Shock is the first thing that came to mind when word broke Tuesday that Acadian Coach Lines in New Brunswick and PEI as well as Acadian Intercity Coaches in Nova Scotia plan to close up shop by the end of November. I was far from the only person to feel that way. How could such a vital service in a mainly rural region just up and leave, and in barely over three months? As I thought on it longer today, there was still shock but focused more on how we should have seen this coming.
Before I get to that, here’s a bit (a lot) of background, some of which you probably know by now. Groupe Orléans Express Inc. bought the operations in the Maritimes in 2004. An application was made to the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board in November 2009 by Intercity to make a number of route cuts. A number of runs were going to be affected, including Halifax to Riviere-du-Loup, Moncton to Charlottetown, Halifax to Digby, and Halifax to Sydney.
At the time, Intercity initially stated the reason for the proposed change in its services in Nova Scotia is because the Maritime operations were not making money. The plan was to re-engineer the company’s runs to focus on Halifax, Moncton, Fredericton, and Saint John. It was interesting to me that the Cape Breton Regional Municipality was not included in that “core group”.
Financial results provided to the UARB showed that from 2004-2009 there was an overall loss of about $2.25 million before taxes. However, the Nova Scotia operation had a profit of just over $1.8 million while there was a loss of just over $4 million in New Brunswick (presumably including PEI as well, since they’re the same operation but that’s speculation on my part).
The UARB addressed this in their decision in June 2010, stating “The Board is empathetic to Orléans that it has a system in both Québec and Nova Scotia that is making money, but that it is financially burdened by the operations of Coachlines (sic) in New Brunswick.”
The result was the vast majority of route changes were denied, while others had conditions attached to them; mainly focused on keeping other routes intact.
Fast-forward to December 2010 and Intercity approached the UARB trying to cut the Halifax to Sydney route again by one trip in each direction and change one of the routes in Cape Breton. The run cut was approved, but the route change was unchanged for the time being.
So what can we take from all of this? The company clearly wanted to re-engineer its routes, focusing on where the bigger populations are and trim what they would deem as low-population or low-ridership areas. It makes sense until you remember that because of the layout of the Maritimes, rural areas are the ones that need this service the most.
I mentioned above, as per records pulled by the UARB for 2009 there was a loss of about $2.25 million. Mounting losses were cited as a major reason the bus service could leave the region by year’s end, to a tune of about $12 million since 2004. So you’re telling me that after averaging a loss of about $375,000 a year up to 2009, the operations went off the deep end to average a loss of nearly ten times that number from 2010 to the present? What happened exactly? There was a strike that shut down bus service in New Brunswick and PEI for 5-6 months, which obviously doesn’t help. Apart from that I have no clue.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a breath and look at Tuesday’s announcement.
First and foremost, to me at least, this is going to be a brutal decision for university and college students outside of those in Halifax and maybe Cape Breton University. Looking back at my time at St. FX, way back when, I can’t imagine not having a bus service. I couldn’t afford to buy a car, never mind run one (even though gas prices look like pennies on the dollar compared to today, but I digress). Acadian Lines was my only way to get home. I’m sure I could have found an alternate means of travel if push came to shove, but the bus service was vital. Take that away and you’re taking the knees out from under a lot of students
I say that with a bit of sentimentality of course, and a bit of irony. There was more than one trip I’d complain about because of what I thought at the time was an overcomplicated route or the bus was usually an hour late, or whatever the complaint of the day my teenage-self had. Whatever the case, the bus service was a relatively cheap and convenient way to escape Antigonish and get home or go wherever. Talking to a lot of people in the past day I can tell I’m not alone in that. Far from it, in fact.
It affects a whole host of others of course. In my family alone there are two people that rely on Acadian Lines when they leave Halifax. From seniors, to those without a driver’s licence or a car, to sending parcels and everything else, there is an inarguable need for a service like Acadian Lines.
The province and union representing 120 Acadian Lines workers say they want to talk to the company about maintaining service in the Maritimes. I hope they’re successful but having lived in Nova Scotia the vast majority of my life I can’t help but be pessimistic about it. I hope I’m wrong.
I started this by saying we should have seen the closure announcement coming. Companies don’t apply to make route overhauls for no reason. Yes, it’s up to them to prove the need for change, but they obviously saw one in the first place. If some of the changes proposed in 2009 had been accepted, would we be here? No one can answer that, but it probably would have helped a company bleeding money.
That aside, there were public signs three years ago that there were financial issues. When I learned of the routes they wanted to change I said “They can’t do that! We need those” without, of course, having any knowledge of the situation besides the old standby thinking that since we have it, we must need it, so why are we losing it. There’s no logic in it, but everyone does it. I’ve never gone from Halifax to Digby, but hey, if the route is there it must be a good idea. The entire concept of “viability” was foreign, or I was just being ignorant (lower your hands, it was a bit of both).
Between this announcement and Via Rail cuts, it’s not been a good year for transportation services in Nova Scotia. If Acadian Lines does go, something will fill the void. It might be a shuttle service, or another group coming in to fill the void, but something will come through.
Acadian Lines has been a lifeline for many people of all walks of life for many, many years. Until there’s a resolution, however, we’re all sitting on the sidelines hoping a longtime slice of Nova Scotian life doesn’t drive off into the sunset.