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WINNIPEG/OTTAWA (Reuters) - Each day a single Greyhound bus pulls into Ethelbert, Manitoba, population 312, and stops for just five minutes before moving on -- a critical lifeline for the village's fragile economy.
But in a potentially painful blow to hundreds of small towns like Ethelbert, Greyhound now plans to pull out of Manitoba and northern Ontario next month.
If the company, a unit of Britain's FirstGroup, makes good on its plan, a huge swath of rural Canada will lose a crucial link with the rest of the world.
"It brings lots of people into the store and the town," said Robert Rewniak, 46, who owns a grocery store that also functions as Greyhound's bus stop.
"First we lost our railway, now we're going to lose all our bus service. These towns are really shrinking and nothing's helping at all."
Greyhound Canada, the country's largest intercity bus line, said on Thursday that the long-standing routes are unprofitable. It said it may end bus service across Western Canada unless it gets government help.
But Greyhound is Ethelbert's sole connection to larger communities, a critical link for elderly people traveling to medical appointments. The contract with Greyhound has also helped sustain Rewniak's Solo Store -- no small feat as villagers die or move away, he said.
Rural Canada has been in decline since the 1930s, when mechanization let farms grow and caused communities to shrink. In later decades, the pullout of railway lines and the steady reduction of grain elevators meant jobs and people moved away.
And that leaves a sparse and far-flung population that represents a big roadblock for the transportation companies.
Competition on well populated routes results in lower fares and that makes it harder for a cross-country carrier to subsidize small, money-losing routes.
It is very unlikely that another company will fill Greyhound's void, said David Jeanes, president of advocacy group Transport 2000 Canada.
"The markets for many of these small towns just aren't big enough to sustain any sort of replacement service," Jeanes said in an interview.
"On the merchandise side, there are small businesses that are absolutely dependent on it. We've seen hospitals that use the bus parcel service to deliver their blood products," he added, noting that small towns are likely to face major problems unless the federal government steps in, he said.
Richard Rounds, a retired professor of rural development from Brandon University, said the private sector may look at running scaled-down buses or passenger vans between towns, as it has in the United States.
One of Friday's passengers was railway worker Richard Belhumeur, 38, who said he rides a Greyhound bus an estimated 100 times a year from Birtle, Manitoba to the provincial capital Winnipeg to catch flights to job sites.
"I count on the bus," he said, waiting outside Winnipeg's bus terminal. "(Losing bus service) would wreak havoc."
Greyhound would even pull out of busy routes between Manitoba cities because provincial law prohibits it from dropping individual routes. For Don Wharf, that will mean spending C$120 ($110) each month to drive his 14-year-old son 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Winnipeg to Brandon to see his mother rather than buying him a C$64 bus ticket.
"That's going to make a big impact," Wharf said.
In cities like Dryden, Ontario (pop. 8,100), students and seniors will have to drive more often through the rocky Canadian Shield to reach bigger places cities 3-1/2 hours away, said Mayor Anne Krassilowsky, who expects politicians to lobby Ottawa to take action.
"It's going to have a big negative impact," she said.
Small planes and local bus services also bring people from remote aboriginal communities to the cities.
"People need this kind of transportation," said Jeremy Monias of the Garden Hill reserve in northern Manitoba.
Monias was boarding a Greyhound bus with partner Elilah Knott and her four-year-old daughter from Winnipeg to Brandon, where he will catch a connecting flight to his reserve.
"This is a good thing to fall back on if you don't have a ride -- hop on a bus."
Editing by Frank McGurty and Janet Guttsman