The Red Arrow delivers 30 years of consummate service
The pride of Pacific Western celebrates its product, its people and its perseverance
By David Hubbard
With departures and arrivals as punctual as clockwork the Red Arrow is the lifeline travelers rely on to carry them up and down the Canadian province of Alberta. Commuters of every ilk have integrated the luxury motorcoach service into their regional travel to and from Calgary, Red Deer, Edmonton and Fort McMurray. The bonus is a ride more comfortable and convenient than any transportation service they have ever experienced. Passengers say they view the Red Arrow, a division of the Pacific Western Transportation group of companies, as their perfect solution — just as its founder and chairman Robert B. Colborne originally envisioned.
Ticket offices and curbside coach service from convenient locations connected with popular hotels in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Fort McMurray, have eliminated many of the hassles associated with commuting between cities. Today annual average ridership ticks at around 200,000 satisfied customers.
Now one of the largest privately owned and operated transportation networks in North America, Pacific Western celebrates 50 years this month, while the Red Arrow marks its 30th anniversary.
“As long as I have been in this business, I always believed there was a better way to package and deliver motorcoach service,” says Colborne. “When we started this company I said if we can get a person to ride the Red Arrow one time we will have a customer for a long time to come.”
Today, sixteen distinctive and smartly appointed Prevost H3-45s with plush leather reclining seats configured in double and single rows with footrests and plenty of legroom stand as the Red Arrow hallmark. Further amenities include wireless Internet with laptop plug-ins, five-channel satellite radio, and onboard movies on flat screen monitors, as well as a galley with complimentary snacks and beverages.
Each coach receives a wash before each departure, and another trip through wash bay before the return trip — no exceptions.
Sixteen full-time drivers and up to 30 part-time drivers man the Red Arrow coaches.
Their coveted positions require not only the necessary high level driving skills and exceptional safety record, but a highly professional demeanor and a passion for customer service.
Drivers often matriculate to Red Arrow from other Pacific Western divisions, and through the recent establishment of the company’s own driver training center.
While five separate labor unions are in play throughout the numerous Pacific Western divisions, the Red Arrow drivers manage labor relations through their own association that includes a collective bargaining clause. Graham Hyde, a Red Arrow driver since day one, and veteran and association president Butch Wilson, say their group is able to resolve any issue through open and honest discussion without fear of retribution.
“With this association we just sit down and negotiate with our own people, no third party interfering with company objectives,” says Michael Colborne. “It speaks to how we run our business.”
A look back on 30 years
Claiming a lasting fascination with the bus business, Colborne began by selling school buses. In 1959 he purchased 18 school buses from one of his customers who was having financial difficulty and took over the routes, which spawned Pacific Western Transportation. As business developed Colborne graduated to motorcoaches and the charter tour business.
Along the way, Colborne’s sons Michael and Rick joined in the family business and began working through the ranks, beginning in the wash bays and maintenance pits and eventually taking up their executive positions.
At some point Michael left to attend college with aspirations of working in the oil industry, and the bus bug bit young Rick.
By 1979 Rick was fully entrenched in the business and ready to tackle his father’s vision for the Red Arrow.
“This was something very different and I was anxious to see if I could get this new service up and running,” says Rick, who now serves as vice president, Pacific Western Diversified division. “Dad’s original idea was to transport business people in luxury motorcoaches between Edmonton and Calgary Monday through Friday. We were working off assurances from business people that this was a good idea and they would ride the Red Arrow.”
The Red Arrow coaches have always featured the two-and-one luxury seating for no more than 36 passengers, which Colborne originally configured for the first Prevost La Mirages.
“It was a radical idea back then,” he says. “Several manufacturers wanted nothing to do with it. When I took it up with Prevost, the engineers could see exactly where I was headed and helped me come up with the finished product.”
Despite all good intentions the Red Arrow did not launch to thunderous applause. In the softest of openings, only one passenger — the trainer seated behind the driver — rode the first coach that rolled out of Calgary in July 1979.
“The next day two more rode along,” says Rick. “We think they were Greyhound employees checking out the competition.”
Ridership did not increase dramatically after that, but the Colbornes and the Red Arrow employees believed in their product and customer service and essentially refused to give up on the concept. To supplement the lower than expected ridership numbers, the company handled the intercity transport of small packages, and only recently dropped this service.
Though the rougher times stretched nearly 15 years, internal strength from the diverse group of Pacific Western companies enabled Red Arrow to tuck in many of its operating expenses with the other divisions. For example, the Diversified team was able to include maintenance on the Red Arrow coaches as part of its workload, and many administrative functions could piggyback and overlap with other Pacific Western companies.
A turning point came in the late 1990s as airlines were facing deregulation with a number of regional carriers either folding or consolidating. Red Arrow got an unexpected boost when the City of Edmonton also elected to close its convenient downtown airport in favor of a new facility located 45 minutes out of town. Almost overnight — finally — the Red Arrow was looking much more inviting to local travelers.
Meantime, Michael returned from school and took his place in the company, stepping up as president and chief operating officer in 1994. The Red Arrow had grown steadily under Rick’s management. The schedules extended to include weekend travelers and students, which meant adding more coaches to the fleet.
In 1996 Pacific Western replaced 75 percent of the Red Arrow fleet with new Prevost H3-45s. Thoughts then turned to revamping the management of the service.
“Up to this point we did not have professional management and with other involvements in other Pacific Western companies Rick’s effort could only be part-time,” says Michael. “As we envisioned the business, we could not build it part time. To gain ground we needed we to hire professional executive-level employees dedicated to the Red Arrow operation.”
Joel Trudell has served Red Arrow as general manager for five years. He arrived at the position through the Pacific Western senior management training program in the Toronto division following his college graduation.
Trudell has been instrumental in the many recent technological upgrades in the areas of reservations, ticketing and tracking. Customers can now book online and check the location of the coaches through GPS tracking on the Internet as well as flat screen monitors in each Red Arrow terminal, and receive e-mail notifications and announcements.
If Red Arrow has exceeded the expectations of its customers in its 30 years, the same holds for its employees. Conversations with drivers, maintenance technicians, ticket agents and customer service representatives, from the veterans to the newly hired, reflect a mutual respect by and for their company. While the Red Arrow team brings extraordinary skills and experience to their positions, they speak of getting a little more out of their job than expected.
“Our fleet of coaches may be the trademark,” says Michael Colborne. “But the commitment and professional talents of our people are what really define the Red Arrow brand.” BR