Bus service to small towns could change drastically in the near future if a recent application by Greyhound is approved.
Greyhound Canada is losing millions on its B.C. operations because of rigid provincial rules that require minimum bus trips on inter-city routes regardless of passenger demand.
But this could lead to large changes for those who rely on bus transportation.
Minimum daily service levels are set by the provincially appointed Passenger Transportation Board and the current minimum set for Prince George to Fort St. James is six trips each way per week.
The company has applied to reduce the service to a minimum of one trip per week and said the average number of passengers per trip is less than five on a 54-passenger coach.
“A private company that receives absolutely no subsidy from any government sector must stand on its own, it must be viable,” said Stephen Hutchings, Director of Operations for Western Canada with Greyhound Canada.
For Vancouver to Kamloops, and on the Trans Canada Highway at Golden, for example, Greyhound is required to run four buses each way, seven days a week.
Greyhound could increase service if demand increased, but a reduction in minimums would allow the company to continue to operate their service.
“Should demand pick up we would like nothing more than to add service because it preserves service, if the demand is there,” said Hutchings. “I think it’s important to state that Greyhound’s application does preserve service to every community in the province- with the one exception of Mount Washington ski resort on Vancouver Island, but long haul service would still provide service to those points.
Stuart Kendrick, senior vice president of Greyhound Canada. said the company lost $14 million on its B.C. operations in 2011, and previous years have seen similar losses.
He has written to Transportation Minister Mary Polak asking the B.C. government to follow the lead of other provinces and deregulate bus service so it can be kept alive.
Polak said she is aware that B.C. service is at risk, and ministry staff are working on options.
“It’s obvious from what they’re saying that they need to make adjustments, or they’re going to have to pull out of the whole thing,” Polak said.
While Hutchings said smaller coaches were looked at, it is not an option the company is considering at this time.
“From Greyhound’s standpoint, our business model is full-sized highway coaches,” he said.
While the application for the change was just filed and the public comment period has just begun, he expects to start hearing from communities, and he is aware there may be concerns over the potential for increased hitchhiking along the HIghway of Tears and throughout the interior, which may be a concern to some.
“As far as the Highway of Tears, we’re certainly extremely sensitive to that and very aware of what the history is on that highway and we’ve also been following very closely that the mayors within the communities along that highway have put a proposal forward for a transit-style shuttle bus to offer more frequency along the corridor,” he said.
In considering the application, the Passenger Transportation Board uses a three-part test, looking at public need for the service provided, if the applicant is proper and capable of providing the service it proposes and if approving the application would promote sound economic conditions in the passenger transportation business in the province.
The process for approval will involve a period for public comment and then the board can decide based on the information it receives to ask further questions or hold public meetings or simply make a decision.
Public comments can be made until Wednesday, Oct. 17, quoting application #305-12/Route K to:
BC Transportation Board
Box 9850 Stn. Prov. Govt.
Victoria, BC V8W 9T5
By fax: 250-953-3788
By email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The board recently reviewed their process and aims to make decisions within 30-60 days after the application is filed, but would take longer if it decides to hold public hearings.
Manitoba changed its regulations in July to allow flexible schedules. Alberta deregulated inter-city bus routes in 2011, allowing bus companies to enter or exit a route with 30 days’ notice. Some routes have been abandoned as a result, as urbanization and changing travel habits have led to declines in rural ridership.
In New Brunswick, rigid rules prompted the only inter-city bus line to shut down entirely.
Kendrick said the B.C. rules are not only inflexible, but the application process takes too long. The company is required to advertise any route change in affected communities, and may need to hold public meetings as well.
Polak said the government may be able to change regulations rather than amend legislation, which would have to wait until the B.C. legislature resumes in January.
Story by Tom Fletcher and Ruth Lloyd