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Bus passenger Kristine Beer

Alsask Bus Service recently shut down its operations, ending intercity service between Saskatoon and Calgary, and leaving residents of towns and villages along Highway 7 in west central Saskatchewan with no bus service to their communities.

Owner Yiming Lu said he spent about two months trying to find a bit more revenue so he could keep it going, but finally decided, “I have no choice.”

The company had stepped in to provide service after the provincial government announced on March 22, 2017 that it would wind down the Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC).

Formerly, STC operated the route between Saskatoon and the community of Alsask at the Alberta border, and Alsask Bus Service connected from there to Calgary. STC shut down the Saskatchewan side of the route in mid-May 2017; but later that summer, Alsask Bus Service got approval to take it over, restoring service.

Unlike the controversial closure of STC, the Alsask shutdown got little publicity. A brief announcement on the company website, dated March 6, said the last day of service was March 10, 2018. The note concluded, “We are very sorry to pass this sad information. Wish you all the best.”

“I just found out today that the Alsask bus line has folded, and it’s very upsetting,” said Ruth Millar, a retired grandmother from Saskatoon who used the route for many years to visit grandchildren in Calgary. “So now I’m going to have to take the bus all the way to Edmonton (to get a connection to Calgary).”

Millar sometimes travels by air, but she said the bus was much more affordable, and very effective for retired people who have plenty of time to travel.

However, she noted that bus service hasn’t been the same since STC shut down. She had to seek out information about companies and routes, call ahead to confirm pickup locations, and crawl into small vans, including some without a centre aisle.

“Most of the people who traditionally had been using this service were like me, older people, and climbing over people in the vans isn’t all the best,” she said.

Still, she continued to ride, rather than driving herself as she had when she was younger. “I was glad that there was a service available,” she said.

At the Rosetown Esso where the bus used to stop, cashier Noreen Belarmino said the bus was busy on holidays but sometimes had only one or two passengers on a regular day. Still, she said, the bus was important to people from nearby communities who needed to come into Rosetown for occasional appointments.

Most of the smaller communities only had flag stops. Mayor Ron Genest from the village of Harris said another STC route turning south from Rosetown to Swift Current used to come into the village.

Genest said losing the STC service affected people who could not drive for various reasons. “But the usage wasn’t great,” he said. “They had pretty big buses that were pretty empty sometimes.”

Lu said he hears the concerns about people in the countryside having no bus service. “Older people have no help,” he said, “or it costs more money to get help.”

He noted that seniors formerly got a discount on travel with the subsidized STC service. He suggested the government could consider giving some assistance to private bus companies, on a per-passenger, per-kilometre basis. “Why cut everything?” he asked.

More freight business would also have helped, but with no parcels coming from the large STC network, and Greyhound parcels going to Tiger Courier, Lu said, there was not enough freight to keep the business going.

In rural areas, receiving mail and courier deliveries can be difficult, since there are no street addresses for many farms and industry work sites. Losing a bus service affects more than passengers, since bus depots offered locations where rural customers could pick up shipments of parts and supplies.

In the east part of the province, DiCal Transport’s website advertises passenger and freight service to Fort Qu’Appelle, Melville and Yorkton.

Another company, Rider Express, serves the main north-south corridor connecting Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert. Owner Firat Uray said they started up after STC closed, “to try to help the people who need service.”

He said the biggest challenges so far are getting the word out about the service, and getting some cargo business, since another company had already taken that over from STC before Rider Express got started.

At the Rider Express depot in Regina on March 20, Kristine Beer waited for a bus to Saskatoon, where she would catch a plane to La Ronge, Saskatchewan to adjudicate a music festival.

In the past, she was able to do the whole trip by bus.

Beer said the lack of bus connections to La Ronge was only an inconvenience for her, but for many of her friends in the North, the need was greater. She said, “There’s not a lot of facilities up in La Ronge, so if they have to go to P.A. for doctor’s appointments or specialists or whatever, there’s nothing there for them.”

Another passenger, Glen Whitstone from the Battlefords area, said he missed the comfortable STC coach service and its connections to smaller centres. “It was always a need, not only for older people but the public in general – it was quite useful. I miss that,” he said.

Uray said he did not know details of the Alsask Bus closure, “but it’s really hard to survive in this business. And if you put your profit on the front of everything, then you may not survive. Our purpose is to serve the people first of all. Then if there is profit come after, that will be okay.”

Even at that, Rider Express is currently serving only the larger cities.

For now, Lu continues to operate a restaurant at the highway junction outside Alsask. When asked how he feels about shutting down the bus route, he said, “Who wants to close a business?”