It’s been one year since Greyhound Canada, which provided bus services that connected a number of small towns across B.C., ceased most of its operations in the province, saying it was struggling to turn a profit.
For people who live in small communities, mostly in northern B.C., the bus services were a life line, sometimes the only way to move between towns without driving.
Over the past 12 months, a patchwork of private operators have stepped in to fill those gaps. But Dan Davies, MLA for Peace River North — a riding that spans nearly 180,000 square kilometres — said the lack of transportation is still challenging for his constituents, especially a number of small communities spotted along the Alaska Highway.
“It’s really put an impact on the folks that are running businesses up there, especially in the summer. They can’t get seasonal employees who used to rely on the bus,” Davies said.
On top of the hodge-podge of private operators, the province has provided funding for programs like B.C. Bus North and public transit along Highway 16.
Despite these services, people are feeling the loss of Greyhound buses, which ran frequently and covered seven major routes.
“People in Fort Nelson [might] have to go to Fort St. John for a medical appointment or something. Yes, there is the B.C. Bus but it only runs once a week. Well that doesn’t work for someone who’s booking a medical appointment.”
Mary Teegee, executive director of child and family services at Carrier Sekani Family Services in Prince George, said the disappearance of the service amounts to “a loss of quality of life” for many people in the north.
“You really realize how important transportation is when it’s gone,” she said.
B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said it “is aware of the challenges passengers continue to face with service connections and accessibility.”
Transportation in the north of B.C. has been an issue since long before Greyhound announced its exit.
In 2017, as part of an action plan to improve transit along Highway 16, the province provided funding for a regional transit system that runs short, inter-community runs along some parts west of Prince George— a service Teegee called “a saving grace.”
The area is known as the Highway of Tears for the number of women, mostly Indigenous, who have gone missing or be murdered on or around it.
Though popular — approximately 5,000 people had used the service as of last year — the service doesn’t fulfil the same role as Greyhound. For example, while a passenger could get a direct ride from Prince George to Prince Rupert on Greyhound, no such option exists using the B.C. Transit Service.
The service doesn’t extend to Prince Rupert, nor does it serve any part of northeast B.C., from Prince George to Dawson Creek and on to Whitehorse.
“The B.C. Transit was a good solution, but that was in combination with the Greyhound services,” said Teegee, who added that vulnerable women, and especially Indigenous women, are the most at risk when unable to access transportation. She predicted more people will hitchhike.
B.C. Bus North, a service that the B.C. government started as a pilot, offers long haul transport between communities like Prince George and Prince Rupert, and Prince George and Fort St. John for $45, once a week.
Davies said it’s not enough. “While it is a little bit of a fix, it’s putting a band-aid on a big, gaping wound,” he said.
Teegee said that while connections between smaller communities are crucial, Greyhound’s departure has also made the southern part of the province inaccessible for some people.
“[For] the elderly that are on fixed incomes that want the luxury of visiting family that are living in the Lower Mainland — there are no options if airfare is too expensive,” she said.
Federal and provincial government involved
The regulation of inter-city bus routes falls under the purview of provincial governments. But the issue has also attracted federal attention.
Transport Canada said in a statement that “given the widespread impacts of Greyhound’s 2018 service reductions, the Government of Canada decided to help the affected provinces develop a path forward.”
It said the B.C. government accepted its offer to share costs in order to fill the gaps left by Greyhound, and that “the work is ongoing.”
In B.C., the Passenger Transportation Board, an independent tribunal consisting of five part-time members appointed by provincial cabinet, is responsible for inter-city bus services. It did not respond to a request for comment.
When Greyhound left, there were eight areas of the province where government and private companies had not filled gaps in service.
The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said that a year later, two of those routes — Valemount to Kamloops and Fort Nelson to Watson Lake — remain with no inter-city bus service.
Teegee, speaking over the phone as she drove the highway from Burns Lake to Prince George, said she that a year on, it’s time for the province and communities to regroup and come up with solutions.
Citing just-elected NDP MP and former Smithers mayor Taylor Bachrach, Teegee said “transportation is actually a social determinant of health.”
“And I absolutely agree.”