Business·Analysis

Canadian bus companies have plans to fill the gap left by Greyhound

Nature and capitalism both abhor a vacuum. There's a coalition of companies ready to fill Central Canada's Greyhound-shaped hole — and talk of a new coast-to-coast bus network. But some of that transformation might need government help.

From East and West, Canada's bus companies say they're ready to ride to the rescue

Mike Cassidy, owner of Coach Atlantic Maritime Bus, wants to work out a deal with other regional bus companies to create a seamless coast-to-coast coalition. (Wayne Thibodeau/CBC)

Almost every Canadian of a certain age can remember the first long bus ride that took them off on a youthful adventure.

In the case of your correspondent, part of that journey as a tender 17-year-old was on the exotically named Grey Goose Lines, which dropped me on a lonely highway somewhere east of Atikokan, Ont., for a summer job as a junior forest ranger.

While Greyhound Canada's announcement of its final departure from southern Ontario and Quebec this week may have come as a shock to people who depend on the service, those in the know say the company's loss may have a silver lining.

Early reports that the 'Hound's disappearance sounds the death knell for an outmoded system of transportation are simply not true, said Terence Johnson, national president of Transport Action Canada.

Buses still matter for people who don't drive or have access to a car — and to connect communities where airlines are too expensive or non-existent.

Now, Johnson says Greyhound's departure could be the catalyst for a new coast-to-coast bus network formed by an interlocking group of domestic bus companies from both east and west — provided the federal government is ready to help. 

"A lot of Canadian companies don't mind seeing the back of Greyhound," said Johnson, who sees the bounce-back following the pandemic as a moment to transform and improve Canada's transportation system.

Regional players ready

That transformation may not be immediate. Johnson said there may be a shakeout period as new bus services fill the gap left by the U.S. carrier, at a time when they're already struggling with a crash in traffic due to COVID-19 restrictions.

But these are not inexperienced startups. They're established regional players, and when you start looking, there are more of them than you might realize.

On Thursday just as Greyhound announced its departure, Rider Express, a company founded in Saskatchewan after the province shut down the STC bus service, posted this notice. (Rider Express)

Already, companies across the country are looking at how to get a piece of what they see as the lucrative Central Canadian market for both passenger service and parcel delivery.

Just as Grey Goose Lines expanded out of a small startup in the 1920s in Sperling, Man., before being ultimately swallowed up by Greyhound and closed, there appears to be no shortage of strong regional companies looking to take Greyhound's place.

"Rider Express is coming to Ontario and Quebec," says a notice on the company's website posted on the same day Greyhound announced it was pulling out.

"As a truly Canadian company, Rider Express will be able to connect across Canada with a single bus ticket."

Success where Greyhound failed

But how could a company that started small in Saskatchewan after the province cancelled the money-losing provincial Saskatchewan Transportation Company in 2017 make money where Greyhound could not?

According to Rider's general manager, Omer Kanca, after years of serving relatively sparsely peopled routes between Vancouver and Winnipeg, the Windsor–Toronto–Montreal corridor will be rich pickings.

"The fact that we achieve ... this in these areas itself proves that our business model is much better than Greyhound," Kanca said.

A Rider Express bus in Calgary. The Saskatchewan-based company hopes to have similar buses on the Windsor–Toronto–Montreal corridor as soon as this summer. (Colin Hall/CBC)

In partnership with Ontario Northland bus service based in North Bay, Ont., Kanca says Rider will be able to provide integrated service from the West right up to the edge of Atlantic Canada, a system that he is expecting to have running by summer.

"We are ready," Kanca said on the phone Friday. "We have buses waiting to be put in service."

Rider Express is not the only company with its eye on Greyhound's abandoned routes. Insiders say there were many reasons the U.S. company withdrew, but one was that as of July 1, the Ontario government is deregulating bus service in the province's well-travelled southern routes. That would open the way for any company that can get a licence to operate.

WATCH | Why Greyhound says it left and why it matters:

Greyhound shuts down in Canada for good

The National

1 month ago
1:57
After a century of bus service across the country, Greyhound will no longer be operating in Canada, leaving few transportation options for some communities. 1:57

Competition and co-operation

John Stepovy, director of business development at Edmonton-based Pacific Western Transportation, which operates EBus and Red Arrow on routes in Western Canada, says the company is looking into launching a service in Ontario.

Operating under Alberta's deregulated system since 2011, Pacific Western is prepared to compete. But it also sees value in co-operation with companies that understand their regional markets. 

"We're continuing to look for opportunities to expand the service and to work with other regional carriers for connections," Stepovy said.

A system for co-ordinating with strong regional players like Pacific Western is exactly what Mike Cassidy, the owner of Coach Atlantic Maritime Bus, has in mind.

Transport Action Canada sees an opportunity to co-ordinate a ground transportation network that will include government commuter systems, private intercity bus services and long-distance rail. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Cassidy hopes to create a co-ordinated national bus network, with regional bus services across the country and with co-operation from the federal government. Companies already in talks include Pacific Western, Kasper, which operates in Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, and Cassidy's Coach Atlantic.

"For the last six months ... we've been presenting a coast-to-coast bus coalition where you do not give total responsibility for a trans-Canada bus line to one particular company," Cassidy said.

Part of his plan would see some kind of government subsidies for the capital costs of inter-city buses similar to the money given to urban bus services.

Not just cherry-picking

The idea is not to just cherry-pick the lucrative routes but to provide a cost-effective service, connecting a backbone cross-country network to regional participants offering routes to small and Indigenous communities.

Using a shared system of software, Cassidy foresees a system where passengers will be able to move seamlessly from carrier to carrier. It would also offer each local operator access to the lucrative package-delivery system traditionally run by bus services.

One of the advantages of such a network of parts, says Transport Action's Johnson, is that the system would be less likely to collapse because one company failed. He said Greyhound seemed to think it was too big to fail and deserved federal handouts to keep going.

Johnson, like many others across the country, believes the federal government must be involved to help co-ordinate an inter-provincial transportation service that integrates urban and inter-urban systems to serve all Canadians.

"There is a great deal of finessing of this relationship to make it all work properly for the person who matters, the passenger, the Canadian, who wants to go from Corner Brook to Sudbury to go to university," Johnson said.

"She should be able to buy a ticket and know all those connections are going to work, and it should be easy."

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter @don_pittis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Don Pittis

Business columnist

Don Pittis was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London. He is currently senior producer at CBC's business unit.

With files from James Dunne

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