Transit in Northern B.C. could become more sparse if Greyhound Canada is allowed to pull out.
Greyhound recently filed an application with the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board to discontinue passenger service on five routes, including their daily route along Highway 16 through Smithers.
Among the factors that led to this decision, Greyhound points to urbanization, increased competition from subsidized passenger transportation and ride-sharing services, plus recent reductions in oil prices, which have prompted more people to travel by car.
“Greyhound pulling out is really disappointing news and it’s going to leave some people high and dry,” said Smithers Mayor Taylor Bachrach.
That subsidized transit was a joint initiative between all three levels of government, First Nations and BC Transit to increase safety by helping people avoid hitchhiking, and connect people to services along the Highway 16 corridor. The first route started in January, connecting Moricetown and Smithers.
The Smithers to Burns Lake, and the Burns Lake to Prince George routes are now running. Hazelton to Terrace, and the Terrace to Kitimat routes are yet to start. Prince Rupert decided to not join the initiative.
The fare for each route is $5.
“Greyhound could no longer sustain the significant losses that we were seeing along these corridors,” said Peter Hamel, regional vice-president of Western Canada, Greyhound Canada.
“We’ve seen losses in the millions of dollars.”
Hamel stated it’s the addition of the BC Transit routes that also led to the application for Greyhound to leave the north.
“They are committed to putting $6 million along that corridor, they have started a number of runs … the significant one is the one to Burns Lake to Smithers with a five dollar fare.”
Stikine MLA Doug Donaldson does not agree that B.C. Transit is one of the reason’s for Greyhound to want out of the north.
“I don’t agree with Greyhound on that part of their analysis. The service that has been improved from a provincial side of public transportation is for designated routes within small regions and communities. It’s not the long-haul service between major communities that Greyhound provides.”
While Greyhound is a business, according to Bachrach there is a social contract.
“I do believe that there is some semblance of a social contract in which the carrier agrees to take on less profitable routes in exchange for more profitable routes,” he said.
“But I certainly sympathize with their situation as a private business and if the market isn’t there, the market isn’t there.”
If Greyhound does get approval to end its bus runs in northern British Columbia, there will be a major gap for those who want to travel Highway 16 on the corridor west of Prince George.
“It’s going to leave a gap in the delivery of transportation services and it’s something that I think the provincial government needs to strongly consider when it thinks about rural development in our region,” said Bachrach.
He added if you don’t own a vehicle and need to travel a long distance across the region, Greyhound is the only option. The Province is discussing options with cabinet and local leaders.
“I’ve talked regularly with Mayor Bachrach and other mayors in my constituency and across the north to listen to what they have as options and what the major challenges they see in this service reduction, but pretty aware of what those are already. We’ll incorporate that into the talks that I’m having with the transportation minister and with MLA Rice,” said Donaldson.
Brenda Wilson is a Highway of Tears advocate. Her sister Ramona was found murdered near the Smithers airport over 20 years ago.
“For Greyhound to put northern B.C. in this predicament is pretty sad, but at the same time if they are going to pull out then British Columbia needs to look at alternatives that will work for our communities,” she said. “It appears Greyhound is looking for a scapegoat through the new transit system that’s been implemented for Highway 16.”
Wilson added BC Transit only runs through the day, so if Greyhound does leave, there will not be any public transportation after hours.
“It (BC Transit) only goes from point a to point b; it also runs on alternate days … It’s not the Greyhound where they provide service all the way from one town to the next … that could increase the amount of people that would start hitchhiking.”
“I just want people to be safe on Highway 16,” she stated.
Donaldson said fewer option will make things difficult for the people he knows who use Greyhound
“People in northern B.C. deserve transportation services just as much as anybody else in the province, and in some cases our transportation services are even more critical because there aren’t any other options,” Donaldson stated.
“What I’ve been hearing is a lack of options. This is on a regional basis for long haul routes; Greyhound is the only option that people have. I know people in my communities who use this service and the train service is not an adequate replacement.”
Businesses also rely on the bus company to bring their workers to their site.
“One local business talked about the role Greyhound plays in helping them get employees to their worksite, and certainly the loss of Greyhound will affect them in terms of their ability to operate,” said Bachrach.
Greyhound’s B.C. operations will continue to operate normally on these routes during the regulatory process review period. The company does not foresee any changes to operations in 2017.
It also does not plan to end parcel delivery.
“Subject to the outcome of the B.C. Passenger Transportation Board’s review of our application we do not anticipate these changes will come into effect until early 2018,” stated the company.
Jarrett Anderson, who sells Greyhound tickets in his Burns Lake store which includes Blu Jay Sports and Sears, said he was not surprised by this announcement.
“We knew that once they [Province] put the new transit bus in, there was probably a good chance that Greyhound was going to pull the passenger service,” he said.
“Greyhound warned local governments that this was a possibility if things went through,” he added.
However, Anderson said his business likely won’t be hugely impacted since Greyhound intends to continue with its freight services along the Highway 16 route.
Greyhound’s lack of ridership is partly to do with the bus times, according to Wilson.
“The times that they arrive to many of these towns along Highway 16, like 2 a.m. to 4 a.m. arrival in some towns with no cab service … some of these stops are by bars. That’s an issue of safety for some of the people that use the bus,” he said.
Skeena Liberal MLA Ellis Ross said he’s interested to hear how the government will respond to Greyhound’s application.
“It’s definitely a concern. All the services combined were fulfilling a need for transportation for all the rural areas here,” said Ross.
If Greyhound did pack it in, that would mean a gap in service for areas that contain the most vulnerable, he added.
“I’ve seen previous applications for other regions for the same kinds of reasons, but other regions don’t have [the same issues], especially when we’re talking about the Highway of Tears,” said Ross.
Ridership drops 51%
As for if Greyhound should be subsidized, Hamel doesn’t believe they should be and another bus company will struggle with these routes if there isn’t a subsidy.
“Whether it’s Greyhound or another entity, will find it very difficult to make these corridors work without some sort of gap funding,” he said.
Since 2010, ridership on these five routes has dropped by 51 per cent. Greyhound’s ridership province-wide has dropped by 46 per cent in the same period.
Hamel added Greyhound had two schedules along that route, decreased it to one and that one schedule is no longer turning a profit.
“Ridership on that is sometimes less than 10, and now to compete with a five dollar fare, that’s just not a market we can manage,” he said.
According to statistics provided by BC transit, the Smithers to Telkwa portion had people take 11,307 rides in 2016-17.
The Prince George to Burns Lake route has transported passengers 208 times, and the Burns Lake to Smithers route had 140 rides in the first month they’ve been in operation.
According to Greyhound, the company has taken numerous steps between 2010 and 2017 to address the issue of declining ridership, including regulatory applications, cost-saving business decisions and discussions with government to stem losses in B.C.
“We need to start at a very high level and ask ourselves what is our vision for mobility in northern B.C. and how does mobility contribute to people’s quality of life in small communities … working from there we need to put systems in place that work for citizens,” said Bachrach.