It was one of the more exquisite ironies in Moncton’s long and storied history as the acknowledged transportation nexus of the Maritimes. In August, weeks after Via Rail announced it was cutting in half its passenger service – the Ocean line – between Halifax and Montreal, and mere days after Groupe Orleans Express declared its Acadian Coach and Intercity operations in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island would end by year end, the Hub City celebrated a $1-million provincial contribution toward a new discovery centre dedicated to all things mobile.
At the ribbon-cutting, Moncton Deputy Mayor Merrill Henderson said the centre will honour the city’s “transportation history and heritage, from shipbuilding to the railroad, from trucking to air, and looks forward to today’s information highway.” Meanwhile, New Brunswick Premier David Alward characterized his government’s funding decision as “an important part of our plan to rebuild” the provincial economy.
But for anyone whose perspective was unaffected by the whitewash of public relations, the harsher truth was plain to see: When it comes to public transportation in the Maritimes, the future ain’t what it used to be.
In news releases and press interviews, Via president Marc Laliberte explained the Montreal-based company’s decision to trim service on the Ocean line from six to three weekly trips as a necessary function of “efficiency.” He noted that ridership since 1997 had dropped to 133,700 passengers, from 250,000. Consequent losses on the route amounted to $35 million in 2011, effectively nullifying federal operating subsidies.
At the same time, he told the Globe and Mail that the Crown corporation might be interested in pursuing partnerships with the private sector to improve passenger service along the busy Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor. “If you can bring in a service that attracts a lot of customers and you can make it profitable, then private money could be (attracted to it),” he told the newspaper in September, adding, “This is something we need to look at.”
Groupe Orleans shut down its Maritime coach lines for similar reasons. “It is well known that Acadian has been struggling financially for quite some time and we’ve worked hard over the past few years to implement a sustainable network,” its Montreal-based CEO, Denis Andlauer, said in a press release. Acadian’s vice president Denis Gallant explained to the CBC, “Under the current regulations you have to provide service to certain areas, you have to go a certain amount of frequencies. And quite frankly, some of those areas, unfortunately, there’s just not enough ridership to support or warrant a bus service.”
All of which have left public officials and transportation advocates worried and frustrated. “It’s a concern when you look at the big picture here,” Moncton Mayor George LeBlanc told Atlantic Business Magazine. “As to Via, this arose from a letter it sent around back in June. The letter which came to me indicated that Via was introducing significant improvements to its operations, and when I looked at the attachments, they indicated that in the east, the only thing they were talking about was the reduction of services. So, it just seemed to me to be an oxymoron to indicate this was a significant improvement.”
Although the termination of bus service may be regrettable, Ted Bartlett, vicepresident of Transport Action Atlantic, thinks the rail cuts are actually unnecessary. “Rail transportation is part of our history,” he said. “There is still a role for it . . . this is a concept that is alive and well in the United States. Amtrak calls at many cities and towns of substantial size . . . Canada is the caboose of the industrialized world when it comes to passenger rail. We have fallen behind other countries.”
Indeed, in newspaper accounts, Transport Action Canada head Greg Gormick has accused Via of willfully ignoring its opportunities, telling reporters: “Regional air carriers like Porter Airlines are competing aggressively in the high-density travel corridor between Quebec City and Windsor and Via Rail is cutting back on routes like the Ocean, where there is potential for real revenues. The (Ocean) passes through northern New Brunswick and Quebec at night. With another train on the route, they could increase day-time ridership.”
In fact, Bartlett points out, Via’s 2011 annual report shows that ridership is growing. In 2010, 127,000 people took the Ocean; the following year, the number was 134,000. “Those who are least able to speak out for themselves are the most frequent users of these public transportation services,” he said. “These are senior citizens, disabled people and students . . . It’s time we turn things around.”
Which is exactly what he and other exponents of passenger rail service are attempting to do through a series of public meetings in communities across the Maritimes this fall. None of which, however, is likely to inspire a change of heart while Via openly wonders whether it can improve efficiencies even further in the Maritimes by coordinating its schedules with those of a new, as-yet unnamed bus company that might fill the void left by Acadian. To date, no takers have emerged as the ironies around passenger transportation in the East Coast continue to mount.