Electrifying Public Transit News

District 4 Councilor Steve Gillespie knows the electrification of CBRM’s transit fleet is inevitable as federal funding for diesel buses dries up, but he wants us to understand that he is adamantly opposed to it because it will be expensive and people in his district, who do not have bus service, will be required to help pay for it.

I have to think the rational response to this situation is to find a way to expand the system rather than refusing to buy electric buses, losing provincial and federal transit funding as a consequence, then watching our public transit system slowly collapse.

And of course, Gillespie knows this, because even as he was declaring his opposition to electrification during a June 14 meeting of CBRM council, he was asking about the possibility of expanding the service to his district.

So he’s having his cake and eating it too and frankly, so am I—recording his contribution purely for entertainment purposes before moving on to the actual substance of the discussion around presentations to council by Kathy Donovan, manager of transit and fleet maintenance with Transit Cape Breton, which is undergoing an operational review, and Ray Boudreau, senior manager of Public Works.


Operational review

The meeting agenda called for Donovan to present her transit update after which Boudreau would present the “Go Forward Plan.” As it actually played out, Boudreau presented before Donovan, so I’m going to jump back and forth between the two presentations.

I knew Transit Cape Breton ridership had increased and service had expanded due to the influx of international students at Cape Breton University (CBU), but seeing the actual numbers was nevertheless eye-opening.

Boudreau and Donovan used 2011 as the base year for comparison because it was the last time Transit Cape Breton underwent an operational review:

Cape Breton Transit statistics


The 2022 numbers, obviously, are projections but Donovan says ridership is on track to return to pre-COVID levels after plummeting over the past two years:

Transit Cape Breton mileage graph


In fact, Donovan told council they anticipate an increase in ridership of “at least” 30% in September when “full-time students return to CBU,” but that anticipated “increases to international recruitment” will likely mean this percentage increase—already poised to drive ridership to “unprecedented levels”—will be even higher.

Donovan said data from April/May 2022 shows daily ridership of approximately 4,300, meaning monthly ridership of 103,000. The service’s peak period has historically been from September to April, when CBU offers full-time, in-person classes, but the university has moved to tri-semester scheduling which she says has resulted in continued peak periods through the summer months.

Revenue totals, which hew closely to ridership totals, also took a beating through COVID, when transit was deemed essential and continued to operate its regular routes and schedules despite an 80% decline in ridership:

Transit Cape Breton revenues, graph


Staff and Rolling Stock

Transit Cape Breton employs 62 people including:

  • 39 full-time drivers
  • 9 part-time drivers
  • 2 service operators
  • 2 dispatch operators
  • 2 administrative personnel
  • 1 tech person
  • 2 managers

(I realize that only adds up to 57 and I am not sure what the other five people do or why they weren’t mentioned in Donovan’s presentation.)

Transit Cape Breton operates 37 buses, including eight Handi-Trans and three mini-buses.

The Handi-Trans service, which is by-request, serves 680 clients across the CBRM and clocks higher annual mileage than the regular bus service:

Transit CB mileage graph


Regular buses operate on 13 routes during the day and 12 in the evening from Monday to Friday. Saturday has one less evening route and Sunday has eight-hour, Route 1 service only. Asked about expanding Sunday service to other routes, Donovan said Route 1 is funded by CBU, which purchased a bus and pays its operating costs under the terms of a partnership agreement signed in late 2018.

Donovan said they’ve installed 17 bus shelters in the past three years and expect to install three more in 2022. She also noted that they’ve relocated their hub from Dorchester Street to Pitt Street in preparation for planned work on Charlotte Street.

The transit service is also about to introduce an app which was not named during the discussion nor its function revealed but Donovan did say it was the same app recently adopted by Halifax so I’m going to guess we’re talking about the Rocketman App, which provides information on routes and schedules, including real-time alerts and updates, rather than whatever app Halifax is planning to adopt to allow riders to pay with their smart phones. (I’ve asked CBRM to clarify this point for me but as of press time had received no response.)

Update: I received an answer from CBRM on June 27 and I was wrong, Transit Cape Breton is not adopting the Rocketman App, instead, it is adopting Transit App which “tracks bus locations and schedules and can inform riders of service disruption or delays.”


Green power?

Purchasing new buses, adequately maintaining the existing fleet, hiring new staff and dealing with the impacts of COVID (reduced revenues, supply chain issues affecting bus parts and buses) are the challenges facing Transit Cape Breton according to Boudreau’s presentation.

But much of what he had to say to council involved not the system’s challenges but the opportunity represented by ridership increasing at the same time gas prices are rising and the federal and provincial governments are prepared to spend money to electrify municipal transit fleets.

Here in Nova Scotia, we’re aiming to get off coal (which is used to generate 50% of our electricity) by 2030 and to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. There are lots of issues complicating this, starting with our insistence on considering biomass a renewable, but those are beyond the scope of today’s article. Suffice to say that Boudreau admitted during his presentation to council that the cost of power and the method by which it is generated are factors to be considered in making the case for electrification.

My biggest problem with electrifying vehicles has been my conviction that as long as Nova Scotia Power is generating 60% of our electricity from fossil fuels, driving an electric car here is like driving an 1884 DeDion and Bouton steamer, i.e., a vehicle that runs on coal:



But I think it’s time to retire this joke. Coal is on its way out. According to a report released by the Ecology Action Centre in May, Electricity Supply and Demand Models in the Atlantic Loop:

…with the drive to netzero, and signals from the federal government that uncontrolled fossil generation will not be permitted much past 2030, utilities clearly need to explore alternatives to fossil generation out to midcentury.

I watched a webinar with Dave Sawyer of EnviroEconomics, the firm that produced the report, and he said their models suggested a “portfolio” of alternatives will be necessary to replace coal in Nova Scotia, including both renewables and imported electricity from Newfoundland and Quebec. This, it turns out, is the same solution Nova Scotia Power Chief Operating Officer Mark Sidebottom was touting in 2021:

As we transition away from coal, we need to ensure we can continue to deliver electricity that is reliable and affordable—and no one clean energy source will get us there.

Our energy future will include a portfolio of clean energy solutions. It will involve leveraging battery storage, both in customers’ homes and grid-scale batteries, so we can take full advantage of wind and solar power. It will require maintaining and upgrading our hydro facilities so they can operate for years to come. And it will mean new energy efficiency programming and collaboration with other provinces and utilities, so we can tap into clean energy resources outside of the province.

Mind you, Sidebottom was also confidently predicting that NSP would achieve 60% clean energy by 2022 “with help from the Maritime Link” while noting that the company was considering such dubious solutions as blue hydrogen, carbon capture and storage and Small Modular Reactors to achieve net-zero emissions, all of which makes me wish, yet again, that we didn’t have a private sector business standing between us and the future.

But I digress…

Basically, I don’t think coal is going to be part of our power-generation mix for much longer and investing in electric vehicles for public transit makes sense. (Everyone swapping their combustion engines for EVs makes less sense, but we’re talking about public transit today, so I’m not going to get into that.)


Go Forward!

Phase 1 of the Transit Cape Breton operational review will attempt to “identify” and “build consensus around” the transit needs of the communities, determine levels of service to meet these needs, identify the resources need to achieve these levels of service and the capital and operating budgets necessary to sustain them.

Kathy Donovan

Kathy Donovan

But Phase 1 will also involve a preliminary design and cost estimate for a net-zero transit maintenance facility because, as Boudreau explained, the goal is to improve transit service while transitioning to a zero emissions fleet.

This first Phase should be completed in September 2023, at which point Transit Cape Breton will likely seek funding for the second phase involving the detailed design and construction of the maintenance facility and the purchase of electric buses (Engineering and Public Works Director Wayne MacDonald says it takes between a year-and-a-half and two years between ordering and receiving a bus). This second phase is expected to be completed by 2027.

As you can see, we’re not exactly proceeding in leaps and bounds towards this goal of greener transit. According to MacDonald, the federal dollars to fund these first phases of the project have been available since 2017 under the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP), waiting for the CBRM to get its ducks in a row. That stream has a fixed funding formula of 27% municipal, 40% federal and 33% provincial and will be open until 2027.

Starting in the late 2020s, though, MacDonald said there will be “constant” federal transit funding going to all transit operators in the country. (“It’s exciting times,” he said.) He also mentioned that the Canada Infrastructure Bank, previously funding only the very largest projects, had recently opened a public transit stream.

Boudreau was asked if the study would look into what municipalities of a similar size are doing in terms of electrifying their transit systems and he said it would, so I decided I would too, and that will be the subject of my second article on transit this week.



Councilors were generally pleased with the transit numbers and supportive of the planned electrification.

Councilor Cyril MacDonald expressed particular appreciation for the Handi-Trans service and Councilor James Edwards raised the possibility of a harbor ferry, a notion that was studied by the municipality back in 2013 but abandoned when no private operator expressed interest in running it. (District 5 Councilor Eldon MacDonald said there has been some talk of running some sort of service from the Port of Sydney but offered no further details.)

It’s too bad the possibility of a ferry doesn’t seem to have been included in the transit system review. As Councilor Edwards pointed out, with the rising cost of gas and the relocation of the Marconi Campus, a harbor ferry might make sense today in a way it didn’t in 2013. (Or not, I realize electric harbor ferries don’t come cheap, but it seems like something worth at least investigating.)

Donovan was also asked about Community Connects, a pilot program launched in 2019 to use taxis in a more coordinated, communal way—including using them to bring residents from outlying areas of the CBRM to points, like the Keltic Shopping Plaza in Sydney River, where they can access public transit. She said she believed the project was still operating. I have no further detail to add on this, but I just re-read my own 2019 article about the service and I realize a follow-up is in order.

I’m now going to end abruptly but you’re welcome to head over to this story about transit in other municipalities, particularly Saint John, NB.