BC Transit has unveiled new buses designed to carry more passengers between Prince George and Smithers, in a move that many have hailed as a step toward greater safety along Hwy16 also knows as the Highway of Tears.
Starting May 7, the larger buses will be plying the 161 route from Prince George and Burns Lake, and the 162 route from Burns Lake to Smithers.
But as Greyhound prepares to withdraw service from the region, questions remain about whether the larger buses will be enough.
“A long time coming”
The new buses seat up to 30 passengers, compared to the current fleet of 20-seater buses. They also boast four spaces for wheelchairs, compared to two on the current buses. When all four wheelchair spaces are in use, the new buses accommodate 20 seated passengers.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Richard Dominic, a local resident and bus rider who attended the official launch in Burns Lake, which involved speeches by dignitaries and a test ride in the ElDorado International 320 Aerolite bus.
Dominic said that people hitchhike less often because of the service, which costs $5 per trip, but that buses fill up fast.
He said the new buses were a tribute to campaigning by women like Brenda and Matilda Wilson — sister and mother, respectively, of Ramona Wilson, who was 16 years old when she disappeared along Highway 16 in 1994. Her remains were found the following year, but the case remains unsolved.
Cheslatta Carrier Nation band councillor Ted Jack, speaking to the crowd that was assembled near the bus stop at Government and Gilgan, said he still sees women hitchhiking. “It just breaks my heart to see that,” he said. “If we save one woman, we’ve done our job.”
The 161 bus carried more than 2,500 passengers between June 2017 and February 2019, while the 162 route saw 1,064 boardings. And demand for the service is growing, according to BC Transit.
High demand has even led to people reportedly being turned away from full buses in some cases.
That demand could increase as Greyhound prepares to end most of its northern B.C. operations on June 1, a change it attributed to competition from ride-sharing services and BC Transit.
Chris Fudge, the senior regional BC Transit manager for northern B.C., acknowledged that the public bus — which doesn’t offer a long-haul service — isn’t enough to replace Greyhound, adding that the limited town-to-town service was never meant to compete with long-haul transport companies.
“The idea was that it was a service that would bring you from your community to the nearest regional centre and return the same day,” he said.
Asked if the withdrawal of Greyhound would prompt BC Transit to extend the service, Fudge said that remains an open question.
Before that kind of extended service could be introduced, local governments would have to signal their interest and show that they could help pay for it, said Fudge.
Then BC Transit would help develop a plan and request provincial money to put the plan in motion.
“That’s an annual process that we go through every year for transit systems that are wanting to expand,” he said.
Money for the new vehicles — they have a price tag of $260,000 each — came from the federal and provincial governments, part of $160 million in funding for BC Transit projects announced in 2016.
BC Transit operates four lines along Highway 16: Prince George to Burns Lake, Burns Lake to Smithers, Smithers to Hazelton, and Hazelton to Terrace.
But since the times of the four segments aren’t coordinated, there will be no long-haul service across the four zones once Greyhound ends its service in June.
The Burns Lake-Prince George connection operates only Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, while the Burns Lake-Smithers bus has departures on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
That means a rider could leave Prince George at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday and would reach Burns Lake around 7 p.m. that evening. They would then have to stay overnight before a 6:46 a.m. departure the next day. Each route has just one departure in each direction on days when the service is running.
The BC Transit buses also lack facilities such as toilets and large baggage compartments.