Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Left in the dust: when public transportation is no more...

Photograph by: Jason Kryk, The Windsor Star

For Ethelbert, a small town in rural Canada (population 312), this might be their unlucky day.

A recent New York Times story entitled "Planned End to Bus Service Would Cut Lifeline for Rural Canada" discusses Greyhound's decision to discontinue service to many small towns in Canada. The reason? Many of these rural routes are unprofitable. Not only does this decision affect Ethelbert, but hundreds of other small rural towns stand to lose, as Greyhound plans to pull out of Manitoba and Northern Ontario by the end of October.

Seeing a story like this is kind of sad. What are these people supposed to do now? Especially those who don't have cars and don't have the means to buy one or an opportunity to access one. It seems like a good thing that rural residents were using public transportation in the first place (environmentally sound). But, for those for whom public transportation, like Greyhound, was their only option, they are stuck now between a rock and a hard place. They are effectively held prisoner in their own towns with no way to get out and access the places which provide vital services. This reminds me of an article we read for class, discussing, in part, the necessity of access to public transportation for rural women in getting to doctor's appointments. (See the article here, pages 472-473, n.313 - impact on rural America of Greyhound's dramatic cuts in service).

Thinking about the rural folks who would be left in the dust of the last Greyhound bus pulling out of town, I was wondering about the role of law in this situation. Is there a role for law? Is it legal for Greyhound to just pull its services from these towns? Does it make a difference if Greyhound was the last company serving the towns? According to Access Winnipeg (9/3/09) "other bus lines will get to pick up the slack." Presumably, Greyhound can do whatever it wants when it comes to making changes to its service routes. But should it not have to consider the effects on the people affected by the cuts? Providing service over the years caused many rural residents to become deeply dependent on it (it was their only way to get into the big towns) and now it's just taken away without much warning. Many rural communities that rely on Greyhound, which has operated in Canada for 80 years, will be cut off from the rest of the country. Example: Terrace Bay, Ontario (population 1,625) relies on the bus line as the only other form of transportation outside of privately-owned cars. Says the mayor, "There's no air service and there's no train service. The only thing we really have is Greyhound . . . It's a real shock to me. We never saw this coming."

Does the government, or someone, have an obligation to provide some kind of public transportation - especially where it existed previously, and now has been taken away? The townspeople came to rely on this service and now are seriously disadvantaged by lack of access. [Click here for a link to a short video clip on the Greyhound cuts]. Under Canadian provincial regulations, Greyhound cannot only serve its most profitable routes, but is obligated to provide service to more rural areas as well. But according to a senior VP at Greyhound Canada, "What we're seeing is a continued decline in ridership . . . [w]hat used to happen is on our profitable routes, where we had excess revenue, we could cross-subsidize rural Canada and make some money. But we're now also seeing declining volumes on our profitable routes . . . The model is broken."

In addition to being a critical resource for those needing to get out of town to access services, the public transportation route through the town served as a lifeline for the town's struggling economy. The small numbers of people the buses brought through each week provided revenue for the town's local gas station and convenience market. To what extent is it a problem that Greyhound pulls out of these areas? Won't some other bus company (e.g. Caribou Coach) just pick up the slack? In a normal, heavily ridden route area, perhaps, but in this instance, perhaps not. Remote rural routes just aren't profitable, as Greyhound argues, and therefore other bus companies might not want to step in. But again, what about the customers? According to the Global Saskatoon, a woman was recently left stranded on the way home from visiting her elderly mother. Greyhound won't book tickets in Manitoba for dates past November 1st (based on current numbers showing Greyhound loses $15 million per year on passenger service in Canada, including $4 million within Manitoba).

Access Winnipeg (9/17/09) reported that Greyhound had reconsidered its decision and would keep the rural Manitoba routes open, despite announcing that they would stop services after October 2, 2009. People seem to think that the threats of closure were simply a scare-tactic to get Canadian Transportation Ministers to listen to Greyhound's demands and to shakedown Canadian taxpayers for millions of dollars in subsidies. A Federal/Provincial meeting of Transportation Ministers was scheduled for October 22nd.

According to the Winnipeg Free Press (10/22/2009), a national working group is going to look at bus service in Canada, including deregulation, and report next September. This leaves Manitoba to continue negotiating with Greyhound alone. If no deal is reached, Greyhound could pull out as early as November. It looks like this is a possibility, as Manitoba Transport Minister Ron Lemieux says, "Some people felt very strongly against subsidizing Greyhound [$15 million a year] for any period of time. . . . [yet] [t]here was an acknowledgment though of how serious this is for all of our citizens who live in rural communities. . . ." Greyhound wants an overhaul of federal government regulations that force it to operate money-losing routes, saying it has been hurt by rural depopulation and a faltering economy. This might be a tough call though, as Greyhound is the only transit choice for many Canadians living in remote areas of Manitoba and Ontario.

The latest update I could find, again from the Winnipeg Free Press (re-printing an article from the Canadian Press) (10/28/09), promises that Greyhound has backed off its threat once again, thanks to a promise of government subsidies. This is good news for many, as the government recognized, "It's a necessity and an important mode of transportation for many northerners and rural Manitobans, including people using our health care service." The deal includes a combination of direct investment and reduction of service, as the government will not be able to subsidize the full $4M that Greyhound will need to keep all its Manitoba routes open and running on a full schedule. The outcome for northern Ontario is still up in the air. Greyhound has plans to stop service there by next month, and is reviewing its operations in the other western provinces and territories.

Hopefully a similar deal can be reached for northern Ontario. It seems unjust to cut all public transportation services from these small rural towns just because they are unprofitable to the bus company. Leaving people stranded with no other options just isn't right. If the negotiations between Canadian government and Greyhound in Manitoba are any lesson, there must be a way to keep at least minimal service open and ensure that the residents of these small towns can get to their doctor's appointments, access other essential services and maintain somewhat of a connection to the outside world.

1 comment:

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