Ottawa’s long-time central bus terminal, abandoned during the pandemic, is now surrounded by construction hoarding as workers prepare the site for a 27-storey development.
The demise of the venerable Catherine Street station came last year on the heels of the May 2021 announcement — inconceivable to many — that Greyhound Canada would be closing all of its bus operations in Canada after almost a century of service.
It seemed inter city bus travel had permanently left the station.
But a funny thing happened on the way to obsolescence: In the year-and-a-half since Greyhound pulled out of the city, a host of new, long-distance coach services have come roaring back to replace it.
There are now at least nine bus services to choose from for passengers looking to go from Ottawa to places such as Toronto, Kingston and Montreal. But the new services mostly connect major cities along main highways, leaving people in small towns and rural areas disconnected from a transportation network that used to be a vital part of their communities.
Josh McEvoy, a volunteer with Free Transit Ottawa, said the frayed inter-city bus system is unfair to those who cannot afford a car in small town Ontario.
“It’s made access to things like medical care, jobs, support networks and recreation more difficult and costly for those without easy access to a car,” said McEvoy, a Queen’s University doctoral student.
The state of the country’s inter-city transport is now being studied by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. Last month, the committee heard a blunt assessment of that system.
“Today’s inter-city bus network is a national embarrassment,” declared Kasper Wabinksi, president of Kasper Transportation, a bus firm in Thunder Bay that operates 16 buses on four daily routes in northern Ontario.
The problem, he said, is that firms tend to operate only in small geographic areas, plying the country’s most lucrative travel corridors.
“You can’t have every bus company investing in Toronto to Ottawa routes,” Wabinksi said in an interview.
Vince Accardi, president of Motor Coach Canada, an industry group representing bus operators, told the committee Greyhound’s departure has left many small towns without connections to bigger towns and cities.
“The vast majority of operators are not subsidized,” he noted. “These companies depend on the fares they collect on their ticket sales alone, and this means that many rural and remote communities will likely stay disconnected, with limited or no transportation options for years to come.”
The committee heard that inter-city bus routes today cover only about half of the area serviced by Greyhound in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C.
Canadians are no longer able to travel coast-to-coast on a single bus ticket.
Rider Express is one of the companies that has moved into the Ottawa market following the collapse of Greyhound, which used to dominate the country’s passenger bus industry. Greyhound also operated many of the country’s central bus terminals, including those in Ottawa, London, Winnipeg and Calgary, all of which are now closed.
Omer Kanca, assistant general manager at Rider Express, said the loss of those terminals complicates parcel delivery, bus transfers and other logistics of inter-city bus travel.
“Having no terminals is a major obstacle, and they’re very expensive to operate,” he said in an interview.
Kanca is among those who believe the inter-city system cannot be rebuilt in Canada without government help. Private operators, he said, need governments to pay for central bus terminals and to subsidize money-losing routes through Canada’s small towns, often separated by long distances.
“Some routes are just not financially viable given the population density and passenger traffic,” he said.
Kasper Wabinski said the country’s bus network has been in decline since the 1980s when the federal government handed provinces the job of regulating inter-city buses. The provinces have put in place inconsistent regulations that make it difficult — and expensive — for bus companies to operate coaches that take passengers between provinces.
Buses that travel between provinces need special licences or daily permits, and each new stop requires a business licence.
Wabinski wants the federal government to reassert control over the inter-city bus industry, and create a highway transportation board that limits the number of carriers on major routes and incentivizes companies to serve smaller communities.
Some provinces have already started to subsidize the bus industry.
In B.C., the province stepped in after Greyhound announced it was ending service along Highway 16, the notorious Highway of Tears where dozens of women — the vast majority of them Indigenous — have gone missing or been murdered. The province invested more than $4 million to help B.C. Transit, a Crown corporation, expand inter-city bus service in the region. Local communities also contributed to the program.
In Ontario, Ontario Northland, a Crown corporation, expanded its routes in northwestern parts of the province after Greyhound pulled out of the region in 2018. Ontario Northland offers once-a-day service along the Trans-Canada Highway. (Its fares cover about 80 per cent of the cost of its coach service with the province making up for the shortfall; it also receives capital funding.)
In 2021, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government deregulated the inter-city transportation sector in an attempt to bring more private players into the marketplace, but the new firms have mostly converged on the province’s busiest traffic corridors.
Some have called instead for a publicly-owned inter-city bus network or one operated by an expanded VIA Rail. Josh McEvoy contends that only a publicly-owned network can guarantee more rural routes, a system integrated with trains, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.
The House of Commons Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities is expected to issue a report on inter-city busing next year.
How many bus lines are in Ottawa?
The Ottawa region now has at least nine bus lines offering passenger coach service, including:
Red Arrow, the most recent arrival in the local market, began a limited Ottawa to Toronto coach service earlier this month. It offers trips to Toronto three times a day with a stop in Kingston.
Megabus runs up to six trips a day between Ottawa and Toronto with the earliest at 9 a.m. and the latest at 4 p.m.
FlixBus moved into Ontario last year, and now has routes that encompass Ottawa, Kingston, Oshawa, Toronto, Hamilton, London, Chatham and Windsor.
Rider Express, first launched in Saskatchewan in 2017, offers an Ottawa to Toronto express service; it also offers an Ottawa to Toronto service four times a week with stops in Kanata, Carleton Place, Perth, Madoc, Marmora and Peterborough.
Ontario Northland, a Crown corporation reporting to the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, has a motorcoach division that offers bus service from Ottawa to smaller centres such as Arnprior, Renfrew, Cobden, Deep River, Mattawa and North Bay.
Book A Ride is an inter-city bus service connecting Ottawa, Kingston, Toronto, London and Kitchener along with other towns on the route.
Orléans Express offers six coach trips a day to Montreal with connections to more than 30 Quebec destinations.
Autobus Maheux offers daily service to Montreal and Laval from Ottawa and Gatineau.
Tour Express also offers bus service seven-days-a-week between Ottawa and Montreal, with regular service to Montreal’s Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
Passengers trying to find the best, most convenient bus ride can turn to Busbud, a Montreal-based start-up, that offers an online ticket gateway to inter-city bus services in the area.
In addition to conventional buses, inter-city travellers can also use ride sharing services such as Poparide, which have become particularly popular among the student crowd. Poparide bills itself as a city-to-city carpooling service.