[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It happened almost three years ago. And in retrospect, it should have been a warning sign.
News Clip: Some people have been taking the Greyhound bus in BC for decades. The biggest thing all these travellers have in common is that they are the last people in the province to board this bus to Kelowna as the company seizes operations in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Without even a pandemic to restrict travel, Greyhound determined that their Western Canadian roots, mostly in rural areas, just weren’t popular enough to be profitable or sustainable. So it got rid of them. There was, at the time, a news cycle about it, about the people left stranded by the decision. We even did an episode on it.
And then most of us who weren’t impacted by the cuts moved on, and then a pandemic hit and travel ground to a halt. And so naturally Greyhound [00:01:00] paused most of their remaining roots. Until last week when they announced that those routes, all of their routes in fact, weren’t paused, they were over.
News Clip: Richard, after years of declining ridership, Greyhound is slamming the brakes on its Canadian operations.
It is hard to believe, isn’t it, Erica, that Greyhound’s going to be no more in Canada. I mean, these guys have been around in this country for a hundred years.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: As you might imagine if rural Western Canadians were impacted by the 2018 cuts, this is the same thing magnified. There are dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds of small Canadian communities, where if you don’t have a car, Greyhound was literally your only option. And now it’s gone. And here’s the thing, this can be a tragedy or it can be an opportunity.
[00:02:00] I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Alexis Zhou is a freelance journalist and also a fierce advocate for Canadian transit. Hey Alexis.
Alexis Zhou: Hey Jordan. Thank you for having me here.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Oh, you’re very welcome. We actually covered, uh, this story back in 2018, when Greyhound pulled out of Western Canada. I’m wondering if you can just sort of briefly walk us through what’s happened with Greyhound since then.
Alexis Zhou: Yeah, that has indeed been a very unfortunate situation. So Greyhound pulled out of Canada, uh, Western Canada about, uh, two years ago, of citing that they are running in a deficit. Uh, but very recently Greyhound announced that they’re completely withdrawing from all of Canada. So they’re completely suspending their operation, uh, because they’re having a huge shortfall in the, uh, in the ridership.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: For those of us who live in big cities and might not understand it [00:03:00] quite the same way, how woven into Canada are bus routes like the ones Greyhound was running, uh, across the country?
Alexis Zhou: Yeah. Greyhound is extremely important for Canadians, not just those living in big cities, but also in the rural areas, especially for, um, uh, for people living in, in small towns along major highways, that’s basically their only connection to the outside world if they’re not driving or if there’s not an airport in their town. So Greyhound is their, literally is their lifeline to the outside world and with Greyhound suspending the service, uh, completely, they’re losing their only public transit connection to the rest of Canada. So they’re stranded in their own towns.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Who uses that kind of service? I mean, obviously people without cars, but, but what kinds of stuff are they using it for?
Alexis Zhou: Yeah, actually a lot of Canadians rely on public transit industry, to transit like Greyhound. It’s not just people who don’t drive or [00:04:00] people who might be, uh, students, young professionals, or senior citizens. It’s also people who, who just choose to not drive, uh, especially in cities like Toronto and Montreal. A significant percentage of people living in Toronto and Montreal, they don’t drive. And so they need to rely on city services like Greyhound to get around Canada.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How many companies, um, if any, I guess, are there who might step in to pick up those routes? Um, obviously I’m assuming Greyhound cut them because they weren’t really turning a profit.
Alexis Zhou: Yeah, there are quite a lot of companies are thinking about, uh, taking over, uh, Greyhound’s spot. For example, Megabus, they had just, you know, launched their service between Ottawa and Toronto. And there are several other companies out there, uh, configuring to launch a coast to coast bus coalition to sort of run a national bus network. And they’re currently planning, in the screen and planning stage, will [00:05:00] be up and running possibly in a, you know, a few months.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So why are so many people worried about Greyhound vanishing then if there are other companies that can take it over?
Alexis Zhou: So yeah, here’s the thing, that the failure of Greyhound is actually not necessarily the failure of Greyhound itself, but the failure of the regulatory system. So in Canada, many provinces in Canada outlaw regulation. So for any bus route, there can only be one company running that route. Uh, for example, Toronto to Montreal is exclusively run by Megabus because they have a monopoly and it’s legally sanctioned monopoly. Any other company cannot compete with Megabus, uh, on this road.
And so the result of this is that the Greyhound, they previously, uh, they held a monopoly on many routes across Canada. And now since Greyhound is exiting the market, new players will be taking Greyhound’s place. But the problem [00:06:00] is the regulatory system is still pretty much intact.
So Ontario is exception. So Ontario is now deregulating the market entirely. But for provinces like Quebec, there can only be one bus company running. And the consequence of that will be a new player would eventually end up in a similar situation that Greyhound was in. Uh, because one company cannot provide sufficient service, and the ridership will just keep on decreasing.
And ultimately it’s just, the history will repeat itself. And we’re seeing this repeating and repeating in the Atlantic province. So, so a few years ago, one of the largest company, like actually the only bus company running the Atlantic, closed down, uh, because of the ridership decrease. And now we have the Atlantic Bus running exclusively in the Atlantic province because they’re the only company holding the monopoly and now they’re facing the same problem [00:07:00] that the previous player faced. So the only solution, long-term solution to end this, this mystery is to either deregulate the market, like what Ontario has done so that more players can, more companies can run the same route or to nationalize it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How would nationalizing the bus industry work? What would it look like?
Alexis Zhou: Yeah. Nationalizing the bus industry’s completely viable and possible. And it takes little effort on part of the federal government. So right now we already have VIA Rail, which is a nationalized passenger rail service.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Alexis Zhou: And all Ottawa needs to do is to expand VIA Rail, and to, uh, to incorporate bus service into the existing VIA network.
For example, right now there’s no way you can travel from Winnipeg to Calgary. So there might be some buses running, but it’s very a fragmented and takes, and the service very infrequent. [00:08:00] The VIA Rail just need to set up a bus line, connecting different provinces and cities that are underserved by existing options. And then we will have a nationalized, nation-wide network from coast to coast, connecting cities and towns for all Canadians to use and enjoy.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It sounds so simple. Why haven’t we done it already? As you point out, we’ve already done it with the train.
Alexis Zhou: Yeah, if we’re going to have a real bus network, which is going to be relatively, I would say, low budget, because it’s a bus, it doesn’t cost much to, um, for the government. It’s really a low cost. Uh, the problem, the only obstacle is that the federal government is unwilling to invest in intercity transit. Uh, Ottawa’s consistently been neglecting the intercity bus industry for, for decades. Uh, to be honest, uh, the, the current regulatory structure we had was actually reminiscent from, from [00:09:00] five, like five decades ago.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Huh.
Alexis Zhou: Uh, being approximately like around 1970s, the Supreme Court of Canada with their judgment that actually intercity bus belongs to federal jurisdiction. But at the time the federal government wasn’t prepared to regulate the market because at the time, everybody was traveling on the bus. So it’s a huge market and the federal government just wasn’t, like, ready to regulate them.
But now 50 years later, intercity bus is no longer that important than it was 50 years ago. And yet the federal government still hasn’t updated their regulation. So right now all of the regulation is actually delegated to the provinces and which actually creates a chaos because each province has a very different regulatory standard. So it’s very difficult for bus companies to coordinate interprovincial routes. So that’s why so many networks in Canada are fragmented, like one company running this route in this part of [00:10:00] Ontario, for example, and another company running route over there, you know, totally different area. And they’re not connected because the regulation, uh, does not facilitate them. So all we need is for Ottawa to update the regulation, to federalize regulation, just like what it did the truck industry. And so we have a national nationwide coordination, um, don’t done by Ottawa, which will make things a lot easier.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you float the idea of a national bus service, say run by VIA, are there examples of a national bus service in any of our peer countries that we could look to?
Alexis Zhou: Yeah, actually in the United States, a lot of intercity transit is actually subsidized. Uh, for example, in Virginia, uh, the Virginia, basically the state government, they’re collaborating with the, uh, Megabus to run a subsidized bus service across the state of Virginia, which is low-cost, affordable, and reliable. [00:11:00] In Colorado, for example, if you have this service called Breathe, which is run by the government, and it’s been extremely popular with tourists and local residents alike, and even just in Canada, we have, we have the GO Bus if you live in Toronto.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Alexis Zhou: You know that the GO Bus is what people rely on to commute between the suburbs and the city. And so all we need to do is to, to use the model of GO Bus, but to expand it to a nationwide scale, right. Also, the Ontario, the Ontario Northland, which is a Crown corporation, which currently serves Northern communities like Sudbury and Thunder Bay. So we just need to expand them to all of Canada, so it’s not just a provincial service limited to a few communities in Northern Ontario, but we have a nationwide public network federalized and coordinated by Ottawa that connects cities and towns from coast to coast.
[00:12:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This sounds like something that everyone wants the federal government to do, uh, except maybe the government itself. I’m wondering if they’ve given any indication over the past, I guess, week or so, since Greyhound announced it would stop running routes completely, that they might do this, that they might take action or at least move in a direction that would connect some of the sort of patchwork stuff you mentioned.
Alexis Zhou: Exactly. The, the Greyhound’s really a wake up call for Ottawa to really, uh, to re-examine the regulation, um, the regulatory structure to really to, to take intercity bus seriously, because for the past five decades, the federal government’s done absolutely nothing to review or, or revamp its regulation.
So we’re pretty much stuck in the 1970s in terms of how the federal government sees Indigenous network. It really takes its political willingness and the political, [00:13:00] I would say courage to, to stand up and to say that the federal government must do something, um, to update the, the framework and that’s all we need.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Has the transportation minister said anything even about, um, the end of Greyhound in Canada?
Alexis Zhou: Yeah, they are aware of the situation. Uh, they’re looking into it. They say they’re, they’re concerned that the, the, the, the, they care, they care about the n- the Northern community, care about the Indigenous communities, they care about the rural communities. But in reality, they’re not, they’re absolutely not doing anything, like from what I know, they’re absolutely doing zero to, uh, to improve the situation.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: When you mentioned that the other option is deregulating these rules across all the provinces, aside from Ontario, has that been floated, have any provinces that have now maybe lost Greyhound roots moved in that direction? You know, you advocate for transit and that community, is there any hope that that will happen soon?
[00:14:00] Alexis Zhou: Yeah. So Ontario is deregulating the bus market starting July. And so what we really need to see is that the province is to deregulate its, um, its bus market to encourage more entrance. So the problem is not that we don’t have enough bus companies. The thing is with many bus companies, they’re eager to serve. They’re eager to launch new service, to compete with each other and to provide affordable options to Canadians. They want to serve, they want to, uh, to run routes, but the thing is they can’t because of regulation, they are legally forbidden to run bus passenger service, and that’s really a shame.
We see this in the Atlantic provinces where there’s only one monopoly running very infrequent service. On some routes, there’s only one bus a week, like.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Alexis Zhou: Or three buses a week and that’s just not how people travel. And like, it’s just [00:15:00] totally ridiculous. So what we need is for, uh, for bus companies to allow them to provide service, to allow them to provide frequent and reliable service to Canadians. And those, the way to do this is through deregulation.
And we see this in Germany, uh, in Germany, they have very competitive intercity bus market and we see companies like FlixBus has been extremely successful. Like for example, like 10 euros, you can, we can traveling a very long, like relatively long distance.
And we see that in the United States, after deregulating, for example, in New York to Boston, route. They’re upwards of 10 companies run the same route. So the frequency of the service is insane. You literally have a bus every five minutes that goes from New York to Boston, and you only have to pay $5, sometimes when they’re running a discount, it’s $5 from New York to Boston.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Wow.
Alexis Zhou: Because of the competition. Because of the [00:16:00] deregulation, but in, um, but in Canada we don’t have competition because the regulation’s too strict. So once we have deregulated, really we’ll see bus companies from across the nation rushing to provide services.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This is my last question then, just because, you know, we began this conversation on a kind of depressing note that there are people in small towns across Canada that are losing service. But as you describe it, is there a real opportunity here? Like I think a lot of people would say that rural bus networks have been pretty poor in Canada for a long time. Like you mentioned that it’s a wake-up call for the federal government. Is it also a chance to finally get this right?
Alexis Zhou: Yeah, absolutely. It’s it’s really, uh, it’s really the opportunity of a lifetime. I would say once in a generation opportunity, uh, to completely revamp and re-examine how we connect our rural communities, like how we connect different provinces of [00:17:00] Canada.
Uh, it’s, it’s really a shame that Canada, as a country, it’s so like, disconnected from each other, uh, in terms of, uh, passenger transportation service. Uh, we have a very weak passenger rail service that barely, that only caters to tourists. And we have a bus network that’s barely functioning. And so it’s really the opportunity of a lifetime to reconnect. Our rural communities have long been neglected and forgotten.
For the rural communities, simply deregulating the market might not be enough because for some rural communities, there might be a, the population is too sparse and it might not turn a profit for, uh, for companies. So this is where, uh, a public nationalized network could come in to serve the rural area where the private sector might not be interested in serving.
The real solution, I would say would be, uh, first deregulating. Either [00:18:00] provinces can, can do it on their own or the federal government can, can come in and say, “Hey, I’ll now take over the regulation, and now I’ll deregulate the industry so everyone can, can do their thing. That’s the first step.
The second step would be to start a national public network to make sure that every community has the reliable service, especially the rural communities that might be, uh, continue to be neglected by the private sector. This way, not only will Canadians be able to travel affordably across from coast to coast, but also the rural communities will no longer be forgotten.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Alexis, thank you so much for explaining this to us today. I’m glad it’s an opportunity.
Alexis Zhou: Thank you, Jordan. Thank you Jordan for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That was Alexis Zhou, and that was The Big Story. For more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at [00:19:00] @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us via email anytime, thebigstorypodcast, it’s all one word, it’s all lowercase, or uppercase if you want, have some fun, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And as always, we’re in your favourite podcast player, in Apple, in Google, in Stitcher, in Spotify, on your favourite smart speaker. If you can figure out how to make the apps work, we’re also probably on your smartwatch. Don’t ask me because I don’t have one.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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