All I Want for Christmas is…a way of addressing Northern Ontario's woeful bus situation

December 14, 2015 - The holidays are fast approaching, which means friends and family will be travelling to celebrate the season. You may even have a child away at college or university who will be making the trip home as soon as they have completed their exams. In years past, it was pretty common for postsecondary students to hop on a bus to get home for the holidays. However, will cuts to providers such as Greyhound and Ontario Northland over the past year make returning home more difficult? In the short-term, no. Your post-exam, sleep deprived son or daughter, who has subsisted on coffee and makeshift meals to fuel their studying habits, will certainly exhaust every option in order to find their way back for clean laundry, home cooking, and festive libations. But the reduction in service could deleteriously affect some holiday travelers. Christmas comes just once a year, but what about the other 364 days? What are the long term impacts and what does it mean for the people of Northern Ontario?

In February 2015, citing a drop in ridership, Ontario Northland (ONTC) announced that it was closing stations and reducing its operating hours throughout much of the Northeast. Currently, ONTC offers seven trips out of Southern Ontario to Sudbury and North Bay, but there are no services offered between the cities. Over the past summer, Greyhound made reductions of its own, but with, arguably, a greater impact on people and communities in Northern Ontario. For example, the company previously offered 30 weekly return rides from Sudbury to Toronto, but these have since been reduced to 18. Trips to Ottawa were cut in half and offerings to Winnipeg were also slashed considerably. Things are not better in the rest of the Northeast, where North Bay saw its number of arrivals and departures trimmed as well, particularly in the Ottawa-Sudbury corridor. In the Northwest, cuts were made to rides between Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie, along with reductions affecting other communities such as Manitouwadge, Dryden, and Kenora.

These reductions will limit the timing and frequency of travel options for those in the North, with more serious ramifications for those requiring Greyhound or ONTC for medical travel. For those in the Northwest, Greyhound is a primary service provider for intercity travel, as many people in smaller towns require busing to commute into larger hubs for groceries and other social services.

This has prompted questions as to why Ontario Northland is not subsidized more  by the government. ONTC and GO are both Crown corporations, but there is a glaring disparity in the allocation of resources, with more of the funding heading south. Earlier in November, Tony Wentzell, the chair of the Ontario Northland Motor Coach Operators for the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference union, was quoted in a Sudbury Star article, suggesting that “if every GO passenger paid an extra penny on their fare, not an extra one per cent, just one lousy penny toward a Northern transportation initiative, that would bring $650,000 to the ONTC which would mean Hearst, Timmins, Cochrane and Matheson could keep their same level of service.” Others, such as Nipissing MPP, Vic Fedeli, have suggested that the provincial transit systems should be combined to avoid this type of inequity. Currently, ONTC is operated by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and GO falls under the purview of the Ministry of Transportation.  For proprietors of smaller transportation options, such as Caribou Coach in the Northwest, this could be an opportunity to throw their hat into the ring. While they have also felt the sting of dropping passenger usages, companies such as Caribou do not receive the same type of assistance that is afforded to Ontario Northland and GO. With so few busing options available in Northern Ontario, particularly in sparsely populated parts of the region, this is where providers like Caribou Coach could carve out a competitive advantage. Based out of Thunder Bay, Caribou offers riders service as far east as Longlac and as far west as Fort Frances. Instead of looking southward for a solution, one can be found inwardly by investing in the options that employ and transport people on a local level.

So what is the best way forward?

  • Should all provincial taxpayers support a Northern transportation initiative?

  • Should GO and ONTC be brought under the same umbrella, with Ontario Northland getting a bigger slice of the pie?

  • Does the vacuum left by Greyhound provide a unique opportunity for ONTC or other small coaches to fill the void? If so, should these smaller, but privately owned companies receive some form of government assistance to make them competitively viable?

These issues and many more are currently being debated, researched, and analyzed as part of the multi-modal transportation strategy being developed for Northern Ontario.  Certainly the transportation strategy for Southern Ontario considered these issues. The ultimate plan now being implemented “down south” included committed investments, service targets, and both private and public solutions to the problems identified. Northerners should expect no less when they finally see the plan for their part of the province.

By Mike Commito, policy analyst with Northern Policy institute.

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3 Reader Comments

  • Correction to post

    Posted By Philip Koning on 12/15/2015 9:59:08 AM

    Mr. Commito attributes a suggestion to Vic Fedeli that ONTC and GO Transit services should be combined, when in fact, he suggested a strategic alliance between the two.  There is a significant difference and Northern Ontario will want to retain the right to manage their transportation service rather than putting a commuter service in charge of long distance inter-city transportation.  As Mr. Fedeli has suggested, there are synergies between the two that need to be exploited....a common understanding that transportation is a public service, not a business would be a good start.

    The service area of Ontario Northland and the representatives of the stakeholders should be expanded, but it should not be folded into GO Transit....just treated as equally important and have mutual efficiencies recognized.993

  • ride sharing app

    Posted By bk on 1/13/2016 1:42:43 PM

    A ride sharing app may be a solution. Depending on smart phone usage. Can see it working well in a yestl.

  • Transportation

    Posted By Francis on 1/14/2016 2:27:01 PM

    In Northeasrtern Ontario in 2012 the rail paaenger service was removed and the ONTC was to enhance this situation with the Bus service and purchase new buses.

    The question today with the bus service being reduced is that we should be looking at the demographics of the North and look at we can do to enhance the transportation in the North.

    First let use look at the present cost and the Ontario Government subsidies in the North.  Then look at what we can do to make the difference.

    Second let use look at what structure we as Northerners would like to impliment to benifit transportation in the North.

    Third present this plan to the Ontario Government which will show our Government that people in the North care about the North.

     Francis Ritchie


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