The Public Sector Should Step in as Greyhound Steps Out

Services such as Greyhound are economically infeasible, but still necessary

Farewell Greyhound buses. (flickr/Isriya Paireepairit)

The recent announcement that Greyhound is discontinuing almost all bus routes in Western Canada has left people who don’t have access to a car with no way of reaching the rural communities in B.C.’s interior.

Thankfully, there are currently plans for BC Bus North to make up for some of the lost network, and there’s some hope that the NDP government will help further. Nevertheless, thousands of commuters across the province have been left with uncertain futures.

One doesn’t even need to look at a balance sheet to know that few entrepreneurs would be interested in entering the rural transit game. While buses are conventionally a cheap form of long-distance transit, they are not cheap to run. Someone needs to pay for the six-figure bus, maintain it, administrate it, fill it with gas, and pay hourly for a unionized worker to drive it.

Despite this, taking the bus is still cheaper than flying. While you would barely need to pay a pilot for more than a few hours of work, airport privatization and taxes mean that a flight from Vancouver to Prince Rupert could cost four times more than buying a bus ticket.

Buses, like all other forms of mass transit, have a high point for breaking even. Greyhound needs to make sure that they get filled to reach that point, and in rural areas, very few of them do. Citizens living in the interior are more likely to own cars, as local transit doesn’t exist in their communities, and are therefore more likely to simply drive themselves to another town if they need to.

Still, rural services are a necessity outside of the Lower Mainland. Not all communities will have their own hospital, and not everybody will own their own vehicle.

A more economic reason why these communities need to be served is due to their proximity to resources. Canada is a resource-based economy, and these rural areas are often where the resources are found.

It’s times like these when we might want to compare our situation to that in Europe or Japan, where a high value is put on regional transit, even to small communities.

Granted, there are massive differences in population densities, tax rates, and cultural values between here and there. Many remember the local train line in a remote part of Northern Japan that kept its service running for a single rider going to school and back, even though it made no financial sense to do so. Of course, Japan is a country that puts an impressive priority on education and is culturally highly collectivist in general. It’s also important to note that the company operating the rail line, Japan Rail, is nationalized.

In Europe, settlements spread out across vast areas were there centuries before trains were invented. If you were to visit Germany, you would find that the train might stop several times between Frankfurt and Hamburg in small or even rural communities.

In North America, train and mass transit service generally gets worse the further and further west you go. It makes no sense to have a rail line linking Vancouver to Quesnel, but the public sector should step in with a bus service for those who still need to make that trip.

The public sector needs to step in when there’s a need for an essential service that is either unprofitable or so universally required that there shouldn’t be a profit motive, such as healthcare. I believe that transportation between B.C. communities is such an essential service.

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