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Northern bus service plan baffles private operators

Bus industry finds province ignored their advice in rolling out regional multimodal transportation strategy
ONTC bus 3
Ontario Northland Transportation Commission is buying new buses and plans to sign more interline agreements with private carriers to expand public transportation options to underserviced communities across the North.

The president of the Ontario Motor Coach Association has his doubts whether a handshake deal between the province and a Thunder Bay bus company provides the solution to Northern Ontario’s intercommunity bus problems.

Doug Switzer expressed surprise and skepticism over a pending interline agreement between the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC) and Kasper Transportation.

Queen’s Park is touting it as the answer to better connect neglected communities like Hornepayne and Red Lake with five-day-a-week return service.

In early December, Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle and Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca announced the province was spending $5.2 million to buy new coaches for Ontario Northland and was working with Kasper, a rapidly expanding mini-bus service, to coordinate their schedules to transfer passengers between northeastern and northwestern Ontario.

“I don’t really think this is the solution, particularly for northwestern Ontario, that everyone was looking for,” said Switzer.

The interline agreement to be negotiated will allow passengers to seamlessly transfer from one carrier to the other, across the entire North, on one ticket.

Hearst on Highway 11 is one transfer point, while White River on Highway 17 is being considered as the other.

No operating subsidies are being offered to Kasper. The government expects to strike similar interline agreements with more private carriers this year.

“Is this all it took to fix (bus service in) northwestern Ontario?,” said Switzer. “Why didn’t we fix it years ago?

It’s a bit of headscratcher for Switzer, who said the direction taken doesn’t reflect the substance of the conversations that took place during stakeholder sessions for the Northern Ontario Multimodal Transportation Strategy.

During meetings he attended in Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, Switzer said discussions always revolved around providing a subsidized service for private carriers to deliver service to underserviced communities.

“That’s been the conversation all along; that this couldn’t work without some government support for those routes.

“We were expecting more out of the Northern Ontario strategy. Certainly the conversations we were having with them seemed a little grander than this.”

Switzer explained there are a myriad of challenges to sustainably operate a bus service in the North with the distances travelled, the tough operating conditions, and the low ridership numbers.

“If Kasper can make it work with smaller equipment and a system that makes it viable for him to operate those services, that’s great,” said Switzer.

While Ontario Northland will be cashed up to buy more buses, Switzer wonders if Kasper has the capacity to service all the northwest.

“I hope this is the first step toward a broader strategy for bus service in Northern Ontario that would include other operators in partnership with the government.”

Switzer said for efficiency and cost purposes, it’s commonplace for transit authorities across Canada to contract out their bus services to the private sector while government serves in the role of planner.

Lack of bus service to small communities has been a chronic regional issue, exacerbated by Greyhound Canada service cuts in the northwest in 2015.

Some off-the-beaten-path communities were left with limited or no bus service. Other complaints surfaced in the northeast about reduced frequency of Ontario Northland bus service following the partial divestment of the Crown agency in 2012.

It prompted Common Voice Northwest, a coalition of community and business leaders, to craft a policy paper – The Future of Inter-City Community Bus Service in Northwestern Ontario – calling for an annual provincial subsidy of up to $3.5 million to support the region’s bus lines or provide travel vouchers for individual travellers.

Following the government’s Dec. 1 announcement, the group threw its support behind the government’s action to work with existing carriers. Their only concern revolves around having reasonable ticket prices for the longer distances travelled.

Switzer further questioned why the government handpicked Kasper and why the opportunity wasn’t put out to tender for his member companies to bid on it as part of the province’s regular transportation procurement process.

But a government source told Northern Ontario Business that since no subsidies are involved, there’s no requirement to tender.

Based on feedback received during the multimodal strategy sessions, routes were identified and the province had been putting together a program for Ontario Northland to provide expanded bus service.

But on the routes the province was considering rolling into, Kasper had already obtained operating licences – or had applications on file – with the Ontario Highway Transport Board.

Rather than jeopardize Kasper’s business, the company was contacted to consider an interline agreement to share bus depot costs and integrate with Ontario Northland’s online ticket reservation systems.

The source said Ontario Northland has a similar arrangement with Greyhound at a depot in Sudbury.

The province intends to contact other carriers to gauge interest in taking on routes where gaps in bus coverage exist. If there’s none, Ontario Northland will likely go in and establish service.

Kasper Wabinski, owner of Kasper Transportation, said there are plenty of logistical issues to be worked out before anything is rolled out.

“We’ve got a cake being baked but it’s still not finished.”

While there are no subsidies attached, Wabinski sees the benefits in sharing depots and booking agents with Ontario Northland to offset his expenses.

He was optimistic that the soon-to-be-signed pact with Ontario Northland could boost his two-way passenger and freight traffic.

“There are challenges to be worked out because we don’t know traffic on some of these routes. It’s still to be figured out. I could make or lose money. “I’m sure I could learn a lot from ONTC and I’m sure ONTC can learn a lot from us.”

Greyhound service cuts emboldened Wabinski to amalgamate two bus lines to fill the void. He launched the rebranded company in 2015 to serve overlooked communities on the northwestern part of Highways 17 and 11.

The company recently took on the Thunder Bay-to-Fort Frances route and has made forays into Manitoba.

With 40 vehicles, Wabinski attributes his company’s success to more customer-friendly schedules and running 11 and 16-seat mini-buses rather than $600,000-plus highway motor coaches.

“Some routes don’t have the traffic to justify a big bus.”

He was admittedly frustrated that his company’s organic growth, on their own dime, wasn’t being recognized as a solution to the North’s bussing woes.

“I’ve made some noise with the whole issue and I finally got some attention of the right people.”

According to the government source, two other private carriers in the northwest were contacted about a possible collaboration, namely Greyhound and Caribou Coach of Thunder Bay.

Greyhound wasn’t interested in restoring service beyond the Trans-Canada Highway. Caribou responded that they had gotten out of scheduled service and were strictly in the charter business.

When contacted by Northern Ontario Business, Caribou Coach owner Sandy Smith said someone from the Ministry of Transportation called him prior to Thanksgiving to inquire about the status of his Fort Frances run, which he discontinued last fall due to lower ridership.

Smith said he had no prior knowledge of the government’s plans.

“At no point in time did anyone advise or attempt to advise us that this so-called collaboration was coming down the line, or if we were interested in participating in any such program.”

Had he had received details up front, Smith said he might have considered it. But without knowing the government’s intentions, he couldn’t comment on what he might have done.

For Tisdale Bus Lines owner Ron Malette, anything that expands regional bus service into smaller markets is a good thing.

“As a society, we have a responsibility to ensure everyone has access to transportation.”

But in his 42 years in the business, Malette said he’s yet to figure out how to make the economics work on some marginal routes without government support.

“Frankly, I can’t see it working without subsidies. We don’t have the mass population, we don’t have the volume.”

His South Porcupine-based company provides charter service for college and university varsity teams and runs the shuttle service to the Detour Lake gold mine, north of Cochrane.

And if approached by the government, Malette said he would “most definitely” entertain running regularly-scheduled service into unserviced communities.

“There are some real challenges in northeastern Ontario and we want to be part of the solution.”

Malette said he often made recommendations to provincial ministries, including sending a proposal last spring to Ontario Northland for a two-year pilot program, with a funding model attached, that would involve his company adding more mini-buses to his 19-vehicle fleet.

Malette said the province had reached out to some coach lines last summer to further discuss their involvement to improve regional service. Meetings were set up, then cancelled.

“I’m surprised the province has taken this strategy and not really gone back to the people who were at the (multimodal strategy) roundtables having the conversations.”

Malette said having the Ontario Northland take on routes that private carriers won’t go into is a losing proposition for taxpayers.

“They’ll subsidize themselves at a much greater cost than the private sector can do it.”

He insists, with funding support, the private sector can deliver more cost-effective service on some routes than a Crown agency.

“There needs to be some contribution from the province. Unfortunately, that’s the only way it’s going to work."

Also on the government’s agenda is the introduction of a combined $40-million grant program for municipalities, First Nations and charities to tap into beginning next summer.

It started as a Ministry of Transportation pilot for communities where no public transit exists. The new five-year program will allow organizations to procure private carriers, school bus operators, or other providers for local and intercity bus projects to bring travellers out to bus transfer depots.

Wabinski wasn’t sure how the grant money will be distributed but he wants assurances that these vehicles will be permitted and the drivers licensed to follow operator standards listed in the Public Vehicles Act.

In the past, Wabinski said, he’s competed for charter services against illegal operators who use government-funded medical vans as a community shuttle service.

Malette agrees that more work needs to be done on this file to determine the level of service before the government rolls out with the program.

“Big-hearted volunteer organizations offer to do it but the support eventually dries up and travellers can be put at risk if the drivers are not qualified.”