In the News April 19
Human-Centred Public Services Are Urgently Needed
BC Needs a Public Intercity Transportation Service
The following article was published in “Policy Note,” the publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s BC office. The publication can be found here.
Northern British Columbia is a vast, rugged, mostly mountainous area roughly the size of France. In winter, its two-lane public highways often get hit with snow and ice storms, making travel hazardous and sometimes impossible for the 280,000 or so people who live and work in the region.
But these are not the only storms to hit the North. Back in the year 2000, northern BC had three intercity transportation options: the public BC Rail passenger service between North Vancouver and Prince George; the private Greyhound bus line serving many communities in the north; and the public VIA Rail passenger service between Jasper and Prince Rupert.
There were serious problems with these services, the inadequacies being a major factor in the tragedy of the missing and murdered women along Highway 16, most of whom were Indigenous, and who, in the absence of adequate public transportation, often hitchhike.
Despite the inadequacies, many people relied on the existing transportation, whether they were elderly, people with disabilities or unable to drive, students returning home, people traveling to work in other communities, patients going to medical appointments, or those visiting family and friends.
However, in 2002, the provincial government, under Premier Gordon Campbell, cancelled the BC Rail passenger service. This was followed by the privatization of the BC Rail freight operations in 2004, handing them over to CN Rail (which fostered a huge political corruption scandal).
More recently, in May 2018, Greyhound shut down all of its bus service in BC, stranding many people across the province. This was followed in 2021 with the corporation ending all of its bus service across Canada.
To compound these problems, VIA Rail recently reduced its three-times-a-week schedule between Jasper and Prince Rupert to just once a week. In addition, while VIA Rail used to have priority over the privately owned CN Rail freight operations, the situation has been reversed meaning that CN Rail freight trains come first in terms of right-of-way and thus the weekly VIA Rail service has a much harder time maintaining a reliable and on-time schedule.
These multiple cancellations, cutbacks and privatizations, especially of bus service, have created a crisis in public transportation for the region and the province, alarming many people in the affected communities.
For a number of years, Indigenous people, working with others, played a leading role in pushing various levels of government to address these serious transportation problems as specified in the 2006 Highway of Tears Recommendations Report. After 10 years of hard work, struggle and consultations, they achieved an important success in having the provincial government launch the Community Transportation Grant Program in 2017 which provided $2.6 million to 11 community transportation services for shuttle busing in rural and remote communities to supplement existing long-haul transportation services. This funding has recently been expanded with $2.8 million in new money from the federal-provincial Safe Restart program to be shared by 18 communities and organizations in the north (the granting body is the non-profit organization Northern Development Initiative Trust). While these additional new grants will no doubt be welcomed in previously unserved communities, it also raises questions about secure long term funding from the government.
Regarding long haul routes, the provincial government initiated BC Bus North in 2018 to replace the northern routes abandoned by Greyhound and, through the provincial Crown corporation BC Transit, hired the private company Diversified Transportation to provide the service. This was in addition to the existing Northern Health Connections coach service which was set up in 2006 for people traveling to and from medical appointments in the region and other parts of the province.
BC Transit is responsible for most of the different municipal transit systems in the province where it has partnerships with 59 local governments (in which local bus operations are contracted out to transit operating companies). But other than BC Bus North, intercity or inter-regional bus service continues to be very limited or non-existent.
In November 2021, BC’s Auditor General published an audit report titled Ensuring long-distance ground transportation in northern BC which focused on the BC Bus North intercity operations. It noted that “northern residents often travel long distances between communities for work, health, education and connecting with families and friends,” and that when Greyhound withdrew service in 2018, this action disproportionately affected “people with low incomes, those living in rural, remote and Indigenous communities, or people with disabilities.”
Although the BC Bus North service was created to address the problem and was an improvement over the previous situation, the Auditor General found several deficiencies. When operating, Greyhound had 62 stops within 10 km of a northern community and provided service on nine routes. But the new BC Bus North service covers only 35 of those stops on four routes. In addition, Greyhound trips were mostly daily but BC Bus North is now running just once or twice a week.
The decision not to replace routes that would take travelers from the north into other regions of the province accounted for many of the lost stops. According to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, other stops were not replaced because they “were unsafe” and in the case of one route, “alternative services were available.” The Ministry also noted that the passenger fares charged by BC Bus North are about 50 per cent less than Greyhound fares.
More broadly, the Auditor General expressed concern that “although the ministry is developing a plan for long-distance ground transportation across the province, it is not yet clear how this planning work will lead to a sustainable solution for northern BC specifically.”
According to the audit, the provincial government “expected to gather feedback from northern communities as part of its planning but the pandemic (starting in March 2020) prevented travel and in-person meetings.” Since then, the Transportation Ministry has conducted some “limited engagement” but plans to do more in 2022.
In what seems to be an implicit criticism of the process, the Auditor General recommends that the province “ensure broad engagement with northern communities as part of planning for sustainable ground transportation solutions.” The Auditor General also flagged the failure to collect monthly passenger reports, as planned, which could help inform long-term service design.
Another issue is what is called the “patchwork” problem. The group “Let’s Ride! Make Transit BC Wide” – which is backed by community groups, Indigenous leaders, student societies, climate justice organizations and others – has called for a publicly owned and “unified inter-community network” that guarantees all British Columbians access to the rest of the province. This is needed rather than simply patching up the fragmented mix of private, contracted out, or community-based transportation providers that exist across the province. As the group notes, the situation has resulted in a combination of “good service, poor service and no service at all, depending on where you live.”
Indeed, a similar problem exists with highway maintenance in the province which is divided into 28 separate contracts with private companies and has given rise to complaints about lack of coordination, poor service and unsafe conditions. Such management arrangements flow out of neo-liberal policies which claim that huge swaths of public services should be handed over to the profit-seeking private sector or that these services should either be eliminated or, at best, reduced to piecemeal form with funds channeled to benefit other corporate interests.
Another concerning example is that the federal government appears to be considering partial privatization of a key VIA Rail corridor in eastern Canada. In all of these cases, private interest trumps public interest. In that regard, Unifor, the union which has over 2,000 workers employed by VIA Rail, has launched a national campaign to stop privatization of the passenger service.
For its part, the Let’s Ride! community group recently launched a national petition calling for the formation of a unified public transportation authority that links communities from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans. The petition gathered almost 1300 signatures and was presented to the House of Commons on March 28 by MP Taylor Bachrach.
One thing is clear from the situation: safe, affordable and accessible public transportation must be considered a right for all British Columbians, as well as all Canadians.
Workers’ Forum, posted April 19, 2022.