By Lindsay Briscoe
Thunder Bay’s Caribou Coach Transportation Company Inc. has expanded its network and taken over the former Excel Bus Lines service to and from Ear Falls and Red Lake, picking up its first local passengers on Aug. 1.
The owner of the bus line, Sandy Smith is aiming to make the transition as smooth as possible with limited changes for the time being.
“We’re still using the van service that Excel was. We have to do driver training and stuff like that. We have a very high standard as far as our drivers go and until such time as we have everybody up to the fold and where we want them to be…then we’re still running the van service back and forth.”
Smith says he understands the van service is not ideal but – especially considering the price of fuel – he also has to make sure the passenger numbers can sustain the high cost of running a highway coach up and down Highway 105.
“I know one of the reasons Excel went to running vans on their service routes between Kenora and Red Lake and Kenora and Fort Frances is because they were only getting two, three, four – at the best of times – six or seven people at a time.”
With the new service, passenger fares have increased slightly and, as of Aug. 15, the schedule will see a slight reduction with pick-up and drop off in Ear Falls and Red Lake Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
For the time being, passengers making connections with Greyhound in Kenora will have to go through a similar layover as they did when Excel ran the service.
“Our hands are tied initially because Greyhound doesn’t want to adjust their schedule at all,” says Smith. “(Greyhound) went and changed their schedule…They used to do three trips a day east and west between Winnipeg and Toronto. They cut that down to two trips a day east and west which is what resulted in that long layover for folks.”
“The tough part is when you’re dealing with multiple carriers, the solutions aren’t always quick and easy and so we’ve looked at this and said: ‘Ok, something needs to be done about this because it’s been left far too long the way it is.’”
Smith is confident his team will come to a solution to the Kenora layover issue. He points to the fact that when Caribou Coach took over the Thunder Bay to Hearst route, the situation was similar.
“People that were coming from, say, Timmins towards Thunder Bay would get to Hearst with Ontario Northland at 2 o’clock in the morning and they’d have to sit until 3 o’clock in the afternoon to get on the bus to come west.”
Within six months of negotiations with Ontario Northland, they’d come to a solution which reduced the layover in Hearst to about an hour.
“We have some similar things in the works that will be coming down the line in the not too distant future. I can’t elaborate entirely as to what those are at this juncture because we’re still in discussions with a lot of people with respect to it but we’re hoping to find a way to eliminate that entirely.”
“We’re a family-run company. We’ve been in operation now for five years. We’ve tried really hard to listen to folks and try to implement that stuff. It doesn’t always happen fast but we’ve tried to do it in such a way where we take the information, we digest it and see what the best way is to make it work.”
The Ear Falls pick-up/drop-off location is still Coulson’s Corner. The new Red Lake pick-up/drop-off location is Mitchel’s Midtown. Store owner Donna Rogowsky says she looks forward to the new venture. Bus tickets are available at the store.
In addition to the new service to Ear Falls and Red Lake and to Kenora on both Highway 1 and Highway 71, Caribou Coach’s network covers several communities on Highway 11 between Thunder Bay and Hearst as well as Atikokan and Fort Frances. The company also offers charter and freight services.
For more information: 1-866-935-2811. Caribou Coach is also in the process of updating its website: www.cariboucoach.ca.