MICHIGAN CITY – Area residents who utilize the long-running bus shuttle service to get to the Chicago airports is going to have to find another ride, as the line will be shutting down at year's end.
The service, which has operated since about 1970 under various names, including Tri State Coach, Cardinal, Travel Ways and most recently Coach USA, will be ceasing operations in Indiana.
"It is with great sadness that Coach USA Chicago announced [Tuesday] the plan to cease operations for our Chicago Trolley and Indiana Airport Supersaver businesses," Coach USA spokesman Sean Hughes said in an email. "We will continue to operate sightseeing, charter and airport services until Dec. 31, 2019."
Chicago Trolley is a line of sightseeing buses in Chicago, which will also be ending service.
While Hughes, director of corporate affairs for Coach USA, confirmed the discontinuation of the service, he did not state a reason for the move.
But in a letter sent to employees and obtained by The News-Dispatch, financial reasons are cited.
"Both of these businesses [Chicago Trolley and Indiana Airport Supersaver] have been challenged in the last few years, and despite out best efforts to turn them around, we are now in a position that the optimal solution for Coach USA is to cease operations," CEO and president Linda Burtwistle wrote in the letter.
A longtime employee of the service, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said he believes several factors went into the decision.
"Ridership has been going down but that is only part of the problem," he said. "There were customer service issues and operating costs were rising."
He said Chicago Trolley service – the familiar buses with open-air seating on top – had been losing money for years.
The possibility of employees unionizing may have played a role, he said.
"When they closed the Gary office and moved all the operations to Chicago, it was partly an effort to keep the union out," he said, "but it's been an ongoing issue."
Coach USA discontinued Airport Supersaver service to Valparaiso in August 2018, but riders were still able to board buses to Midway and O'Hare international airports in Michigan City, Portage and Highland. The Valparaiso service lasted for less than a year before being halted.
Company officials said at that time the service was cut due to a lack of available bus drivers. Attempts by the city to keep the service with fewer stops in Valparaiso fell through.
Tri State Coach was started around 1970 by John Shoup in Indiana, later selling to Cardinal, which sold to Travel Ways, which went out of business, the employee said. Coach USA bought the service in 2002, but recently reorganized and got out of the North American business.
Since April, the service has been run by an investment company – Variant Equity Advisors subsidiary Project Kenwood Acquisition – under the Coach USA name.
About 40 employees will be affected by the closure, he estimated, including drivers, mechanics, ticket takers and customer service staff.
"This will impact a lot of people," he said.
Burtwistle's letter to employees said "every effort will be made to offer suitable alternative employment" to affected workers."
"Coach USA thanks all of our Chicago and Indiana employees for their valued contributions over many years to the operation of these businesses," Hughes added in his statement.
Hughes said in the statement that the company's Megabus operations "will continue to utilize the Chicago location as they do today." Additionally, Megabus will serve Notre Dame University to and from O’Hare and Midway airports on the weekends and major school breaks.
The longtime employee said it is unclear how that will work, as Megabus currently runs from downtown Chicago to Cleveland and points east, but does not service the Chicago airports. "Those matters have not yet been addressed."
He also said it was not clear when or how Coach USA would publicly announce the end of the service.
But it will be a sad day when the last bus runs, he said.
"I hate to see this operation that the Shoub family started go down the tubes like this," he said.