December 9, 2019

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City bus charter's plan to expand hits red light

Provincial board says there isn't enough demand

Winston Gordon applied for seven more licences to expand his company, but was refused.

PHIL.HOSSACK@FREEPRESS.MB.CA

Winston Gordon applied for seven more licences to expand his company, but was refused.

A little-known provincial regulator is putting the brakes on Winston Gordon's efforts to grow his bus charter business.

Gordon's 10-year-old Winnipeg business, Five Star Bus Lines, operates five charter buses and has applied for seven more licences.

"I'm not being greedy," he said. "If they said 'we're not going to give you all seven now,' I'd be happy to get a couple now and come back later for more."

He knows there was no opposition to his application and he's pursuing the growth because he believes there are customers out there who want charters and are not able to find the coaches they need for their trips.

"I know there is demand," Gordon said. "People are calling me all the time and they say they can't find any buses."

And it's not just Gordon who has been shut out.

Iris Murrell, secretary of the Motor Transport Board, said the board has not issued any new licences or alterations of licences for at least a year. That's because it's the Motor Transport Board's understanding that, in fact, the marketplace has not grown and the larger industry dynamics probably back that up.

The MTB is mandated to regulate the transportation of passengers in the province. Many carriers are restricted as to where they can pick up passengers. For instance, many small-town carriers cannot board groups in the city and even Brandon carriers who want to expand to towns north of there are restricted by their licence.

"We are here to maintain service to the general public," Murrell said. "If something is being proposed that will have a detrimental effect on that, it will not likely get a favourable consideration from the board. In the past year or so, a few existing carriers have applied to this board to add existing vehicles or expand their restricted boundaries and they have all been refused."

That's because, despite the fact some may believe there is more business out there, the MTB's intelligence is to the contrary, she said.

One thing is certain: North American tour companies are definitely buying fewer buses as can be attested by the fact Motor Coach Industries — whose coaches dominate more than 50 per cent of the market in Canada and the U.S. — has seen its sales totals decline over the past few years.

John Fehr, president of Beaver Bus Lines, the largest charter company in the province, said like anything else, the bus charter business has its busy periods and slow times.

But he said the tour business in North America is down substantially, even in the last year.

"We often have a lot of coaches sitting in the barn from Monday to Wednesday; usually by Thursday and Friday they start going out on hockey charters and school groups on the weekends," Fehr said.

But regardless of the availability of business, there are some who believe if an operator like Gordon wants to invest in his business, he should be encouraged, not prevented, from doing so.

"At the and of the day, if they can make the case that there is a need for more buses, why stop them with legislation and regulation," said Chuck Davidson, vice-president of policy and communications at the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. "If there is no competitive pressure, then it doesn't do anything to encourage better quality of service."

The MTB is responsible for the transportation of passengers in the province, so there is a serious element of safety and quality of service that needs to be monitored.

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Martin Cash

Martin Cash
Reporter

Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.

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