September 18, 2019

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Routes of isolation

While some upstart companies have filled gaps left by Greyhound and are rolling along remote Manitoba highways, others failed and left entire communities looking for a ride

When Greyhound slammed the brakes on its western Canadian operations 10 months ago, it was supposed to be the end of the line for bus travel in Manitoba.

Instead, no fewer than four bus operators have sprung up to service Thompson — Manitoba’s fourth-largest city and northern hub — battling for fares, each confident their operation has the customers to make a go of it where Greyhound couldn’t.

“It’s bus wars,” says Maple Bus Lines owner Lorie Mann.

But bus traffic away from Highway 6, which runs almost straight north from Winnipeg to Thompson, is another story.

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When Greyhound slammed the brakes on its western Canadian operations 10 months ago, it was supposed to be the end of the line for bus travel in Manitoba.

Instead, no fewer than four bus operators have sprung up to service Thompson — Manitoba’s fourth-largest city and northern hub — battling for fares, each confident their operation has the customers to make a go of it where Greyhound couldn’t.

"It’s bus wars," says Maple Bus Lines owner Lorie Mann.

But bus traffic away from Highway 6, which runs almost straight north from Winnipeg to Thompson, is another story.

Four different bus lines travel between Winnipeg and Thompson. It is one of the more profitable routes in the wake of Greyhound’s departure nearly a year ago.</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Four different bus lines travel between Winnipeg and Thompson. It is one of the more profitable routes in the wake of Greyhound’s departure nearly a year ago.

Though enthusiastic operators hit the road to fill other gaps left by Greyhound, within the last few weeks Selkirk lost its shuttle to Winnipeg and Gillam its bus to Thompson. A Brandon route was abandoned after just two months.

"After Greyhound left, it leaves rural Manitoba isolated," says former bus rider Daniel Denton, who lives in St. Andrews and commutes to work in Winnipeg.

"If you’re in a position where you don’t have a vehicle… you’re left with very few options to be able to move through the province."

NEED A TRANSFER? TOUGH LUCK

Northern B.C. communities such as Fort Nelson and Prince Rupert have bus service — at least for now.

B.C. Bus North appeared after Greyhound pulled out, and got funding on an interim basis. In April, the federal government signed on to keep it going five more months.

The B.C. government provides more routes focused on health travel, and supports some small local operators connecting two communities.

Northern B.C. communities such as Fort Nelson and Prince Rupert have bus service — at least for now.

B.C. Bus North appeared after Greyhound pulled out, and got funding on an interim basis. In April, the federal government signed on to keep it going five more months.

The B.C. government provides more routes focused on health travel, and supports some small local operators connecting two communities.

Southern routes — connecting Vancouver with nearby bedroom communities as well as Kelowna and Kamloops — have been provided by Alberta-based Ebus since Oct. 31 — the day Greyhound left.

They’ve also applied to connect Kamloops and Prince George.

Ebus has been around for 40 years and makes four runs in each direction between Edmonton and Calgary, with trips to Red Deer most weekdays.

Saskatchewan’s system looks more like Manitoba's — South Sask Bus Lines runs between Moose Jaw and Swift Current. Affordable Rides connects Regina and Saskatoon; so does Rider Express, but it also hits Prince Albert and Edmonton.

Since leaving Western Canada — though it still operates a Vancouver-Seattle route — Greyhound’s westernmost station is in Sudbury, connecting east to Montreal. Maritime Bus takes passengers east from there.

Greyhound officially left Oct. 31, but it had pulled out of many Manitoba communities years earlier.

When Manitoba cut off the $8.4 million in subsidies Greyhound received from 2009 to 2012, the bus line pulled out of towns such as Pine Falls, Gimli, Russell, Carman and Steinbach, leaving them without bus service to Winnipeg. Only the "profitable" routes remained, but when ridership plummeted 41 per cent in Western Canada, Greyhound could no longer find a reason to remain.

Entrepreneurs beg to differ.

In Manitoba, six operators have stepped up to make a go of various routes: Maple Bus Lines, Mahihkan Bus Lines, Thompson Bus Lines, Highway 6 Express, Brandon Air Shuttle/Dauphin Air Shuttle and Kasper Transportation Service.

Across Western Canada, new operators have launched, and existing companies — such as Ebus, which connects Alberta and B.C. — have expanded their service areas.

But it’s still a patchwork. Some communities in other provinces are well-serviced while Manitoba riders still can’t get to Vancouver or Toronto.


 

Bus routes in Manitoba

Maple Bus Lines

Kasper Transportation

Thompson Bus

Highway 6 Express

Brandon / Dauphin Air Shuttle

Mahihkan Bus Lines

Flin Flon / Creighton, Sask.

Thompson

Cross Lake

The

Pas

Swan

River

Dauphin

Brandon

Sioux Lookout

Winnipeg

Graeme Bruce / Winnipeg Free Press

Source: Bus companies

Bus routes in Manitoba

Maple Bus Lines

Kasper Transportation

Thompson Bus

Highway 6 Express

Brandon / Dauphin Air Shuttle

Mahihkan Bus Lines

Thompson

Flin Flon / Creighton, Sask.

Cross Lake

The

Pas

Swan

River

Dauphin

Brandon

Sioux Lookout, Ont.

Winnipeg

Graeme Bruce / Winnipeg Free Press, Source: Bus companies

Bus routes in Manitoba

Maple Bus Lines

Kasper Transportation

Thompson

Thompson Bus

Highway 6 Express

Flin Flon / Creighton, Sask.

Brandon / Dauphin Air Shuttle

Mahihkan Bus Lines

Cross Lake

Graeme Bruce / Winnipeg Free Press, Source: Bus companies

The

Pas

Swan

River

Dauphin

Brandon

Sioux Lookout, Ont.

Winnipeg


The federal government offered $10 million in temporary, 50-50 cost-shared funding to the provinces and territories affected by Greyhound’s service reductions. B.C. is taking the funding, Manitoba is not.

Then-Manitoba infrastructure minister Ron Schuler said last February the province wasn’t interested in "subsidizing private industry."

Operators say that leaves them no choice but to ditch money-losing routes.

Highway 280

Gillam to Thompson

Gillam lost its service to the province’s northern hub two weeks ago.

"Unless you drive and have a good tires it’s hard and risky to get out of Gillam now," says resident Julie Crawford.

Crawford looked into taking the bus for the 300 kilometre trip to Thompson several times during the last year, but after scheduled trips were frequently cancelled, she decided it just wasn’t worth the frustration.

"Unless you drive and have a good tires it’s hard and risky to get out of Gillam now." - Gillam resident Julie Crawford

She said train service is much the same — delayed or cancelled. Twice-daily round-trip flights can cost upwards of $1,200. And driving Highway 280’s washboard gravel is rough, even with a truck.

Thompson Bus Lines partner Sid Varma said he made schedule changes and eventually cut one of the three weekly runs, but he could not figure out a way to make the Gillam route work.

Highway 9

Winnipeg to Selkirk

On Aug. 20, Kasper Transportation suddenly and unceremoniously pulled the plug on its Selkirk-Winnipeg commuter line, which had been running back and forth six times a day.

"I relied on that bus route," Denton says. He used the bus to get to university in the city most days; now that the service is gone, he’s considering a move to Winnipeg so he won’t have to continue carpooling to work.

He knows that for many, the bus provides an important insurance policy when vehicles break down or when commuters would rather not drive in bad weather, but that means demand is inconsistent.

"I really appreciate (Kasper) taking up the line when they did," he says. "I don’t think many folks were hopeful that another bus line would come after (previous lines Beaver and Exclusive) left," Denton says. "They really filled in the gap."

Kasper Wabinski, owner of Thunder Bay, Ont. based Kasper Transportation, said he lost $200,000 on the route.

"The provincial government closed the doors," he says. "They pretty much, in my opinion, made the wrong decision on the Manitoba Highway Transportation Board."

Kasper Transportation’s Kasper Wabinski dropped the Selkirk-Winnipeg run because it was struggling to make money.</p>

TESSA VANDERHART / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Kasper Transportation’s Kasper Wabinski dropped the Selkirk-Winnipeg run because it was struggling to make money.

He’s more optimistic about working with federal and provincial politicians to unlock funding for his Ontario routes. Kasper continues to operate a Winnipeg-Sioux Lookout route, and he’s still hoping to push further east to Toronto.

For Wabinski, it makes sense to have profitable routes offset the cost of running money-losing ones to build a network and brand.

Other operators have found other ways to subsidize their service.

Mann says freight keeps Maple Bus Lines afloat, though she has also diversified into charters, including travelling sports teams, and even renting buses to eight movie productions in various Manitoba locations so far this year, including the Sean Penn-directed Flag Day in Beausejour.

Maple also operated Thompson’s city bus service from February to June, when it was suspended for the summer. She also plans to bid on providing the service again when the city issues its tender.

"You have to do different revenue streams," she says. "If you’re just sitting here waiting for passengers… you’re not going to make it."

Highway 6 Express owner and operator Steven Crooks is providing shipping services to a Winnipeg appliance repair depot.

"For me, relying on passengers alone I would not be surviving," Crooks says.

Highway 60

A hub for northern Manitoba

There’s still a huge hole in the northern network; there is no bus route directly connecting The Pas and Thompson.

That will change in mid-September, says Mahihkan Transportation manager Karen Leslie-Laroque.

Mahihkan, owned by six First Nations, is planning to build a central hub near the junction of highways 6 and 60, so people will be able to transfer among its three routes.

But "there’s (still) so many communities — they don’t have a means of transportation," Leslie-Laroque says.

A passenger waits for the bus to depart.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A passenger waits for the bus to depart.

In its final report to the federal government in June, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls told governments they should be responsible to "provide secure transportation options" for women, girls, and LGBTTQ+ individuals living in remote communities.

In addition to the safety risks associated with hitchhiking for people who have no alternative, gaps in reliable transportation can make it difficult to flee dangerous situations such as domestic violence, the report concluded.

But what if Indigenous women and girls had fewer reasons to leave their communities?

That’s one solution suggested by Sandra DeLaronde, executive director of Manitoba Moon Voices, a group that advocates for Indigenous women and gender-diverse people that has called for implementation of the MMIWG recommendations.

"If there was better access to health care and education in rural northern and remote communities, those incidents would decrease," says DeLaronde.

"We know the majority of women and girls that have gone missing have been from northern Manitoba, or from outside of the city. I think that in and of itself tells the story."

Northern bus operators cannot provide accurate numbers but say many riders heading to Winnipeg are travelling for medical appointments, making up a big chunk of their business.

Alcohol and drug-addiction case worker Virginia Monias assists people travelling from The Pas to Winnipeg to access health care services.

Jefferson Cook, who was headed home to The Pas, Man. from New Brunswick, wishes there was another bus that ran in the daytime because he can't sleep while travelling.

TESSA VANDERHART / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Jefferson Cook, who was headed home to The Pas, Man. from New Brunswick, wishes there was another bus that ran in the daytime because he can't sleep while travelling.

Virginia Monias arranges transportation for patients travelling to Winnipeg for medical treatment. She prefers the bus over driving.

TESSA VANDERHART / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Virginia Monias arranges transportation for patients travelling to Winnipeg for medical treatment. She prefers the bus over driving.

"I think it’s more convenient to take the bus, it’s more relaxing," she says.

For other trips, ride-sharing groups remain a popular alternative in northern communities.

"It’s easier, people leave... any time of the day — you get back to The Pas six hours later," says Jefferson Cook, a resident of The Pas, heading home from a trip to New Brunswick last Monday.

But he couldn’t find a ride home, so he was stuck on the overnight bus.

"It’s heck, because I have to go to work tomorrow, so I’m going to be very tired… it’s hard to sleep on the bus," he says.

Highway 1

Brandon to Winnipeg

A Winnipeg-to-Brandon flight, an upstart charter bus company and Greyhound have all come and gone in the 22 years Brandon Air Shuttle has been offering service to and from Winnipeg several times a day. The company also makes two trips a day between Brandon and Dauphin.

And business is getting better, says owner Reg Hickmott.

"We didn’t expect this… but it just sort of cascaded in on us unsuspectingly. It’s a good problem to have," he says.

Since charter company Brandon Bus Lines abandoned its two-month foray into the Winnipeg route in January, Hickmott has added a fourth daily shuttle. Unlike the bus that travelled depot to depot, the van picks up riders and drops them off at the locations of their choosing.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

But Hickmott believes the redundancy of multiple options was good for consumers.

"It was good to have two systems," he says. "We could pass off fares, help each other."

Maple’s Mann would love to add a Brandon route.

But her buses fly out of the depot so quickly, she hasn’t had time to put logos on a few, never mind add a route.

Highway 6

Thompson to Winnipeg and all points in between

Greyhound’s pullout sparked a gold rush on the Thompson route.

Four companies — Maple, Mahihkan, Thompson and Highway 6 Express — were ready to roll Nov. 1. Fares range from $90 (Maple) to $128 (Mahihkan).

"It’s a consumer-favourable market," says Varma of Thompson Bus Lines.

Mahihkan and Maple share a terminal on Sherbrook Street, but signs advertise route sales for both companies on the popular Thompson route.

People get seated on Maple bus to Thompson.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

People get seated on Maple bus to Thompson.

"We’re committed to the long haul," said Mahihkan’s Leslie-Laroque.

All four are still in the fight, even after last year’s extreme cold warning-related cancellations. It’s hard to keep buses warm when northern Manitoba hits -52 C; riders complained of freezing conditions on some lines.

Most have plans to expand: Varma says Thompson Bus Lines is looking at Lynn Lake and Leaf Rapids, and is open to taking another shot at the Gillam route.

Maple Bus Lines is resuming service to Cross Lake after Thompson Bus Lines briefly took it over, and is considering a Brandon route. Mahihkan is building its hub.

Operators

Maple Bus Lines (Winnipeg -Thompson)

$90

Once daily Sunday-Friday

More info

 

Maple Bus Lines (Thompson-Cross Lake)

$45

Once daily Monday-Thursday

More info

Maple Bus Lines (Winnipeg -Thompson)

$90

Once daily Sunday-Friday

More info

 

Maple Bus Lines (Thompson-Cross Lake)

$45

Once daily Monday-Thursday

More info

 

Maple Bus Lines (Winnipeg-Swan River)

$65

Once a day, Monday, Wednesday, Friday

More info

 

Kasper (Winnipeg-Sioux Lookout)

$116.85

Once daily

More info

 

Thompson Bus (Winnipeg-Thompson)

$100

Once daily Sunday-Friday

More info

 

Highway 6 Express (Thompson-Winnipeg)

$95

Mondays and Fridays from Thompson, Wednesdays & Sundays from Winnipeg

More info

 

Brandon Air Shuttle (Brandon-Winnipeg)

$54

Four times daily Monday-Friday, three times daily weekends

More info

 

Dauphin Air Shuttle (Dauphin-Brandon)

$46

Twice daily

More info

 

Mahihkan Bus Lines (Winnipeg-Creighton, Sask.)

$136

Once daily Sunday-Friday

More info

 

Mahihkan Bus Lines (Winnipeg-Thompson)

$128

once daily Sunday to Friday

More info

Some success, to be sure. But many communities that were served by Greyhound are still without service and any prospects.

"You can’t accommodate everybody," Mann says. "You need some support from the government. And it’s hard to say no to people. There are a lot of people who are left stranded."

"We are servicing a land area the size of Central Europe, without subsidies right now," says Wabinski.

"Funding is available to the province of Manitoba, but the provincial government doesn’t even want to talk about it," he says. "I’m all for the free market… but some things need investment."

He’s not alone in believing that.

Mann is relentlessly positive about what Maple Bus Lines offers.

But when the topic of subsidies is broached, she admits it’s a difficult business.

"It’s so expensive to run these routes. This is a family business, we bought all of our fleet outright," she says. "I’ve been waiting and waiting, and hoping, because the election is coming, that someone’s going to support this. Because it needs a transfusion, it does."

Without subsidies, it’s unlikely any operator will take on communities such as Steinbach, Carman or Gimli.

People in those communities, and many others, who have to get to Winnipeg rely on friends, Facebook ride-share groups or unofficial taxi services.

Hickmott says it can take up to five years to build a customer base for a new route, and that’s only if consistent good service is provided, and operators are prepared to suffer almost-certain losses until a route is established.

Riders just want a safe, efficient way to travel.

"Being able to travel through this province should be a priority that everyone is able to access," Denton says. "

Whether it be commuting to Winnipeg or otherwise. When you have such a disconnect between places in our province... it certainly harms the folks that would rely on transit the most."

 

tessa.vanderhart@freepress.mb.ca

Tessa Vanderhart

Tessa Vanderhart
Reporter

Tessa Vanderhart is interested in everything, but especially local news, health policy and statistics.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Saturday, August 31, 2019 at 9:12 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Mahihkan

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