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Filling the Greyhound gap

Provincial government says 83% of routes in B.C. will be covered by year's end
SLOWED-DOWN HOUND Greyhound Canada's last day servicing Whistler passed on Oct. 31, though other providers are vying to step in. Photo by Alyssa Noel

Greyhound Canada buses have completed their last trips up and down the Sea to Sky corridor-and across Western Canada-but operators are vying to fill the gap.

Whistler Rides currently operates non-stop between Vancouver and Whistler, but received Passenger Transportation Board (PTB) approval on Oct. 26 to extend its route to Pemberton while adding a stop in Squamish. Whistler Rides will provide a minimum of one round-trip per day between Vancouver and Pemberton. It must post new schedules by Nov. 15 and "activate at least two vehicles" by Nov. 30.

Calls to Whistler Rides were not returned by press time.

Greyhound, which claimed to be losing $35,000 a day operating in Western Canada, provided the only private service between Whistler and Pemberton.

As well, Victoria-based Wilson's Transportation currently has an application to pick up routes between Vancouver's Pacific Central Station and Whistler. General manager Joe Jansen said his company picked up the Whistler run for Greyhound between December and March in previous winters and knows the route well.

"We backed up Greyhound quite a bit in the past," Jansen said.

As agents for one another-Greyhound in Vancouver and Wilson's in Victoria-customers could easily book connections.

"With the departure of Greyhound, our service ends in Vancouver," he said.

The application pitched a minimum of one round trip per day, but Jansen explained that if approved, that number would be a starting point, as its easier to increase the number of runs than it is to decrease it.

Jansen said while extensions from Vancouver to Kamloops and Kelowna received PTB approval and service is expected to start in the next two weeks, its pitch to provide service to Whistler received objections from two operators, which has slowed the process. He added that there was some confusion with the province's fast-track process.

"We didn't really have time to pull together looking for an endorsement from Whistler because our understanding is that it was going to be an expedited consideration because of the imminent departure of Greyhound," Jansen said. "Normally, applications like that may take five or six months to be approved and you provide a bigger package and you get letters of endorsement from people along the route.

"We weren't really applying to compete with anybody. We were simply applying to pick up an abandoned route."

One objection came from Blue Cactus Coach Lines, which runs Snowbus. Blue Cactus has an application before the PTB to reduce its minimum number of runs from two a day to four per week from Richmond and from three to one per week from Burnaby. The application also looks to add a summer season option on its Richmond route that would see its minimum drop to one trip per week.

In an interview on Nov. 1, owner Joktan Elbert, who founded the company in 2001 and recently reacquired it after a decade away, explained that at that time, Greyhound had a monopoly on the Vancouver-Whistler route. Elbert noted the province agreed to allow the monopoly on a profitable route in exchange for Greyhound taking on responsibility for more remote, less lucrative lines as well.

Elbert said it ultimately took three years for Snowbus to get licensed and on the road, as the board at the time sought to keep the company from "cherry-picking" the best times.

"The government was reluctant to give licensing out on that corridor," he said. "They had to be assured that being a new and young operator that we were going to provide a consistent service."

He added that Greyhound's commitment on the Vancouver-Whistler route was a minimum of four round trips per week, with Epic Rides' required frequency being two per week, Elbert said he's looking to level the playing field for his company.

"We want to be able to have the flexibility to operate less because we found in the past couple of years, ridership has decreased for everyone," he said.

Additionally, Cantrail Coach Lines, which primarily operates between Vancouver and Seattle, has applied to create a Vancouver-to-Pemberton route. The proposal includes a minimum of two daily round trips between Vancouver and Pemberton while working with Whistler Connection and Ridebooker.

The application was published on Oct. 24 with a deadline for submissions on Nov. 5. Cantrail's representative was unavailable for comment.

Whistler Connection sales and marketing manager Dan Harmon said the company, which primarily offers flexible service between Vancouver International Airport and Whistler, isn't making major efforts to fill the void. Though the company does pickups in downtown Vancouver and expects those numbers to increase, Harmon noted that Whistler Connection operates at a higher price point than Greyhound did while catering to a different clientele.

"We provide a slightly higher level of service than the Greyhound would offer," he said.

In a follow-up email, Harmon described Whistler Connection as "supportive of Cantrail Coach's application," but did not have further information.

While Elbert opposes any new service moving in, he's most upset by Cantrail's proposal. Its parent company, Pacific Coach Lines, is set to be replaced as the Vancouver International Airport's official bus provider to Whistler by Universal Coach Line but is looking to retain its place in the corridor.

"The Whistler corridor cannot support another operator. Greyhound pulled out because they could not compete with the services being offered today. There are a number of general bus companies operating on the corridor that don't have schedules that act like they do," he said. "There are too many people trying to capitalize on passengers to Whistler and are charging small amounts of money operating shoddy shuttles and so on. That's affecting our scheduled transportation services."

Elbert said he fears a "price war" temporarily lowering fares, but eventually leading to a drastic rise after the market is destabilized.

"There are a lot of places in the province where there's no service at all and I think that's where these operators should be focusing their time instead of trying to destabilize a very stable market to Whistler with three scheduled operators," he said.

One company, meanwhile, is encouraging travellers to "Think outside the bus."

Poparide founder and CEO Flo Devellennes explained the company is hoping to make further inroads into the intra-city transportation market, even adding a section to its website to sell those affected by Greyhound's pullout on its service.

Devellennes said he's also approached local and provincial governments in the past six months about launching a campaign "that fully sanctions carpooling in British Columbia," including making educational material available on major routes while also being listed on municipal websites like the District of Squamish and City of Vancouver as a transportation option.

"Our business model is filling seats in cars that are already on the road, with drivers that are already driving from A to B," he said, noting there are roughly 10,000 vehicles on the Sea to Sky corridor daily. "There's a huge amount of empty seats in those cars.

"There are 20,000 to 30,000 seats a day that are empty, in combinations of Whistler to Squamish, Squamish to Vancouver, Whistler to Vancouver."

Poparide makes money by charging passengers a 15-per-cent booking fee on top of the rate charged by the driver. To operate legally, drivers are not allowed to charge more than a set rate for fuel, insurance and wear-and-tear.

While the company was started with a focus on the Sea to Sky corridor, Devellennes said routes between Vancouver and both Kamloops and Kelowna have become popular, while Canmore-to-Calgary is the second-largest route in the country. As well, Ontario and Quebec have seen large growth since the app launched there last year.

As a start-up, Poparide had received two rounds of funding, but hopes to be profitable by the end of next year as its revenue grows about 150-per-cent each year.

Provincially, 83 per cent of Greyhound's routes are expected to be covered by the end of the year, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Claire Trevena said in a conference call on Oct. 29. The routes that are not yet covered are: Cache Creek to Kamloops; Kamloops to Valemount; Valemount to the Alberta border; Dawson Creek to the Alberta border; Salmo to Creston; Cranbrook to the Alberta border; Fort Nelson to the Yukon border; and Hope to Princeton.

Trevena said she is working with federal Minister of Transport Marc Garneau and Alberta Minister of Transportation Brian Mason, as well as individual communities, to find solutions where none yet exist.

"When Greyhound Canada pulls out, there will still be safe, affordable, reliable bus transportation in the province moving from community to community," she said.