Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alberta Watches Greyhound Backfire

Same premise, different responses: Greyhound Canada approached the government of a province to tell them that the bus service being provided is bleeding money, threatening that the only way to ensure continuing service across the entire province is for the government to provide Greyhound with annual payouts of several million dollars.

The Government of Manitoba heard this in 2009 and went "Here is four million dollars for this year, another four million next year as well, and four million the year after that; we may or may not have a plan in place by 2012 to deal with this situation."

The Government of Alberta heard this in 2011 and went "Well, all right, let me think. No." and promptly deregulated Greyhound's previous monopoly on rural service, opening the door to any company that meets the safety requirements and defanging Greyhound's leverage straight out of the gate.

If you're anything like me, you enjoy it when companies get greedy and their best-laid plans then promptly backfire on them. So this was pretty cool, except that we in Manitoba look kind of like chumps because of it. (You sort of figure we're used to that by now, though.)

The two situations are, of course, not perfectly identical; Alberta is in a far better position to rapidly assemble a provincial transportation network from the materials available. But the idea that the Have province walked off without paying anything and the Have-Not province coughed up twelve million dollars to think about it, well, what do you even do with that.

The Canada Post coverage of the Alberta case adds that "Officials say most rural communities are on board with the change", which could be complete smoke on the officials' part, but we have no real reason not to take it at face value right now. So what is to stop Manitoba from examining the Albertan example, pitching the idea to the rural communities that would be affected by a de-Greyhounding of the province, and shopping the proposal around the other bus companies to gauge interest? Or what is to stop Manitoba from investivating our provincial Greyhound service, gleaming where the existing service loses its money, and launching a Crown replacement?

(I assume here that they withdrew information from Greyhound on why and where routes are having problems; I wouldn't have given out four million dollars a year without at least getting a PDF's worth of explanation back, but I guess that's why I'm not with the province.)

Not knowing the province's current internal dealings and plans for the situation, I couldn't say one way or the other what might be stopping them -- but that's not where I want this example applied, this story of a regulatory body rejecting the private sector's cynical attempts at hardball by deregulating the industry to solve the problem at hand. Instead, I want to believe that somebody might print out and mail this news story to each and every member of the Manitoba Taxicab Board -- and the next time Duffy's and Unicity band together in the name of squeezing out prospective new taxi companies in the city, that at least one member of the Manitoba Taxicab Board will steeple his or her fingers and stare flatly at them.

"You know," he or she might say. "I read this story about Alberta the other day."


cherenkov said...

I've added this Greyhound issue to my upcoming election platform.

You're absolutely right of course. Why haven't they used the past year to shop around the rural bus routes to Beaver or other bus lines? We should know by now that in Manitoba the solution to every problem is to spend gobs of money.

Brian said...

Good issue, good hit. It's a million decisions like these that are killing us here in Manitoba, and what kills us more is that no one calls anyone on them - glad you did. I'd completely forgotten about the issue - even though I depend on rural bus service for several trips a month.

Anonymous said...

Yup. Feelin' pretty "chumpy".

portage & main said...

I think this has less to do with who is a "have" province and who isn't, than with simple economics. It strikes me as entirely plausible that greyhound can't make money running its most remote routes, and if the government wants to keep bus service to them, they'll have to pay. It also seems that if Beaver saw an opportunity here, they would have been all over it by now. The government is certainly within its right to kick Greyhound out of Manitoba altogether if they discontinue remote routes, but good luck trying to find somebody else who will take up the slack. I suspect that's why the NDP paid out. And do we really need a provincially-owned bus company?

mrchristian said...

I am not that familiar with Alberta's system but by saying 'no' to Greyhound I can't imagine that there is no subsidy for such service anywhere in the Alberta budget. They're just not paying Greyhound outright.

Here, Greyhound absorbed Grey Goose which meant a lot of the infrastructure went with it. A start up or an existing small company wanting to expand would have to invest millions in vehicles and a garage in Winnipeg before they even got into the game.

Routes are being subcontracted out under the the Greyhound banner. Brandon Bus Lines, for instance, is taking some of Greyhound's routes and are working out of the former Grey Goose garage (owned by Greyhound) on Burnell.

Gustav Nelson said...

Why do people think we need a top down solution to Greyhound skipping town.

I live close to a bus station in a rural town where Greyhound used to go to long before they tried to blackmail the government. Their buses were typically running empty, maybe 10 passengers at most. At some point they stopped coming altogether. I don't know all the details, but shortly after another independent operator started driving through town with a van. On long weekends, they sent a bus which was typically filled. Other than that, the van was usually full or almost, which was way more efficient. After the government gave them operating funds, the Greyhound bus is back, typically running empty, giving worse service because they don't operate as much as the independent operator used to.

Just let things be and solutions will pop up on their own, like they did in this situation. This shouldn't be a government issue at all.

imagine said...

I would welcome a less regulated, subsidy-free bus service if it can offer safety and service no worse than Greyhound. But, like P&M and Mr. C, I am skeptical about it working in Manitoba. Without subsidies, remote areas would probably be cut off.

@Gustav: I wouldn't welcome passenger vans as a repacement for motor coaches. Many of these vans have a reputation for being extremely unsafe and prone to rollovers.

Given rising fuel costs, there ought to be some way to promote a resurgence of bus travel. As it is, though, Greyhound has cut back its route network. There's no longer even any service to North Dakota or Minnesota. You would think that when a plane ticket from Winnipeg to Grand Forks costs $1000, someone would be able to figure out how to offer a competing bus service at a profit.

Gustav Nelson said...

"Many of these vans have a reputation for being extremely unsafe and prone to rollovers"

Is that a fact? Or is that just how you feel about them?

Do you yourself use the rural buses? If you do, then you should choose the bus that you feel is safest for you, if not, then you should let the people who ride rural bus lines decide what is safe for them or isn't.

imagine said...

I just know that the passenger vans have been investigated by government road-safety agencies, consumer advocates, etc., and were the topic of breathless media coverage a while back. A person would have to review and interpret those details to find out what the facts are, of course. Greyhound is not without its problems, but last time I checked, they had a pretty admirable road safety record. I live in the city, where a car isn't really necessary, but if I want to visit a rural area, I'd look at taking the bus. If intercity bus service is allowed to whither, that would be one more thing pushing me back toward car ownership.

The paternalism question is valid, but what I keep coming back to is that some people, through no fault of their own, have many fewer options than others. If a grandmother in Flin Flon needs to go to the city for a doctor's appointment, I hope there's a way to help make sure she has decent and safe options for getting there.