Acadien departure: Time to back up the bus
Passengers board an Acadien Lines bus in Kentville. (GORDON DELANEY / Valley Bureau / File)
But announce that you’re not going to run it anymore, as Quebec-based Groupe Orleans Express did this week, and the responses will be very predictable.
First, a lot of people (university students, medical patients traveling to Halifax and other centers, businesses using parcel services) will be rightly concerned about the loss of province wide service.
Second, someone in politics will muse about whether subsidizing money-losing routes is part of a possible answer.
And, third, the operator will say he’s open to discussing that, though fishing for subsidies wasn’t his intention.
Sure enough, all of the above have come to pass since Groupe Orleans said it will surrender the monopoly licenses held by its subsidiaries, Acadien Intercity Coaches in Nova Scotia and Acadien Coachlines in New Brunswick, because money-losing routes have undermined the whole system.
But before anyone starts bargaining with taxpayers’ funds to keep Acadian on the road, let’s back up the bus and figure out what the problem actually is.
Is it time to toss regulation and let competition work out the right routes, frequencies and vehicles to serve customers?
Do we need leaner and smarter regulation to give bus operators more flexibility to adjust to a shrinking rural population and competition from shuttles?
Or is part of the problem a parent company that just isn’t that into serving or figuring out the Nova Scotia market?
Would a change of operators as well as a change of regulation make a difference?
We ask this because the Utility and Review Board has twiced chastised Groupe Orleans for showing little interest in marketing its business in Nova Scotia and for a “poor knowledge” of the province.
In 2010, the board twice rejected some Groupe Orleans proposals to reduce services, not because of inflexible rules, but because the company wasn’t losing money on these routes and wasn’t marketing to improve ridership.
At that time, the URB found the Nova Scotia operations were making money overall, subsidizing large losses in New Brunswick and paying hefty administrative overheads (25 per cent of gross revenues) to the parent company.
To the board’s obvious astonishment, at one hearing, Groupe Orleans’ vice-president of marketing and strategic planning said the firm did not consider the Sydney-Halifax run a core route because greater Sydney, or Cape Breton Regional Municipality, had a population of only 24,000 (she mistook CBRM’s actual 102,000 as the population of Cape Breton Island).
And this blooper was the basis of an application to move buses from Sydney-Halifax to a focus on expanding Halifax-Moncton-Fredericton-Saint John service.
The board was likewise not impressed that the same executive “indicated that she has ‘no product to sell’ as justification” for not marketing service on the route through the Valley to Halifax. For Groupe Orleans, the only service that seemed worth marketing was Halifax to New Brunswick.
Before anyone talks subsidies, let’s be sure we have an operator that understands the Nova Scotia travel market and will make a serious effort to grow the Nova Scotia business.
Any successful operator will have to meet that test — with or without subsidies, with or without regulation.
Article released August 11, 2012 Acadien has since closed it's doors.