As the pandemic drags on, the owner of Newfoundland's cross-island bus line says ridership has sunk so far he's reached a breaking point — and without government aid, he's considering shelving the service in a month.
Jason Roberts, owner and general manager of DRL, says ridership during the pandemic has plummeted by about 75 per cent from where it was before COVID-19 hit.
"It's very, very disheartening," said Roberts.
"We came into St. John's, I think it was on Friday night, we had 18 people, OK? Eighteen people coming in St. John's on a Friday night. That's normally like a 45-person night," he told CBC News on Monday.
Roberts said he has been asking both federal and provincial governments for months for some sort of financial help to bridge his business's bleeding until the pandemic recedes — to no avail.
"Some help is better than no help," he said.
It's still being used, and I know people definitely rely on this transportation. - Mary Feltham
Greyhound Canada's demise last week has put buses into the spotlight, with that company citing the pandemic as its death knell.
But funds for for-profit businesses like Roberts's have precedent in the pandemic. Roberts pointed to big federal bailouts for air carriers, as well as other COVID-19 relief money given to other bus lines — a New Brunswick service was rescued by an injection of $720,000 earlier this year.
"I'm saying, you know, [if] we don't have something by June month … we're seriously considering stopping if we don't have something put in place," said Roberts, who didn't put a price tag on his request.
Riders rely on service: student
The bus service was managing all right before the pandemic, said Roberts, with summer travel and students providing the backbone of the business.
But with travel curtailed and university classes largely virtual, those mainstays have been eroded while expenses have continued as normal, he said, with buses sucking up fuel, and brakes and tires wearing down. DRL buses cross the island from St John's to Port aux Basques daily, with each trip racking up almost 1,000 kilometres.
Roberts doesn't blame riders for his predicament, and said he wants to keep providing a service that's a lifeline to many people without personal vehicles.
"Everyone's trying to stay as low-key and [stay] put as much they can so I don't expect them to travel, but the ones who got to travel, they still need a means to go," he said.
Mary Feltham is one of those student still using the bus every month, travelling between her nursing classes in Corner Brook and her family in Gander.
"It's still being used, and I know people definitely rely on this transportation," Feltham, who's also the head of the Grenfell Campus Student Union, said.
Hearing of the company's operational uncertainties brings one word to Feltham's mind: "worry." As she has no car to fall back on, Feltham said, she'd have to ask for rides or resort to hitchhiking.
"Not the safest option, but if worse came to worst," she said.
Roberts said any aid money would be a bridge until the pandemic ends and what is hopefully a return to normal traffic volumes. But if he has to suspend DRL's daily services, he said, it might not make sense to start them up again a few months down the line.
"It's not going to be easy to pick it up and put it back on the road, and make it something that's going to be very flourishing again, so it's very important for us to keep going," he said.