Buses, it seems, have largely gone the way of the dodo bird in Western Canada.
Oh, sure, there are some regional lines in Alberta and Manitoba. B.C. has its own thing. But a little over a year ago, Saskatchewan killed off the Saskatchewan Transportation Company. While a few small outfits here and there have picked up some of the slack, it’s nowhere near what it once was. And without Greyhound, the idea of interprovincial travel by bus is over.
The death of Greyhound in Western Canada unfortunately confirms that the provincial government wasn’t smoking dope when it came to the economics of bus service out here. There simply aren’t any, at least for running full-sized coaches on a daily basis.
If Greyhound couldn’t make money at it, after the better part of a century in business, then there probably isn’t much money to be made.
We’ve seen this before. There used to be regular rail passenger service throughout the prairies. But the demise of regular branchline passenger rail service was long before my time. My 75-year-old father took a train from Swan River to Stenen when he was around 8 years old. Another time, when he was in is early 20s, he took a train from Winnipeg to Hyas or Sturgis (he can’t remember). That was the last time.
I once talked to the man whose job it was to shut down those old passenger stations, including the one at Hyas, where I grew up as a child. I don’t remember what year it was, but it was before I was born in 1975, I’m pretty sure. I don’t think it was a happy time for him.
If there was money to be made on passenger rail service in Western Canada (besides Via Rail, which doesn’t really count for much), it would still exist. It doesn’t.
Thankfully, buses took the place of rail service for decades. But that time is now gone.
Some people might suggest the key might be these new-fangled ideas of ride-sharing or autonomous vehicles might be the answer. Or better yet, the idea that private vehicle ownership will disappear in a few years, and self-driving vehicles will take over the world. You just fire up your app on your phone, a car shows up, takes you where you want to go, and disappears when you’re done.
That’s great, but how do I get to Edmonton if I need to go? Take an Uber or Lyft? Will a self-driving electric car will pick me up from my house and have enough charge to get me to Edmonton from Estevan? I don’t think so.
Nor do I think some socialist utopia is going to do away with private vehicle ownership, ever.
One of the reasons cited for the downfall of Greyhound include the rise of really cheap airfare. That may be true for intercity travel, say from Regina to Calgary, or Winnipeg to Edmonton. Despite the sardine can seats in most economy classes today, the journey is certainly much shorter. But that doesn’t help anyone in between, who might be going from North Battleford to Yorkton. Even if they are to take a flight, they still have to be able to get to the airport.
While there are many reasons why so many people stopped taking buses, the loss of one man’s head surely was a primary one. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that a man being decapitated by another passenger, on a Greyhound, was a major tipping point for many passengers. The minister for Saskatchewan’s Crown Investment Corp. attributed that event to causing ridership to drop substantially on STC.
I have been fortunate enough to be able to afford private vehicles, and have been so for a long time. The last time I took a bus was over 20 years ago. But not everyone is in that situation. The loss of STC, and now Greyhound, is going to be difficult for them.
Even if we do see small players come in to replace parts of STC and Greyhound, I wouldn’t expect anyone to be able to piece together such a widespread network, and certainly not one nation-wide. There is no easy answer when a business model simply collapses, with no obvious replacement. Market failure is one of the reasons many Crown corporations, like STC, existed in the first place.
With regards to buses, the market has certainly failed now.
Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.