Column: A service we can’t afford to lose

When Greyhound announced last week that it will end service in Western Canada, effective Oct. 31, the news, while disappointing, probably shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to any of us.

Earlier this year, the company abandoned its routes in northern B.C., saying it simply didn’t make financial sense for them to continue to carry a few passengers along the vast, remote stretches of highway.

Business is business, and if it costs more money to offer a service than that service brings in, there’s really no sense in continuing to throw good money after bad.

That’s the government’s job.

Luckily, before the last of the iconic dog-emblazoned coaches had pulled out of the north, the province announced it would step in with what it described as interim service. BC Bus North has since been offering regular round-trip service to communities as far north as Fort Nelson and west along Highway 16 to Prince Rupert.

On July 9, citing declining ridership among other factors, Greyhound announced it was pulling out of Western Canada entirely. It’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem.

Although fewer people ride the bus regularly these days, those who do depend on it to get them to appointments in the city, to job sites, to school or to see friends and family. Many younger riders who use the bus do so because it’s safer than hitchhiking.

For decades, the bus has helped maintain family and social connections among people who either can’t or don’t feel comfortable driving long distances through B.C.’s mountainous terrain, especially in the winter.

For seniors, the disabled or people can’t — or simply don’t drive — it’s a lifeline.

In fact, advocates for the vulnerable have characterized bus service as an actual matter of life and death for some.

That means bus service is an essential service, even if it is to a dwindling segment of the population.

The province was quick to step in and do the right thing when service was discontinued in the north, but this departure will create a far bigger gap to fill.

And since it will cross provincial boundaries, it won’t be up to just our B.C. government to find a solution.

It’s early days, but so far the effort has consisted of a promise to talk to the feds and the expressed hope that private carriers will step in and pick up the routes.

If the runs aren’t financially viable for a company the size of Greyhound, it remains to be seen whether smaller operators could make a go of them. Or perhaps it would be easier to operate on a smaller scale.

Either way, passengers travelling long distances will depend on local carriers to co-ordinate schedules and spare them the added costs of overnight accommodation or concerns about being stranded by a gap in service.

No doubt there will have to be some government subsidies involved at all levels to make this work, and that’s fine. We can’t afford to let this be the end of the road for bus service in B.C.

If it comes to it, I have no problem with a portion of my taxes going to help ensure some of the most vulnerable members of our society can access such a vital service.

We’re Canadians, it’s what we do.

So if it does turn out to be the case, I’d be surprised if others aren’t quick to get on board, too.

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