BlueStar Coachlines has a fleet of 26 full-size, 56-seat tour buses. However, the majority of them are sitting in the bus yard these days.
Only two are on the road and only because they are transporting essential workers.
“The bus industry has taken quite a big hit because of COVID,” said BlueStar’s maintenance manager, Luke Ferguson.
Business for the Kelowna-based company has dropped by 93 per cent since the pandemic hit, and its staff has decreased from 60 to just 7 people, two of them on-call only.
“Historically, we service the tour industry,” said Corinne Underwood, the company’s co-general manager and vice-president of sales and marketing.
“So we provide transportation services throughout British Columbia, Alberta, parts of the U.S. for wholesale tour operators. And in addition, we provide local services for hockey teams, school groups, government.”
But with pandemic-related health orders and travel restrictions in place, motorcoach companies like BlueStar are facing enormous losses.
“We’re talking absolutely losses in the millions,” Underwood told Global News.
“We’re looking at all these companies right across Canada that have these vehicles sitting in their yard that they’re still making lease payments on, and they’re not getting any revenue in.”
Underwood said tour buses play a critical role in tourism by moving millions of passengers throughout the province every year.
“Motorcoach travel is the linkage to so much of tourism,” she said. “A motorcoach is contributing approximately $15,000 into the economy every single time it moves and that’s because those passengers are utilizing attractions, hotels, restaurants.”
She said BlueStar alone contributes about $50 million every year into the economy and transports about 300,000 people.
While motorcoach companies face enormous losses, Underwood said they have seen very little government relief.
“There’s been some minor relief programs. I mean there was a $15,000 grant top-up, which is a drop in the bucket,” Underwood said. “There’s lots of talk, there’s been no movement.”
In B.C., motorcoaches have banded together to form a coalition and are now in the process of lobbying the provincial government for more help.
“First and foremost, we need liquidity,” she said. “These loan programs are putting everybody more in debt. We don’t have any cash flow.
“We have zero cash flow and we have these huge expenses because motorcoaches are sitting and we have large lease spaces, so we need the B.C. government to top up the federal commercial rent program because we’re at a complete loss.”
Underwood said getting buses back on the road also comes at a huge cost.
“Every time basically you put your motorcoach back on the road, you have to pay a fee based on the mileage and the year of the motorcoach,” she said.
“So on a coach that is five years or newer, it’s about $18,000. If you had no cash flow and now you suddenly have work and we have to put that coach back on the road, that translates per coach to $18,000. Nobody has any money. How are we supposed to serve the community?”
Underwood said she hopes government help will help get buses back on the road without having to fork out thousands of dollars at once.
“So instead of paying it as an upfront, lump sum for 12 months, to be able to pay it, either defer it or pay it over a number of months,” she said.
The motorcoach industry falls under the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.
In an e-mail to Global News, transportation minister Rob Fleming said he recognizes the challenging situation the industry is in.
Fleming said he’ll continue to work with the sector and federal counterparts to reach solutions, and that he’ll share details in the coming weeks.
“Since the onset of the pandemic, the province and ICBC have taken steps to minimize the impacts of COVID-19 on the motorcoach industry, and worked with the federal government to establish financial relief programs. We will continue to work on supporting the sector to recover from pandemic-induced financial stress,” Fleming stated.
According to Underwood, though, the relief can’t come soon enough.
“Time is of the essence,” she said. “We are really hoping that we’ll be seeing something in the very near future.”