VANCOUVER – Via Rail has joined discussions with the British Columbia government, First Nations and social service agencies to offer rock-bottom fares to “vulnerable” people who can’t afford to travel along the so-called Highway of Tears.
The railway is collaborating with mayors and multiple groups to determine the criteria for $5 fares along a northern B.C. corridor where 18 girls and women have been murdered or have disappeared since the 1970s.
In June, following a decade of pleas from women’s groups and First Nations, B.C. Transportation Minister Todd Stone announced that bus service would begin in the area by the end of the year.
Chief Joseph Bevan of the Kitselas First Nation near Terrace said he’s part of an advisory group concerned about the safety of people along the 750-kilometre route and that it came together for regular meetings last November after months of discussions.
He said it’s common for people to take a risk and hitchhike in the notorious area because they’re too poor to take the train or a Greyhound bus.
“It’s non-aboriginals as well. It’s everyone who is on social assistance, people with disabilities, who are having trouble moving around. It makes them vulnerable when they’re jumping into a vehicle with somebody else.”
Bevan said that at a meeting in March, a Via Rail official made the proposal to offer a $5 fare along the highway that stretches between Prince Rupert and Prince George.
Michael Woelcke, the railway’s general manager for remote services, said in minutes of the meeting held in Prince George on March 30 that the company would offer the low fare “regardless of origin or destination along the route.”
He said Via Rail provides train service three times a week between Prince Rupert and Prince George, and it’s open to suggestions on determining eligibility for the $5 fare that would be available to “at risk” and “vulnerable” people including youth and “elders.”
“We need to identify who would qualify for this program, as we cannot provide everyone with these reduced fares,” he said in the minutes.
Woelcke said a minimum $75 one-way fare would be reduced by a third for aboriginal passengers.
Woelcke was not available for comment, and the company said an official would provide details if and when an arrangement is worked out with the province.
Via Rail said in an emailed statement that a discounted fare for “vulnerable” people is one of the options being studied and that discussions with the Transportation Ministry and the advisory group are ongoing.
The ministry said interconnectivity of services along Highway 16 has been part of discussions and that Via Rail was included to determine what role it could play to increase transportation options.
“We continue to engage with Via Rail on the idea of offering a discounted train fare to vulnerable First Nations people,” the ministry said.
The group is slated to meet again next month.
As for the promised new bus service between Prince George and Prince Rupert, the ministry said the first of more than 20 public information sessions hosted by BC Transit will start Saturday.
BC Transit said Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, which is part of the advisory group, has provided $1 million in funding for features including enhanced bus stop shelters and CCTV cameras to ensure passengers’ safety along the corridor.
The route provides the main transportation link to and from remote First Nations villages located off the main highway.
Most of the cases of murdered and missing women remain unsolved, but police have said it’s believed that more than one killer is involved.
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Camille Bains, The Canadian Press