Small towns from Osoyoos, B.C., to Massey, Ont., will lose their bus connection to the wider world Wednesday night, when Greyhound Canada ceases its service to Western Canada.
The last Greyhound bus pulls into a station in Western Canada Wednesday night at midnight, the victim of high costs and declining ridership, according to U.S. parent company Greyhound.
Greyhound announced in July that it was ceasing all service in northern Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, with the exception of its service between Vancouver and Seattle. It pulled out of northern B.C. in May and stopped booking return trips a few days ago.
“Despite best efforts over several years, ridership has dropped nearly 41 per cent across the country since 2010 within a changing and increasingly challenging transportation environment,” Greyhound said in announcing the withdrawal. “Simply put, we can no longer operate unsustainable routes.”
Greyhound has 360 stops in Western provinces. For 300 of them, Greyhound is the only service.
Patchwork of replacements
Smaller and regional competitors, including Calgary’s Pacific Western Transportation, Regina’s Rider Express, Indigenous-owned Mahihkan Bus Lines in Manitoba, are stepping in to take over, sometimes with the aid of provincial governments. The longer routes between large cities are attractive.
But some routes may be gone for good, leaving rural communities with no public transportation to other cities.
Also missing is a coherent coast-to-coast system for both freight and passenger travel.
Logistics experts say it will take some time for that patchwork of services to shake down.
Garland Chow, director of the Bureau of Intelligent Transportation Systems and Freight Security at UBC’s Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, says bus travel gradually has become less viable, particularly to smaller centres.
Big costs, empty seats
“A bus is not like a retail store where they can hold the product until you buy it. When the bus is ready to go, people get on it and it pulls out of the station, whether it’s sold all the seats or not,” he says.
Greyhound operated large buses, because in peak seasons every seat would be filled, but often they are half empty, Chow said.
Yet if it reduced service, it risked losing customers to private vehicles or even air carriers.
Chow calls this the “Uber effect.”
“People have expectations. They want to travel at the time they want — in the morning or in the afternoon, but with buses it only pays to do one a day or perhaps two.
“Then there’s complaining. ‘That’s not good enough for us,'” he said.
The problem is particularly acute for small communities. Dozens of small towns in northern Ontario are affected, with the cancellation of Greyhound buses from west of Sudbury, through Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay and Kenora to Winnipeg. Similarly, communities in Manitoba, British Columbia’s Interior, Alberta and Saskatchewan are also losing bus service.
In Saskatchewan, Greyhound is the second bus service to shut down in as many years. The Saskatchewan Transportation Company stopped operating in 2017.
What about freight?
“Relatively and absolutely, the population of rural communities is declining and has been for a long time,” Chow said. People continue to move from small communities to larger centres, where there is more work, and that means fewer people to take the bus.
But some people need the public service that an inter-city bus provides — including seniors who no longer like to drive long distances, people heading to specialist medical appointments in another city, and low-income people, he said.
Provincial governments often cover their transportation costs for patients heading to medical appointments out of town and may be facing increased costs as a result.
The other big hole will be in freight, which can be a significant cost centre for bus companies.
Mike Cassidy, president of Maritime Bus in Charlottetown, says about half of bus freight is for businesses, the other half personal.
‘Where do I go for that?’
“My question is who’s going to take over the Trans-Canada corridor? If I want to ship a parcel from Halifax to Edmonton, who’s going to do it?” says Cassidy, whose company took over routes into P.E.I. when Acadian Coach Lines ceased service in 2012.
“Where do I go for that? I don’t know.”
Cassidy said even with many operators coming into the market, it will take some time before a coherent bus system is in place.
Brent McKnight, associate professor of strategic management in the DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton, agrees it will take some time for alternatives to be worked out.
But he believes someone, most likely the operator taking over the long-haul routes from Vancouver to Winnipeg, will step in to try to co-ordinate coast-to-coast freight and passenger service.
Finding the ‘model that works’
Entrepreneurs will likely find “a model that works,” McKnight said. And he predicts it will be lower cost, perhaps with smaller buses and more personalized service.
A hub-and-spoke system, similar to the way feeder airlines run from small cities to larger hubs, will likely evolve, McKnight said.
Still, the smaller communities may have to take the initiative if they have a significant population relying on buses, he said. Social entrepreneurs also may step into the breach, working with donors or with municipalities to create a local system, particularly where people must attend out-of-town medical appointments.
“What I’d love to see is communities stepping forward that have an institutional interest and creating a service for their community,” he said.
Chow points to the Megabus model in the U.S. and southern Ontario as a potential winner in Western Canada, but says it will have to be adapted for Canada’s weather. It operates on a hub and spoke system and keeps costs low by stopping in mall parking lots and on highway roadsides, instead of in bus terminals.
Terminals are an expense for bus companies and provinces, and municipalities may have to subsidize some of the cost to keep bus service operating, he said.
“For all countries, this is social policy issue. Do we care if rural areas are populated or not? When we look at overall recovery costs, governments tend to pull back.”