Greyhound bus service to nearly all destinations in western Canada will stop at the end of October, leaving residents in many communities stranded. (Black Press file)

Canada’s hinterland is facing a transportation crisis

Greyhound’s abandonment of routes in western Canada is just the latest in a long pattern

Greyhound Canada’s wish to abandon routes in northern B.C. and the Yukon was a fait accompli for months, but at the very least we saw it coming.

However, the storied bus line’s decision to abruptly amputate virtually its entire western Canadian network was a far ruder awakening to the dire transportation crisis facing rural and northern communities.

Nearly two million people will lose service. A single route on the well-trod Vancouver-Seattle corridor is all that will remain west of Sudbury.

This has been brewing for a while.

The company, per the Canadian Press, reports ridership has declined 41 per cent since 2010. Greyhound is a subsidiary of Scotland’s FirstGroup plc, which reported nearly C$10 billion in revenues in 2017 and boasts some 100,000 employees worldwide.

Vast as the Canadian West and North may be, it’s still just a blip on FirstGroup’s map.

For countless small and remote communities Greyhound is the only reasonable way in or out that doesn’t require ownership or access to a car.

But even more isolation out here in the sticks is, in a very real way, potentially fatal. Not just for the communities themselves, but for actual people. You may be aware, for example, that it is often very cold here. You may also know that there are a great many poor and vulnerable people, many of whom are Indigenous, who need to travel safely and don’t have easy access to a car.

The Native Women’s Association of Canada this week said it was “deeply concerned” about the end of Greyhound service in the Northwest.

“The lack of safe transportation in and out of communities creates more vulnerability for Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people by encouraging travellers to resort to less safe means of transportation such as hitch hiking or walking unsafe highways,” the organization said in a news release. The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls has raised similar concerns.

Despite the fact that reducing car dependence should be a policy imperative for both environmental and economic reasons, Canada has not taken its national transportation network very seriously for quite some time.

We’ve allowed a once world-beating rail network to wither and crumble. Witness the Hudson Bay railway, which has been washed out in sections for more than a year as First Nations and the federal government try to convince its owner, Denver-based OmniTrax, to sell. Via Rail service to Churchill, Man., is suspended indefinitely.

Elsewhere, Via service between Halifax and Montreal was cut to three days a week from six by the Harper government and has had to cope with numerous delays thanks to decaying track in New Brunswick.

There’s no longer passenger rail service on Vancouver Island because those tracks are falling apart.

Acadian Lines, a mini-Greyhound bus line in the Maritimes, collapsed in 2012 and has only partially been replaced by Maritime Bus, which travels to half as many communities.

Via is pretty good if you’re travelling in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor, but it is an ox-drawn cart compared even to Amtrak in the States, to say nothing of the modern high-speed systems in Europe and Asia (where, admittedly, populations are greater and distances much shorter).

What are the solutions to this problem? None are simple. But there are models to build on.

In 2004, a consortium of Innu and Naskapi nations in northern Quebec and Labrador started Tshiuetin Rail Transportation, which runs freight and passenger service between Schefferville and Sept-Iles, Quebec.

In 2006, three First Nations in northern Manitoba, with the help of the federal and provincial governments, formed the Keewatin Railway Company and took over 185 km of former OmniTrax line. KRC now offers passenger and freight service between The Pas and Pukatawagan, population 2,700.

The Liard First Nation stepped into the breach left when Greyhound ended its Yukon route and is offering shuttle service between Whitehorse and Watson Lake and the B.C. government has launched bus service along the Highway of Tears.

In short, Indigenous communities are taking transportation matters into their own hands where they have been deemed expendable by distant bean-counters. Each of these are worthwhile projects and other private sector operators are reportedly planning to launch service on some other Greyhound routes.

But this is all still a long way off from replacing a comprehensive nationwide network. There’s likely little interest on the part of the federal government for launching a national bus carrier (this is compounded by the fact that regulating coach service falls to the provinces).

For its part, the Winnipeg Free Press reports the Manitoba government is trying to rally the other western provinces to get Greyhound to put off its shutdown from Oct. 31 until Dec. 31, to help give other operators time to set up shop and maintain uninterrupted service.

Ottawa also could opt to restore Via Rail service to some of the western routes it abandoned during waves of cuts in the 1980s and 90s, though that would likely cost billions and take years to set up.

So it seems likely that the days of a nationwide bus system are gone, at least for the foreseeable future.

If you have never ventured far from the commutershed of a major Canadian city, you could be forgiven for not truly grasping the scope of this problem. Toronto, for example, has its own serious transportation problems — in short, there’s nowhere near enough. They are very real and require billions of dollars of work.

But when you live somewhere with expressways, airports, commuter rail, subways, LRT, express buses, bus rapid transit, Uber, Lyft, plentiful taxis, carshare services, airport shuttles, trains to the airport, passenger ferries, and separated bike lanes, it’s easy to not care about the lack of transportation options in, say, Watson Lake.

This is the reality of a rapidly urbanizing Canada. The hinterland lacks the political clout to convince the rest of the country that mobility is just as important here as it is in the big city.

As long as that’s the case, too many Canadians who live in rural and remote communities will be stuck at the side of the road, thumbs extended, waiting desperately for a ride.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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