues in the region, with panelists including Bridgewater mayor David Mitchell and Maritime Bus president Mike Cassidy. This promises to be an interesting and engaging discussion – you won’t want to miss it!
As always, the agenda will also include annual reports and financial statements, appointment of an auditor, election of a board of directors, and any other business that may arise.
Further, we will be presenting the third annual John Pearce Award recognizing outstanding public transportation advocacy.
And finally, we are also pleased to welcome noted railway photographer and author Bill Linley, who will be signing copies of his new book “Trackside Newfoundland”. This will be a great opportunity to meet and chat with Bill, as well as to pick up a copy of his book if you haven’t already. http://www.billlinley.com/products-page/books/trackside-newfoundland/
As always, our AGM is open to the general public and the media. Invite your friends!
We hope to see many of you there!
Minutes of 2018 AGM
The minutes of last year’s AGM are now available for review. These minutes will be tabled at this year’s AGM on Saturday, so please come prepared with any corrections or additions that you may be aware of, as appropriate.
Transport Action Atlantic is asking why it is taking so long for VIA Rail and the Government of Canada to deliver on an outstanding promise to improve frequency of passenger rail services in the Maritimes. Today is National Railway Day – the anniversary of the last spike ceremony that marked completion of Canada’s continuous rail link from coast to coast on November 7, 1885.
“It’s a very appropriate occasion to pose this question,” says Ted Bartlett, president of the regional public transportation advocacy group, “and not just because it’s a date that was so important in the development of Canada’s nationhood. It was three years ago this week that VIA’s CEO unveiled a plan to reintroduce regional service within Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, using the same type of rail diesel cars (RDCs) that had been discontinued in January 1990 as part of sweeping cuts mandated by the Mulroney Government. His timeline called for the routes between Moncton and Halifax and Moncton and Campbellton to be operational by late summer or early fall of 2016.
“That goal, unfortunately, was not met. Neither were several other target dates subsequently offered. We’re still waiting, and VIA management is no longer even suggesting possible start dates. Furthermore, we understand that there will be no additional frequency or capacity offered during the holiday travel season this year, something that had become standard practice in recent years to augment the very limited schedule normally offered in this region.”
Bartlett acknowledged that the Government of Canada has committed a major investment to re-equip all of VIA’s aging rolling stock in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor, but has shown little interest in upgrading service elsewhere. He added, however, that it would be unfair to blame the current situation entirely on VIA’s management team.
“If our political leaders considered passenger rail in this region to be important, VIA as a federal Crown corporation would be directed to get on with it,” he said. Our elected MPs – all of whom belong to the governing party – should be insisting that the needs of this region not be forgotten.
“Our mantra at TAA has become ‘Canada doesn’t end at Quebec City’” Bartlett continued. “Rail passenger service in the Maritimes remains a national embarrassment. For example, we still have that sorry picture of the oldest named passenger train in North America crawling along a 60-mile stretch of badly deteriorated track in northern New Brunswick at 30 miles per hour or less. Forty years ago the Ocean safely ran at 75 miles per hour over most of that route – and it took nearly two hours less to travel from Moncton to Campbellton than it does today. Certainly it’s not something we want to celebrate on National Railway Day 2018!”
“VIA’s so-called ‘regional service’ using 60-year-old RDCs was not a concept that we wholeheartedly endorsed,” says TAA vice-president Ashley Morton. “We extended a lukewarm welcome to that announcement three years ago largely because it promised something better than the existing bare-bones service – a situation that VIA’s management now acknowledges isn’t meeting local needs. We also considered that regional service to Moncton might be a good fit with the Halifax commuter rail proposal. But our ultimate goal remains to have the Ocean restored to its former status as a daily through train between Halifax and Montreal.
“There’s no question that the long-overdue modernization of VIA’s corridor services was the right thing to do,” he said. “But we need to hold the feet of our elected representatives to the fire, and pressure them to insist that Canadians elsewhere in the country have legitimate needs and expectations as well. What we are asking is reasonable, and will not bankrupt the treasury.”
Transport Action Atlantic maintains that a well-marketed and better-equipped daily train could enhance ridership revenues to the point where they would cover the major portion of incremental costs, resulting in a greatly reduced subsidy requirement per passenger-mile and far better value for Canadian taxpayers. Analysis of figures released by VIA indicate that savings realized by the ill-advised 2012 decision cutting service to tri-weekly were negligible.
Transport Action Atlantic is a regional advocacy group, promoting convenient, affordable, safe and environmentally-friendly transportation solutions in the four Atlantic provinces. The organization will hold its semi-annual board meeting in Dartmouth on December 1. The agenda will focus on urban, rural and intercity public transportation, with particular emphasis on new initiatives to restore and strengthen options that reduce dependency on automobile use.
[Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2018 edition of “The Bulletin”]
Early in 2018 VIA released their 2017-2021 Corporate Plan. These documents, released each year and looking ahead for the next five, offer a synopsis of the state of the railway and tend to provide insight into what VIA is looking at moving forward. In the last few years these plans have focused heavily on VIA’s need for new equipment, and some of the challenges (e.g. deteriorating on time performance on many routes, rising costs) and successes (e.g. ridership growth), as well as a look at their plans across the entire system. This latest corporate plan, which can be found in full online (http://www.viarail.ca/sites/all/files/media/pdfs/About_VIA/our-company/corporate-plan/CorporatePlan_2017-2021.pdf) has some specific items of interest for Atlantic Canada.
There is a blurb describing the operation of the Ocean, which has some new phrasing this year. It reads: “During the holiday season, VIA Rail adds extra departures.” That is a change from past years, which used past tense phrasing (e.g. last year it said “during the holiday season, VIA Rail added six extra departures”). This seems to imply that the holiday frequency expansion is now considered a standard annual practice. This is further confirmed in the following section.
Under “operational issues” for the Ocean, there is a notable recognition that VIA’s reduction of frequency on the Ocean has been problematic (italics added for emphasis):
“While the Ocean has maintained a respectable OTP, frequencies were reduced from six one-way departures per week to three one-way departures. With this reduction, the Ocean does not have sufficient frequencies to deliver an adequate travel alternative in the intercity and regional markets serving between Quebec City and among Rivière-du-Loup, Campbellton, Moncton and Halifax. Additional frequencies however, in response to consumer demand, are added during the Holiday season. VIA Rail is currently investigating the possibility of an eastern intercity corridor service from Halifax to Campbellton, as further detailed in Section 3.4.4 of this Plan.”
VIA was originally reluctant to admit that the 3/week schedule was problematic, and spent the first years after the reduction insisting that they had somehow improved the service by doing so. Despite this recognition, they are not entertaining resuming daily operation, but are instead looking at launching shorter daily intercity services in the region. Section 3.4.4, referenced above, reads as follows:
“i. Eastern Intercity In 2012, the Ocean’s frequencies were cut from six to three per week. With this reduction of frequencies, the Ocean does not have sufficient frequencies to deliver an adequate travel alternative…VIA Rail is currently exploring an eastern intercity corridor service from Halifax to Campbellton, which would fill in the frequency gap that was created when the Ocean was reduced from six to three weekly frequencies and benefit local travellers. This initiative is pending infrastructure updates and equipment testing by the host railway. As previously noted, passenger rail service is important to the communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, as illustrated by this excerpt from the CTA Review: ‘Passenger rail service may be the only viable transportation option for many residents living in communities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick . . . The need for this passenger service is becoming more acute given the ageing demographic in Atlantic Canada that is highly dependent on public transportation services. We recommend that the CTA include an appropriate provision that would commit the federal government to guarantee the existing level of service as a minimum and provide appropriate resources to VIA Rail as required to continue pursuing and implementing new initiatives to rebuild the service.” — Atlantic Canada Ministers of Transportation Submission to the CTA Review January 23, 2015.’”
In the following section:
“Looking at travel patterns on the Ocean, two clear travel market segments can be seen: long-distance travellers between the Maritimes and Central Canada (CBTN-HLFX↔MTRL-QBEC) and regional travellers (CBTN-MCTN↔HLFX) where passengers remain within the Maritimes. For regional travellers who do not use sleeper accommodations, a smaller fleet with coach seating would lower operating costs, enabling greater frequencies. This would enhance the appeal for regional travellers, effectively providing a daily service (when combined with the ‘Coast-to-Coast’ service) for the Maritimes.”
In addition to the details about VIA’s intercity plans, page 54 of the plan has details about VIA’s part in Halifax’s commuter rail plans. The whole section is a bit much to include here, but it is well worth the read. VIA’s assessment is basically that they could provide the service at a lower cost than the consultant report that Halifax commissioned had suggested. It appears VIA is proposing a 3-year pilot:
“VIA Rail has met with HRM to assess a possible three year-pilot program for commuter train service between VIA Rail’s Halifax station and Windsor Junction. This service would be contingent upon an agreement with CN for the appropriate train frequencies. VIA Rail could provide RDC (Rail Diesel Car; self-propelled diesel multiple units that do not require a locomotive) in a manner similar to that of the Victoria – Courtenay service. “
“VIA Rail would operate the commuter service on behalf of the Halifax Regional Municipality, who would be the owner and financial backer of the service. VIA Rail is not the promoter of the project but is responding to the HRM request for help in bringing commuter rail to the people of Halifax.”
One of the outstanding questions for the future of the Ocean is the state of the Renaissance equipment. VIA has been clear that the Renaissance sets being used in the Corridor are in poor shape and must be retired by 2021, and in a response to a question asked in their annual public meeting, they have now indicated that the Renaissance fleet in Eastern Canada will also be withdrawn by 2021. The Corporate Plan makes no note of this, simply including “Renaissance Ocean Fleet Upgrades, Renaissance State of Good Repair (Ocean Only)” in the section on equipment projects. Yet it now appears that the plan will be to re-equip the train with the very stainless-steel equipment that the Renaissance fleet displaced 15 years ago.
Finally worth noting is this comment on the Ocean’s revenue forecast over the next five years. It is not clear what “on board service enhancements” means, but price increases are not welcome news:
“The Ocean Passenger revenues for the Ocean are forecast to grow by 14.8%, from $9.9 million in 2016 to $11.3 million in 2021, mainly due to GDP growth and inflation as well as certain on board service enhancements, which will allow for price increases.”
VIA did report positive ridership figures over the holiday season, noting that the Ocean saw an increase again over the same period last year. Trains in the summer have been busy again this year, with long 20-car trains nearly or entirely sold out since late May. These trends are encouraging, but the question always remains about just how much VIA can do with their existing skeletal 3/week service, and whether they are truly providing useful public transportation in the region.
[Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2018 edition of “The Bulletin”]
After four decades of neglect by successive federal governments, there finally seems to be some significant support in Ottawa for passenger rail. In certain parts of Canada – that is. That was the gist of a significant appropriation contained in the Trudeau Government’s Budget 2018, tabled on February 27.
The first commitment to new rolling stock in 40 years promises a complete renewal of VIA Rail Canada’s aging and tired corridor fleet. No actual cost figures were given because of the pending procurement process, but it’s clearly an investment in the billion-plus category. VIA subsequently posted a summary of the fleet renewal program on its website, and on June 18 announced a short-list of four qualified suppliers that will have until October 5 to submit proposals. A contract is expected to be awarded before the end of 2018, with the first of the new rolling stock in service within four years.
In short, the plan calls for 32 new bi-directional trainsets for use in the Quebec City to Windsor corridor. Primarily the new rolling stock will replace the so-called LRC equipment, built in the early 1980s, and now rapidly approaching the end of its useful life. Many LRC cars will need to be retired before the new orders are delivered.
But the oldest equipment on VIA’s roster isn’t destined for the scrapyard. A total of 75 stainless steel cars originally constructed by the Budd company of Philadelphia – some dating back as far as 1946 – are getting a new lease on life.
Built to last, they are being completely refurbished to modern standards, in the expectation they will continue in service for many years to come, primarily on VIA’s flagship train the Canadian.
It’s all very positive news from a government that was quite outspoken on passenger rail while in opposition, but got off to a very slow start following its election in 2015. In fact, VIA wasn’t even mentioned in Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s mandate letter. And the first two budgets from the Trudeau Liberals allocated only miniscule amounts to study the requirements for fleet renewal and the dedicated tracks/high frequency rail (HFR) proposal. This time, though, there’s a solid commitment to proceed with renewal of the corridor fleet, although the government hasn’t gone beyond allocating $8 million for further study of HFR.
But what’s not so encouraging about VIA’s plan and Budget 2018 is the absence of any reference to replacing the troublesome British-built Renaissance cars that are the tired workhorses of the Ocean – the company’s only remaining train in Atlantic Canada. Never intended for life in Canada, that equipment has not improved with age. One Renaissance trainset was out of service for some three months this past winter after a major electrical failure at Halifax in early January. The passengers had to be loaded unto buses, and the train deadheaded back to Montreal for repairs.
In response to questions asked during their annual public meeting, VIA has now indicated that the Renaissance equipment in Eastern Canada will be withdrawn from service by 2021, with plans to re-equip the service with stainless steel Budd equipment by the fall of 2020. How exactly that will work, given the limited availability of Budd equipment during the peak season, remains to be seen.
The once-daily Ocean now runs only three times a week on a schedule several hours slower than 20 years ago. It simply isn’t adequate to sustain and build ridership, or even provide a useful service to Maritimers – a reality that VIA management now readily acknowledges.
Transport Action Atlantic is unequivocal about what this region needs. Nothing less than a daily connection to that new and improved corridor service will be acceptable. Yes – our Canada includes passenger trains – and Canada does not end at Quebec City!
TAA is using every opportunity to advocate with our regional MPs, municipalities, chambers of commerce, and provincial governments in our efforts to get everyone on board. Services to Atlantic Canada need new equipment, upgraded track, and faster schedules – and the time to plan for it is now.
Passenger rail in Canada is on a roll – and we must be part of it!