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New routes plug holes in bus service

A Red Arrow bus prepares to depart from downtown Edmonton.  |  Jeremy Simes photo

British Columbia

A number of transportation services are beginning to take shape on the Prairies, filling the gap that Greyhound left behind when it disappeared from rural roads at the end of last month.

The long-time motor coach operator is being replaced by a variety of providers, including government-subsidized services and the private sector. There are shuttles, buses and vehicle-share options. Some run on a timed schedule while others can be booked in advance.

While the newly offered services don’t stop at nearly every community that Greyhound did, the routes are at least providing some relief for people who can’t drive. Without these lines, they would have far fewer options to get around.

“I suppose at the end of the day, if the needs are met through other service providers, that’s a good thing,” said Lynn Pye-Matheson, executive director of the Grasslands Regional Family and Community Support Services, which offers social programming and helps with access to rural transportation.

“My concern, though, is these newer routes don’t always include the smaller centres. Everyone needs access to affordable transportation.”

Greyhound ceased the majority of its western Canadian operations on Oct. 31. All of its routes that connected nearly every prairie community no longer exist. The only one left is between Vancouver and Seattle.

Now that it’s gone, what’s left is mostly a hodge-podge of connections. The new carriers that have stepped in aren’t going to every town, village or hamlet.

“Smaller communities don’t have the access they used to,” Pye-Matheson said.

“But having said that, there are a lot of transportation initiatives coming forward.”

On the Prairies, Alberta appears to have the most connections. The province estimates that 82 percent of Greyhound’s routes are being covered by private operators.

Some of those companies include Red Arrow, which is now going from Edmonton to Grande Prairie and stopping at some communities along the way. It’s also going to Camrose from Edmonton directly.

As well, other companies are expanding or entering the business, including the Northern Express Bus Line and Cold Shot. Northern Express will be adding an Edmonton-to-Grande Prairie route, stopping at various communities in Peace country, while Cold Shot will launch routes that connect northern Alberta to Edmonton.

“We felt that the service is still warranted,” said Simon Juckes, general manager of Northern Express, noting that he believes ridership will be high between Edmonton and Grande Prairie.

“I think Greyhound got caught up in a big corporate decision. Locally, it didn’t make sense.”

In Manitoba, various shuttle and bus services are available with routes that connect west and north of Winnipeg, stopping in communities such as Portage La Prairie, Dauphin and Swan River.

However, when it comes to connecting the provinces, there appears to be only one option.

Rider Express Transportation, based in Saskatoon, currently travels from Calgary to Winnipeg, stopping in major cities and smaller communities such as Medicine Hat, Swift Current, Moosomin and Brandon.

The company plans to launch a Saskatoon-to-Edmonton line, going to communities on Highway 16, as long as people book service one day in advance. The company already travels regularly from Prince Albert to Saskatoon to Regina.

“We are trying to help people who need it,” said Fiat Uray, owner of Rider Express.

“We would like to reach people who need this service.”

But without Greyhound, connections in Saskatchewan will be limited. Residents who rely on rural transit will have few options, particularly those south of Regina and east of Saskatoon.

However, Saskatchewan’s lack of options is largely due to the closure of the Saskatchewan Transportation Company. The former crown corporation had 27 routes with buses travelling to more than 250 places. It also had more than 170 stations.

The province closed STC because it was too expensive to operate. Greyhound also shut down because it said it was experiencing lower demand and falling revenues.

However, companies such as Rider Express and Northern Express see opportunity.

“If we can do it the right way, then we can have profit,” Uray said, though he couldn’t predict what demand might be.

“When we are in it, we will know.”

Some governments are also willing to pitch in, arguing rural transit is a necessity for many people who can’t drive. They need to get to medical appointments, get to work, visit family and run errands.

Alberta is investing $2.8 million for six pilot projects over two years.

The pilot projects will each serve communities in and around Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Grande Prairie, Spirit River and Red Deer. Red Arrow’s connector between Edmonton and Camrose is also receiving government subsidies.

As well, the British Columbia government has initiated a line for the northern part of that province, connecting the communities of Dawson Creek, Fort St. John, Prince George and Valemount. The pilot costs $2 million and will run for one year.

In B.C., the biggest gaps in service will be north of Kamloops in the Quesnel and Cache Creek areas. As well, there appears to be no service connecting the B.C.-Alberta border in the Peace region.

“For Albertans in rural, remote and Indigenous communities, bus services have been a lifeline to work, school, vital health care, family and friends,” Alberta Transportation Minister Brian Mason said in a news release.

“We said we will not leave people stranded by the side of the road.”

In Alberta, municipalities will be handling the delivery of the bus services. Red Deer County, for example, plans on having a partnership in which city buses travel between destinations. A similar model will exist in Grande Prairie County.

In Spirit River, a shuttle bus is being built to take people to Grande Prairie three times a week. The Medicine Hat to Lethbridge route is still being worked out, though it’s expected riders will have to call in advance for service.

Municipal leaders are hopeful the pilot projects will be successful, though if demand is low, they will likely close.

“We are expecting good ridership,” said Leanne Beaupre, reeve of Grande Prairie County.

“I think we will be fairly successful.”

The federal government is also stepping in to help rural and remote communities receive bus service. While the costs aren’t yet known, it will be a cost-sharing agreement between the federal and provincial governments.

Both the Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments have said they have no interest in heavily subsidizing rural transit, hoping the private sector steps in.

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