Bus companies on the verge of collapse amid COVID-19 pandemic, industry says
TORONTO -- Coach bus companies across the country have been forced to hit the brakes during the pandemic, shedding revenue and jobs, and threatening some of the country’s transportation infrastructure.
The industry says existing COVID-19 government aid isn’t enough to stop hundreds of job losses and buses repossessed by banks already, hoping that federal relief can jump-start the ailing business.
“We are struggling to hold things together,” said Larry Hundt, the co-ower of Great Canadian Coaches in Kitchener, Ontario. “COVID has basically shut our operations down.”
There have been almost no passengers on Great Canadian Coaches since the pandemic began in March. The company has laid off nine-tenths of their workers, Hundt said. What was a $28 million business just last year is making almost no money, he said.
It’s the same story across the country at Wilson’s Bus in B.C. Operator John Wilson said at least four of his $600,000 buses have been repossessed.
“It’s reached a crisis point. Financial institutions are coming for buses that payments can’t be made on,” Wilson said.
Twenty-one Canadian senators from the Maritimes have urged the federal government to provide financial assistance to Maritime Bus, worried that a company that provides essential service won’t last through the pandemic without drastic changes.
Industry representatives say a major company has all but shut down its Mississauga operations, shedding over 100 jobs that won’t be coming back for years, even after the pandemic is over.
The bus companies have almost no revenue so there’s no point in keeping workers despite the wage subsidy, representatives said. And other measures, including joint provincial-federal funding that has helped public transit service, don’t apply because these are private companies.
Nevertheless, they are an important part of a sustainable transportation system that could disappear if nothing is done, including asking banks to stop seizing assets if loan payments aren’t made, said Green Party MP Elizabeth May.
“An entire part of our transportation infrastructure is at risk of falling apart, imminently,” May said as part of a question in Question Period in the House of Commons to the Transport Minister, Omar Alghabra.
The minister agreed with her, while pointing out that the bus industry itself is regulated by the provinces.
“She is right. The passenger bus service has been hit very hard by the pandemic,” he said. “It’s important to our cities and our provinces therefore we will continue to monitor the situation and work with her on ideas we can work together on."
The crashing bus industry is making tourism operators worried, said Beth Potter, the President and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario. Attractions in Niagra could see major drops without a functioning bus service, as could the Stratford Festival, she said.
“The charter bus system is incredibly important not for just moving people to attractions and group tours but locally moving students on field trips, and sport tourism,” Potter said. “Those are very important and contribute to the tourism economy overall.”
Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation said it had made available $10 billion in support for people and businesses through tax and other deferrals, a spokesperson said. He pointed to a bill that would largely deregulate the intercity bus sector as something that could help the province’s struggling bus industry.
“Deregulating…will provide more opportunities for carriers to access markets across the province and make it easier for carriers to address service gaps for passengers, as Ontario recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the spokesperson said.
The challenge for Great Canadian Coaches is to last that long, said Hundt.
“It’s still going to be a long time before we come out of this,” he said.