High customer satisfaction rates are not enough to keep Saskatchewan’s only intercity transportation service on the road.
With the release of the provincial budget on March 22, Crown Investments Corporation minister Joe Hargrave announced that the Saskatchewan Transportation Company will officially close in May. The Crown corporation provides both bus passenger and freight services to more than 250 communities across Saskatchewan via 25 routes.
“It makes me feel that suddenly (I am) a prisoner of sorts,” said Len Findlay, a University of Saskatchewan English professor. Findlay travelled from Saskatoon to Regina via STC bus on Wednesday to attend the announcement of the 2017 budget. He said he often uses the service to travel between the two cities for business.
“I’m not sure what I will do,” he said, when asked how he will manage once STC closes. “I guess I’ll have to find someone to give me a ride down.”
STC has been in operation since 1946. The company’s popularity peaked in the mid 1980s, with approximately 780,000 passengers per year. Ridership has steadily decreased since then, averaging 200,000 passengers in 2015. The provincial government cites cheaper gas prices, more vehicle ownership and migration to urban centres as the top factors contributing to the decline.
“Ridership is declining substantially. Cost kept going up; the subsidies kept going up,” said Hargrave. “We lost another 18,000 riders – another nine per cent last year, and that is just unsustainable. You can’t just keep feeding that.”
NDP MLA Nicole Rancourt disagrees.
“This sends the message that this government isn’t looking out for the most vulnerable people because often times the people who are using these services are using them because it’s a cost-effective method of transportation across the province,” she said.
Those who rely on STC seem to be quite happy with the service. In its 2015-2016 annual report, STC boasted high customer satisfaction rates: 93 per cent for passengers and 95 per cent for parcel express customers.
Phyllis Hollinger is from Melville. STC’s services allow her to travel safely in the winter because she has an older vehicle and is concerned about getting stranded in cold weather. Hollinger uses the service through the snowiest months to visit friends and to get to medical appointments.
“I’m not happy with that,” said Hollinger, when asked how she feels about STC’s closure. “I think this is just stupid. They should be able to figure out something.”
The provincial government estimates that over the next five years, STC would require approximately $85 million to continue operating.
“There are other priorities within the government where that money, where that $85-$100 million can go,” said Hargrave.
In 2016, STC generated revenues to cover 53 per cent of total company expenditures, the rest was covered by subsidies. In the last 10 years, STC has received $112 million from the Government of Saskatchewan. The average subsidy per passenger is $94, compared to $25 in 2007.
Yet Rancourt argues that STC remains important. “This is a service that we are providing to the residents or Saskatchewan,” she said. “Yes, it was costing us money, but costing us money like a lot of other services we provide to the residents in this province, and so this was addressing a need that we have with a large geographic area.”
STC announced on their website Wednesday morning that routes across the province have been cancelled for the afternoon of March 22 and into the morning of March 23. Passengers who already booked their tickets will be taken to their destination via taxis until services resume on March 23.
Samantha Delorme and a friend came to Regina from Yorkton on Tuesday for a dental appointment. It wasn’t until they prepared to go home the next day that Delmore was told about the cancellations.
“I wasn’t really sure what was happening,” she said. “They should have let us know ahead of time.”
Delorme and her friend were told STC would pay for them to take a taxi back to Yorkton – a solution that concerned both the women.
“It’s kind of scary,” said Delorme, “because a lone cab driver – he can take us anywhere, basically, he wants.”
Delorme and her friend plan to stay awake for the duration of the ride and to let family members know when they are expected to arrive in Yorkton.
Findlay will also take a taxi back to Saskatoon because his regular Saskatoon to Regina route had been cancelled.
“That, on a day when the budget is being delivered in the provincial capital - what kind of sense does that make? What kind of values are driving those kinds of decisions?” he said. “The mantra today from the minister was ‘Keep Saskatchewan Strong,’ my estimation of this budget … is it’s keeping Saskatchewan wrong, not keeping Saskatchewan strong.”
A total of 224 staff will be impacted by the closure. Freight will be accepted for delivery until May 19 and passenger services will end on May 31.