Caribou Coach has suspended its bus service from Fort Frances to Thunder Bay indefinitely–and it likely won’t be coming back.
“The bottom line is ridership,” owner Sandy Smith told the Times last Thursday.
“We had three people on Tuesday [Oct. 10]. It has been an ongoing thing,” he noted.
“We started 10 years ago with five trips a week, then to four, then to three, and then to one.
“And the trips have been indicative of what the ridership has been and the ridership isn’t there,” Smith stressed.
He said everyone jumps up and down that they want the service, but in the end they don’t use it.
But other factors have affected Caribou’s operation, as well.
“A lot of the First Nations’ communities have medical vans, and are running medical vans to Thunder Bay with not only medical people but people that are coming into Thunder Bay just for the sake of coming in,” Smith noted.
“And so they’re not using the bus,” he remarked. “They’re going with the funded vehicles that are provided by the government to the First Nations’ communities.
“‘Hey, free ride! Let’s take that.'”
On top of that, Smith said there’s a multitude of individuals running illegal operations–vans without proper public vehicle licences to operate on highways, operating without proper insurance, and generally “flying under the radar.”
“The MTO doesn’t want to do anything about those folks and so as a result, people are using them because they can get away without charging what we have to charge,” he explained.
“I’ve got to carry proper insurance, I’ve got to have carry proper plates on the vehicles, and on and on and on,” he stressed.
“And so at the end of the day, it’s pretty hard to keep our stuff going when everybody’s using unlicensed carriers and free services.”
Smith said he simply can’t personally subsidize the Thunder Bay-Atikokan-Fort Frances run anymore.
“My wife and I have been using our personal line of credit to keep that run going for probably the last four years, and then we said, ‘You know what? We’re not doing this anymore because we’ll never see it back,'” he remarked.
Smith added there’s a misconception amongst some people that Caribou Coach has received government money and not put it towards the runs.
“We’ve never gotten a cent from the government,” he stressed. “The only thing the government does is increase our fees.
“We used to go from paying $300-$400 a year for our licence plate stickers,” he noted.
“Well, they now cost me upwards of almost $2,000 a vehicle.
“They’re forcing the electronic logging systems down our throats, which is about $1,500 a vehicle just to implement,” Smith added.
“There’s emissions tests on vehicles that don’t need them; I’ve got to do all five of ours today, which is going to cost me another couple grand,” he said.
“And the government just keeps hammering at us and hammering at us and hammering at us.”
Caribou Coach has been around since 2008. It had been running a round-trip service–Thunder Bay to Fort Frances and back to Thunder Bay–three days a week (Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday) since about 2010.
Then back in February, scheduled round-trip service was reduced to one day of the week (Tuesdays) due to a lack of ridership.
Tuesday was chosen because that historically was their busiest day, Smith explained.
Then in the recent weeks, Caribou Coach announced on its website that the route would be suspended for “an undetermined period of time,” with the final trip being last Tuesday.
But Smith admitted it’s very unlikely Caribou Coach ever will resume the same route unless the government “decides to step up and do something to maintain services.”
He added a subsidy does not have to be “a bag of cash to keep your run going.”
“Subsidies can be done in all kinds of different ways,” Smith suggested.
“It could be a subsidy on our fuel taxes; give us a break so our fuel taxes aren’t quite so high because we are providing services to these communities.
“Fuel is like a bloody yo-yo these days,” he noted. “You can’t keep track of it and for us to adjust fares to reflect fuel would take six months to iron itself out.”
As far as any other carriers taking over the same route down the road, Smith offered this response: “Grey Goose had it first, then Greyhound, then us. If there was money to be had, we’d all still be doing it.
“We’ve been doing this for 10 years and I was in the business long before doing it on my own, and it’s not getting any better anywhere,” he added.
“It’s the eventual writing on the wall across this entire region.”
The Thunder Bay-Fort Frances run was Caribou Coach’s final one.
However, Caribou Coach will continue to run as a charter service, although Smith expects it will be a tough go due to rival carriers like Voyageur Charter Coach in International Falls operating in Canada when he feels that, legally, they should not be.
Between groups that don’t understand the laws, people that don’t want to use the service, and a multitude of illegal carriers the MTO does not want to crack down on, “it’s become a very, very difficult marketplace to do business in,” said Smith
If you need to go Thunder Bay, Caribou Coach is suggesting people contact the following carriers for travel arrangements:
•Kasper Minibus (1-855-566-2378);
•Kelly Coach Van (1-807-630-1183); or
•North Air Taxi (274-5301).