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Commuter Transit in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Up until late 1960's Halifax used a fleet of trolleys (trams) in the peninsula part of the city. There was no public transit outside the peninsula except for a few select routes serviced by Acadian Lines, the highway bus service.

This is a map of the Halifax metro area. The area circled in green was served by trolleys and electric buses. Dartmouth, on the eastern side of the harbor, served the area in red as well as running a bus to downtown Halifax to link to Halifax Transit after the bridge opened in the mid 50's. A bit later, when Halifax switched to buses, they expanded into the area circled in purple. Acadian Lines ran a bus every two hours from Halifax to Sackville and return.


Now all of the area on the map is just a part of the Halifax Regional Municiplality and Metro Transit serves most of the area shown and other areas off the map. But, back to the beginning, it all started with an electric trolley system that served only Peninsula Halifax.

The Halifax Street Railway ran a few different trolleys from 1866 to 1949 when they switched from trolleys to electric buses. The Canadian Car T-44's were the last electric buses in Halifax, serving until 1969 when Halifax Transit replaced the service mainly by GM "New Look" "Fish Bowl" style buses that had been first introduced in 1959.

Birney Electric Trolley used in Halifax until 1949

Canadian Car T-44 Electric Bus modelled in Halifax colors

In Dartmouth, on the opposite side of the harbor, an independent city at the time, Bell Buses and then DTS ran a fleet made up of mostly Blue Bird school buses and a few GM Old Look buses. The only new equipment purchased in the years prior to the take-over by the city were a few GM New Look buses.

GM Old Look Bus (not Dartmouth colors)
Dartmouth colors were blue and white

GM New Look Bus (redone in Metro Transit colors)

From the mid 80's, when Halifax Transit and Dartmouth Transit amalgamated into Metro Transit and extended service to Bedford and Sackville replacing Acadian Lines in those areas, up until 2003 Halifax's main fleet consisted of GM Classic (after 1987 GM became MCI) 40 foot units and 14 - 60 foot articulated units. The Classic had replaced a smaller fleet of GM "New Look" "Fish Bowl" style buses from the 60's in Halifax and a small fleet of various buses in Dartmouth. Classic #'s 801 to 975, articulated 701 to 714.

#937 Classic at Scotia Square - main downtown terminal

#712 Classic at Scotia Square

About 2000 the city decided to try some new low floor accessible buses. The first lot were Nova Bus (in 1993 MCI became Nova Bus). Nova Bus #'s 976 to 999.

#980 Nova Bus at Cobequid Terminal (Sackville)

In 2003 a decision was made to gradually replace the entire fleet with low floor accessible buses because by doing so federal money was available to offset some of the cost of the new buses. This decision was not well liked by the public as the new buses seat 35 compared to 48 on the Classics. The city's answer was that more buses could be added to busier routes but that has not happened entirely. The city did not buy Nova Bus, instead choosing New Flyer, a Canadian manufacturer in Winnipeg. New Flyer #'s 1000 to 1185 ... and still coming.

#1095 New Flyer at Ferry Boat Lane -
secondary downtown terminal / link to harbor ferries

At about the same time, in an effort to keep it's promise of adding more buses on busier routes, in 2003 the city bought about 15 old "Fish Bowls" from Victoria, BC and completely restored them. These are used on special peak hour only routes. And actually, much to the delight of those who use them, we were reminded that these are a far more comfortable and quieter ride than anything built since.

#513 GM New Look headed north on Barrington on a run to Sackville

All the while, since the 80's, a bitter debate continued to fester at city hall regarding rapid train transit for Halifax. The fact is we have (mostly unused) rail lines coming from three of the major suburban areas right into downtown Halifax. However, the one thing that has killed the hope a having rapid rail transit is Canadian National's unwillingness to negotiate passenger priority.

The same stance by CN has hurt VIA Rail also. In 1978 VIA Rail was established as its own entity and with the exception of some remote services in the northwest CN gave up passenger service. VIA's primary focus became establishing commuter service in major cities in Quebec and Ontario and they started weeding out the less profitable remote lines.

VIA Rail leases track useage from CN who kept ownership of all its holdings. At first, CN had an agreement with VIA to give priority to passenger service. It was not uncommon to see a freight on a siding waiting for a passing VIA train. Somewhere in the late 80's CN did not renew that agreement and freight now has priority. In areas where the number of lines is minimal this has hurt VIA by making it all but impossible to run on schedule.

In Halifax, with only two lines around the Bedford Basin, the main area of concern, and one line being rebuilt, there would be no way a rapid transit train could keep the kind of schedule necessary to make it viable. That, added to the cost of leasing track useage, has made it impossible for Halifax to introduce much needed commuter train service.

The city's answer has been to develop the MetroLink bus service. It is a premium express service from three suburban terminals directly to Scotia Square (the main downtown terminal) with no more than three stops. Designated bus lanes and bus priority signals have been installed at major intersections. For this service the city bought a couple dozen New Flyers but with tour bus style seats, carpet, a/c, and other perks. It costs more but on a run from Sackville Tereminal, a 55 minute trip on the regular bus is a 25 minute trip on the MetroLink. They run on a load and go schedule at peak hours, half hour service the rest of the day and evening. MetroLink #'s 600 to 624 ... and still coming.

#610 New Flyer MetroLink leaving Scotia Square

In early 2010, with a federal subsidy as part of the government's "green initiative", Halifax bought two New Flyer articulated diesel/electric hybrid buses. These are being used on major routes on a test basis with a commitment to buy more in 2012 if they perform well.

#715 at Scotia Square and on South Park Street

In addition to bus service Metro Transit operates three harbor ferries on one main route from downtown Halifax to downtown Dartmouth, and a secondary peak time route from Downtown Halifax to Woodside (Dartmouth South).

Ferry headed for downtown Halifax

Acadian Lines still provides provincial and inter-provincial bus service.

Some of the buses Acadian Lines has used over the past 50 years

VIA Rail serves Halifax/Montreal with the Ocean Limited 6 days a week.

VIA Ocean Limited from Montreal entering the South End yard

It is still hoped by many that one day a rapid commuter train service might be implemented but at present the discussion has been tabled indefinitely.

photo credits:
Dave Colton http://mnebuspage.fotopic.net/
Dave's Railpix http://davesrailpix.com/odds/ns/ns.htm
CPTDB http://www.cptdb.ca/wiki/index.php?title=General_Motors_TDH-5105
Andrew Blaszczyk http://www.railpictures.net/