North BC bus service builds success in Greyhound wake

Written By Rob Shaw

“I think we are moving down the road to something cool here.” 

––Joel McKay

Northern B.C.’s patchwork system of community shuttles and long-haul bus service will continue until 2027, under new funding unveiled by the provincial government this week.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming announced $5 million for the Northern Development Initiative Trust to continue 18 northern community shuttle routes connecting rural residents to regional centres, as well as the long-haul BC Bus North service that runs between Prince Rupert and Prince George, extending east to Valemount and north through Dawson Creek to Fort Nelson.

When that funding runs out, B.C. will have spent a full decade trying to grapple with the loss of bus company Greyhound, which used to service rural communities of the north before the NDP government refused to provide subsidies for money-losing routes. In 2018, the company pulled out of the province, and three years later, the country.

The decision was a disaster for inter-city bus service across the province. But in the north, where local officials have taken the lead in slowly stitching together a workable transportation network, the end result 10 years later may actually be better, and something other regions of the province could emulate.

“How valuable is it to have … a safe, reliable [service] … to get around northern BC?”

Joel McKay

“It’s been really difficult since Greyhound pulled out in 2018 in B.C., but where we are today in 2023 is a good place,” Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said in an interview.

“Other provinces have not responded or replaced that lost service at all, and B.C. is providing right now – through these grants we have – an emerging model [which] I think by 2027 will have a degree of maturity and experience behind it that will make it a permanent, regularly-funded operation that is part of rural and remote communities in B.C. and vital inter-community connections between major city hubs.”

Fleming might be right. 

Building it back better

By 2027, BC will have spent almost $20 million on northern transportation — first to launch BC Bus North in 2019, then to kickstart the annual grant program for community shuttles in 2021, and now to create an online portal that will let users plan and book trips between the two.

It’s a deconstructed and reassembled version of what Greyhound left behind, but in many cases with more hours, frequent stops, local players and responsive service.

“Would you have been better to just subsidize Greyhound rather than Greyhound leave and be left with this? No one knows the answer to that, is the short answer,” said Joey McKay, CEO of the Northern Development Initiative Trust (NDIT), the non-profit agency that has taken the government funds and used them to craft the system of local bus operators.

“The silver lining in the reality we are living in, is at least now we actually have a really good understanding of what’s needed out there in the communities.

“In one way we are a long way from an ideal state for northern BC, but man we’ve made a lot of progress and the region is actually in a leadership position now in running this. And the province has enabled that.”

Other regions to replicate northern success

Having the government fork over the cash and then step out of the way while an on-the-ground non-profit like NDIT enables local businesses and First Nations has proven a successful model. The province is looking to emulate that by offering $2.5 million to the equivalent economic development agencies on Vancouver Island and in the interior to do their own transportation needs analysis, with the goal of adapting the northern system to their communities.

The Island’s lack of inter-city bus service made the region an international laughing stock after it was featured recently on a BBC travel contest show, where contestants were flabbergasted at their inability to get any transportation for days from the northern part of the Island down to the capital.

The Island’s lack of inter-city bus service made the region an international laughing stock.

In the north, mobilizing community shuttles and BC Bus North has caused the private sector to step up and subsidize some of the routes, in recognition that there are profits to be made overall if the inter-connected system remains intact.

For example, it costs $1.8 million annually to run BC Bus North, but the province only provides $1.25 million with northern bus charter company Diversified Transportation now pitching in the rest, said McKay.

“They had enough revenue in certain routes to put their own money in, and saw the opportunity over time that there is money to be made over a couple of the routes,” he said.

BC Bus North routes. [Map BC Bus North]

NDIT was also able to realign the shuttle and bus schedules to match some private charter routes, so that instead of dropping people off at the side of the road at an odd hour like under Greyhound, there is now a quick and easy transfer. 

In one case, BC Bus North now arrives in Dawson Creek at the same time as a private charter from Cold Shot Bus to Grand Prairie, reducing what had previously been a wait of more than a day for the transfer.

Bus service may never be profitable in all communities

The all-in cost to provincial taxpayers every year to run the northern bus operations, including shuttles, is around $2.25 million a year.

“That’s $2.25 million a year for effectively, between BC Bus North and the 19 services throughout serving more than 40 communities, Indigenous and non, is pretty affordable when you look at it in the grand scheme of things,” said McKay. 

It’s especially true when some of those routes are flagged for safety, having been the sites of tragedies for Indigenous women, like Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Prince George, known as the Highway of Tears.

“$2.25 million a year … is pretty affordable when you look at it in the grand scheme of things.”

Joel McKay

NDIT doesn’t want to run the bus service forever, and McKay. The goal after 2027 is to hand over a transit system covering an area the size of France that is robust, interconnected and stable, he said.

“Do we foresee a future where you can be running all of these services financially sustainably without government support? Not all of them,” said McKay. 

“Some of the routes will be profitable. Some just are not. The question becomes how valuable is it to have a service that provides a safe, reliable ability for the travelling public to get around northern BC? That ultimately is a question for ministry leadership to determine.”

‘It’s not perfection, but it’s a lot of progress’

Will the province continue to fund at least $2.25 million annually indefinitely, in whatever operational form northern transit takes next?

“I think that’s quite likely,” said Fleming. “We’re more than willing to venture with the subsidies we provide now.”

“It’s been really difficult since Greyhound pulled out … but where we are today in 2023 is a good place.”

Rob Fleming

If everything goes well, there could even be a future in which the online booking portal for the north integrates intracity bus service by BC Transit, as well as sailings operated by BC Ferries, said McKay. That would give the north an all-in-one platform found nowhere else in the province, even in the Lower Mainland.

“It’s not perfection,  but it’s a lot of progress,” said McKay. “And I think we are moving down the road to something cool here. 

“From what i can gather, northern BC might actually be in somewhat of a leadership position nationally now.”

Out of the ashes of Greyhound in rural B.C. rises something better. It just took a long time, and a lot of money, to get there.