As northern B.C. leaders rally to oppose Greyhound’s requested withdrawal from the north, the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board is being tasked with weighing public need and deciding whether to allow route cancellations.
The board is accepting public comments until Oct. 13 as it determines whether Greyhound is an essential public service, and if it is financially viable in the north
Since transportation is a regulated service in B.C., Greyhound does not have a contract with the province, but it does need approval from the five-member B.C. Passenger Service Board to make changes in operations.
Greyhound requested at the end of August to cancel nine routes in B.C., including five northern B.C. routes and its route from Prince George to Prince Rupert.
The company says it has lost more than $10 million every year in B.C. on its passenger service, a number that’s been increasing with declining ridership. The losses hit their lowest point with $12.9 million in the 2017 fiscal year (ending in March). Greyhound said its parcel service has offset those losses for several years, but the total operating loss in B.C. has still been more than $4.5 million annually.
“These ongoing losses are unsustainable,” said the company in the report to the passenger board, adding that they realize the consequences will have far reaching impacts.
“We regret having to file this application, as well as the impact it could have on communities,” said Greyhound’s western Canada vice-president Peter Hamel in an email.
“But despite significant efforts over the past several years to reduce costs, as well as other measures to adapt to the market, the status quo is simply no longer sustainable.”
Greyhound reports that to break even, the passenger revenue per mile must reach $7.09, but only $4.89 on average is collected in B.C. for the last several years. On the Hwy 16 route that revenue was $2.42.
The application shows that ridership has declined in B.C. by more than 360,000 people over the last five years, and on the Hwy 16 route it has dropped more than 17,500 passengers, going from an average of 12 people per bus to 10 people since 2013.
Greyhound points to rigid provincial regulations and growing competition as the main reason for its losses.
Looking at long distance travel, flights are the biggest competitor for the busline as costs are often comparable between the two. Throughout the year, a round trip flight from Terrace to Vancouver ranges between $250 to $800, while Greyhound costs typically range between $300 and $460.
The Northern Health Connections bus may also be cutting in to Greyhound’s profits, offering residents a ride to medical appointments in Vancouver, Prince George and Prince Rupert for only $20 to $80.
A number of First Nations Bands also run shuttle services in the north for their band members, however those mostly run off Hwy 16 and do not compete with Greyhound’s routes.
Via Rail is another travel option, costing close to $160 round trip from Prince Rupert to Prince George and as low as $40 for shorter distances, but that service is mostly utilized by tourists and has a reputation for having an unreliable schedule due to the priority of freight trains.
Greyhound’s costs are similar to the train, with close to $140 round trip from Prince Rupert to Prince George, and $40-90 for shorter distances such as from Terrace to Smithers or to Prince Rupert.
But the main competitor Greyhound pin-points here is the new subsidized BC transit service which charges $2-5 per ride from Prince George to Burns Lake, Burns Lake to Smithers and Smithers to Moricetown. BC Transit also keeps a route from Smithers to Hazelton and is soon starting one from the Hazeltons to Terrace.
And of course, there’s the service between Terrace and Kitimat, and between Prince Rupert and Port Edward.
Greyhound states that on top of the competition, there are also strict provincial regulations limiting the company’s ability to adjust to market changes. In its application, Greyhound calls B.C. one of the most extensive regulatory regimes in Canada.
“In BC, the regulation is intended to act as a barrier to entry in the market… These controls and requirements have not only prevented Greyhound from adjusting its transportation offering to respond to economic market variations in a timely way, they have not provided market protection,” reads the Greyhound application.
It goes on to cite challenges with a number of specific regulations, such as “legacy labour collective bargaining agreements and inflexible work rules.”
Speaking to the losses, Greyhound’s VP Hamel said the company’s withdrawal is simply unavoidable.
“The proposed changes are unfortunate and unavoidable,” he said, adding that it is a “response to a challenging transportation environment that is characterized by diminishing ridership, escalating costs and increased competition from publicly subsidized services.
“We regret having to file this application as well as the impact it could have on communities,” he wrote.
Some northern residents who spoke with the Terrace Standard believe part of Greyhound’s losses are due to inconvenient scheduling and overnight layovers that escalate cost and complicate travel plans.
On Hwy. 16, the southbound route runs in the daytime but when travelling north, the buses leave Prince George at 9:30 p.m., and drive overnight, stopping in Smithers and other communities at midnight hours and arriving in Terrace at 6 a.m.
“The hours of service are horrible. Different hours would increase riders,” said Juliana White, who’s taken the bus in the past but hasn’t used the service for a long time.
She adds that longer distance trips involve an overnight stay in Prince George, which is inconvenient and pushes personal costs up significantly.
“People who have no money take the bus. Putting out for a hotel room hurts. A lot,” she said.
Myrna Stevens is a regular Greyhound rider from Terrace, and said she rides the bus about five times a year, travelling from Terrace to either Abbotsford or Edmonton.
Her experience has been mostly positive, but many of the terminals are not very accommodating. They lack restaurant services and adequate seating. She’s had some uncomfortable layovers in Valemount where people were seated on the floor and outside the building because the terminal was overcrowded.
But her biggest concern is safety. Patrons who cannot go elsewhere usually stay in the terminals overnight and are locked in together. There are security guards who patrol the area, but Stevens says it still doesn’t always feel safe. “When I was locked inside the terminal [in Prince George], that security guard is on the ground and he’ll come through once in a while and do his check.
“It makes you feel somewhat safe, but it can be quite intimidating, especially if, say, you’re the only female in the terminal and then there’s all men,” said Stevens, adding that her daughter was once in that situation .
But it’s not just terminals that are a safety concern, said Stevens.
Her adult daughter rides the Greyhound occasionally, and recently spent a bus ride on the phone scared because a fellow patron was yelling.
Passengers are checked for drugs and alcohol and denied passage if needed, but not every terminal does bag checks, Stevens said, and she’s had some unsettling rides with people under the influence.
“I really feel there needs to be stepped up security,” she said.
To look at Greyhound’s application or to provide input on the board’s decision, go to www.ptboard.bc.ca/bus.htm.