Hours after Greyhound Canada announced it was permanently ending bus service across the country, questions were being raised in Ontario about how people in communities with reduced transportation options will be able to travel.
“The announcement is obviously very fresh and I’m in the process of gathering more information to determine what the social and the economic impacts this may have on our city and the rest of northern Ontario,” Sudbury Mayor Brian Bigger told Global News Thursday afternoon, calling the announcement a “setback” for bus users in and around his community.
“The bus services are an important connection for people in northern Ontario. A lot of students use it for going to school, seniors and it’s an affordable method for getting around.”
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson called the termination of service “regrettable.”
“It was an economical way for many of our residents to travel to different parts of Quebec and Ontario,” he tweeted Thursday afternoon.
“I hope this will encourage another bus service to fill the void or see an increase in future VIA Rail trips.”
Andrew Ivimey, a standup comedian who lives in Toronto, is one of many who have relied on the interregional bus service over the years to travel to gigs. He said Greyhound was integral as his career was just beginning.
“Greyhound is something I didn’t even realize until today that I had an emotional connection with,” he told Global News Thursday afternoon.
“As a standup comedian in my early 20s, when you’re not making a lot of money doing it, Greyhound was incredible. Like, it provided me opportunities to go do one-night shows in towns that I wouldn’t be able to make it to as a young, broke comedian without a car.
“It’s just something that like there’s been a lot of opportunities over the years as a young comic that that Greyhound provided me that I never really thought about until this week.”
Earlier in the day, the Canadian branch of Greyhound announced the permanent end of its remaining routes in the province that were suspended in May due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, around 260 employees were laid off when the suspension was announced. Now those employees along with 45 others will be let go.
The following routes will be discontinued as of the end of Thursday: Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal, Toronto-London-Windsor, Sudbury-Ottawa/Toronto, Toronto-Kitchener/Guelph/Cambridge, Toronto-Niagara Falls and Ottawa-Kingston.
Greyhound Canada senior vice-president Stuart Kendrick said the company plans to sell the bus stations it owns. As for its leased properties, some of the agreements have expired or have an “out clause,” while it will honour the terms of leases it’s obliged to continue paying, Kendrick said.
However, some stations were shuttered months after the suspension began. In October, the company announced it was leaving the Catherine Street terminal in Ottawa and at the time promised to operate at a new location.
The company said tickets for travel after Thursday will be refunded. Customers with a valid travel voucher can also request a refund.
The decades-old bus carrier struggled for years with declining ridership, increasing competition and deregulation. In 2018, it suspended all operations in western Canada, citing similar reasons.
Kendrick said the complete loss of so-called farebox revenue during the pandemic has forced the company to permanently cease operations. He said despite the ongoing challenges with its remaining routes, nothing could have prepared the company for the dramatic 95 per cent drop in passengers at the outset of the pandemic.
The decision is a blow to rural and remote areas that rely on a patchwork of private intercity bus companies for transportation. The service has long been part of a network linking smaller communities and big cities, offering an affordable and convenient mode of travel for everyone from essential workers and students to the elderly and backpackers.
Yet the rise in car ownership, ride-sharing, discount airlines and urban migration has slowly eroded bus ridership, leading Greyhound Canada to gradually reduce the frequency of some services and cut other routes altogether.
“Private carriers are relying on the farebox revenue to maintain these rural routes,” Kendrick said.
“When ridership declines, we have a decision to make. We either cut the frequency, exit the rural markets or look for some help.”
Multiple coach bus companies teamed up and approached the federal and provincial governments for financial aid amid mounting COVID-19 restrictions. But Kendrick said they were referred to existing pandemic supports — what he called “negligible” for the beleaguered passenger transportation industry — prompting Greyhound Canada to temporarily suspend all service last May.
“There’s really been a lack of support,” Kendrick said, adding the company doesn’t receive subsidies and is left to compete with publicly funded transit systems
The Ontario government has also promised to deregulate the intercommunity bus industry starting in July, a move that would end Greyhound Canada’s control of certain routes.
“We have had exclusive private bus service on certain corridors,” Kendrick said, noting that it provided passengers with safe, frequent and affordable service
Natasha Tremblay, a spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney, told Global News in a statement that provincial officials are “disappointed” with Greyhound Canada’s decision.
“This pandemic has brought significant challenges to businesses across the country. We are continuing to act based on the advice of the chief medical officer of health and health experts to protect the health and well-being of Ontarians,” she wrote.
Tremblay went on to say the government is still moving ahead with deregulation of the industry in the province by removing certain licensing requirements. The planned change date is set for July 1.
“We are providing more opportunities for carriers to access markets across the province and fill service gaps as Ontario recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.
“Ultimately, this problem is national in scope and Ontario is committed to working with the federal government and the intercommunity transportation sector to continue connecting communities in Ontario and across Canada.”
Meanwhile, Bigger said he is hopeful Ontario Northland, the agency charged with providing passenger bus and rail service along with rail freight with a focus on serving northern Ontario, or other transportation providers will fill the void left by Greyhound Canada.
He noted the agency is now the only major bus connection.
“All of northern Ontario for sure is impacted by reductions in bus service,” Bigger said.
Global News contacted Ontario Northland to ask if there are plans to expand service, but a spokesperson reiterated the agency’s existing mandate.
— With files from The Canadian Press