Intercity bus industry looks to rebound

(Editor’s note: This story was first published on July 13, 2021. This version corrects details on the bus coalition .)

THUNDER BAY — When Kasper Wabinski added a coach/bus line to his aviation business to help move passengers “up north” through inclement weather, little did he know he would be on the cusp of developing a plan for a potential transportation service across the entire country.

Wabinski owned and operated Kasper Air with two aircraft that flew passengers into Northwestern Ontario’s far north communities. His newly added bus line improved his service with an inevitable expansion on the horizon.

“We managed to create a small company with two routes that were licensed within the first year and we grew it from there,” he said.

As closing bus companies made routes available, Wabinski scooped them up. He added service connecting Thunder Bay with Longlac, Sioux Lookout and Fort Frances. Looming on the horizon at the time was a worldwide pandemic that would bring all transportation to its knees.

Wabinski saw a “significant” decline in business during COVID-19 because of travel restrictions. Statistics compiled by the Ontario Motor Coach Association and Motor Coach Canada, show 80 per cent of Canadian bus companies lost more than 90 per cent of revenue during the pandemic.

“Obviously we don’t want to encourage travel when it’s so dangerous or not good for the economy or the country,” said Wabinski. “We want to do our part in this whole equation but the Ontario government did not help us much. . . . The federal government did.”

He said they are still far from where they used to be before the pandemic, although Kasper Transportation is gradually returning bus service to many communities.

“We are now operating Thunder Bay to Sioux Lookout and Winnipeg to Sioux Lookout, which creates our Winnipeg to Thunder Bay route,” he said. “We have Longlac, White River, Red Lake and are waiting to restart Fort Frances route when the economy improves from the COVID-19 restriction.”

During the pandemic, the intercity bus industry was forgotten, he said.

“We thought that the existing advocacy was insufficient for the intercity busing industry because the industry is fairly small compared to coach,” he said.

“There are about 15 companies that do intercity bus travel and there are a couple thousand chartered bus companies. When you have advocacy groups like Motor Coach Canada or the Ontario Motor Coach Association, they are supposed to be the voice of the industry.”

So Wabinski helped to spearhead the Coast to Coast Bus Coalition, which is a partnership between various regional bus service providers throughout Canada.

“As important as intercity busing is to the infrastructure, it did not have a strong enough voice, so we created our own advocacy group,” he said. “This was to try to give the federal government a solution to bus problems in Canada by saying, ‘We’re not just asking you to help us survive COVID because we are struggling with a reduction in sales, we want to offer a solution in return for doing that. We want to rebuild what Greyhound used to be back in the day.”

To do that, Wabinski says they need some help because they “don’t want to make the same mistakes.”

“We don’t want to have just one bus company operate the whole country because that is a monopoly,” he said.

“We want something in-between that would encompass all friendly, co-operative, family-owned businesses in Canada to work together to create a network where they can interconnect with each other and make it easy for customers to transition between various bus networks.”

The coalition gained tremendous support for a federal direct-funding model. The idea is backed by numerous municipalities, municipal associations and members of parliament.

Wabinski says there is a lack of consistent regulation, funding and initiative at the provincial level to make something like this work.

“It’s difficult for one company to provide quality service to such a vast territory like Canada so we want localized expertise like us in this region and someone else in another region that has assets and human resources to provide a quality service by linking together and providing a seamless service,” he said. “Our business is proof of concept that providing services in less populated areas is also viable.”

Wabinski called the proposed funding model a “hybrid” that would only subsidize if necessary — it wouldn’t subsidize profitable routes, only the routes deemed necessary.

“Let’s not forget about small rural communities because they are very critical; these communities need access and they feed the busier routes,” he said.