Phil Mader suffers from liver failure and needs to get to a gastroenterologist appointment next week in Kelowna. The 69-year-old Nelson resident doesn’t drive, so from the beginning he knew he would have to either bus or pay someone for a ride. But when he began planning his trip in May, he hit a roadblock.
In February, the BC Passenger Transportation Board approved Greyhound’s application to cut service from Calgary to Kelowna—via Nelson—from seven trips each way per week to two trips each way. The company has not yet set a date for service cuts to the Highway 3 route. They can announce the changes any day, so long as they provide two weeks’ notice.
In its justification for granting Greyhound’s application to reduce service through Nelson, the BC Passenger Transportation Board said in their rationale that “Greyhound needs greater operational flexibility to implement its business model. It is a for-profit transportation company that receives no subsidies and it must, at times, compete with transportation companies that receive substantial subsidies.”
The cuts are a blow to many residents who relied on bus transportation to travel in the region. A 2011 survey found that transportation for out-of-town medical appointments was the most important transportation priority for seniors in the region. However, over a third of all respondents said that they were dissatisfied with their options.
Now, the pending changes to Greyhound services are aggravating the situation and leaving to-be-travellers in the lurch. For Mader, the uncertainty is unnecessary.
“Not only have they cut back service,” he said, referring to the pending reductions, “but there’s uncertainty and confusion about the new schedule.”
Knowing that service cuts could impact his trip, Mader began calling around to Greyhound, the BC Passenger Transportation Board, and even to MLA Michelle Mungall’s office to learn when they would come into effect. No one he spoke with gave him any reassurances that a ticket would be honoured, and some parties gave him the wrong information.
In contacting the Ministry of Transport and the BC Passenger Transportation Board, the Star was unable to get any confirmation on when Greyhound was planning to cut services.
Though Greyhound buses still run through Nelson every day, Mader is frustrated by the murky future of the route.
“It’s not such a big thing if it’s for going to Kelowna for a basketball game but when it comes to an urgent medical appointment or surgery and you don’t have a car; it has consequences,” he said in a follow-up email to the Star.
Next week, he will get a ride through the Castlegar and Communities Services Society volunteer driver program. At 45 cents per kilometre, he was looking at paying upwards to $250 for the trip. The Society was able to offer him a 50 per cent subsidy to bring the cost down to roughly that of a roundtrip Greyhound ticket.
But for Mader, the prospect of having to return to Kelowna on a regular basis for appointments is worrisome too. Subsidized or not, the costs of the volunteer driver program would add up quickly.
Mader will get to his appointment next week with his volunteer driver, one of only two who work with the Castlegar and Community Services Society who are able to do the 10-hour roundtrip route.
But with the uncertainties of Greyhound’s schedule changes, the reliability and affordability of the volunteer driver program, and the prospect of having to do the trip regularly, he’s unsettled by the lack of transparency in the cuts. Even a two-week grace period leaves little time to plan trips.
“It’s better to just make a decision quickly,” he said. “Don’t leave people in the dark.”
Health transportation: a province-wide issue
Dr. David Snadden, the UBC Chair in Rural Health at the University of Northern BC says that the recent Greyhound cuts only serve to complicate the already tricky issue of health care for B.C.’s rural residents.
“We’re never going to eliminate the issue. Some things are going to have to be done and people are going to have to travel,” he said.
Snadden says that the province needs to think of other means than transport to connect patients with their doctors.
“When you listen to the stories of the patients, there seems to be some unnecessary travelling going on,” he said. “Is there a way we could make that more efficient?”
Technology like video-conferencing has cut out some unnecessary travel, but that only works when a patient-doctor relationship has been established and when patients don’t actually need to interact with their physician.
After the BC Passenger Transportation Board denied a request to reconsider the decision to allow the Greyhound service cuts, local stakeholder groups have begun to explore replacement options for transportation in the region.
Nelson CARES is looking to start a volunteer driver program that would be available to seniors locally, at a cheaper rate than that offered by the Castlegar and Community Services Society, but that program would not be running until the winter of 2019 at the earliest.
Owner of Queen City Charters Alain Chiasson is also looking at putting buses on the Nelson-Kelowna route, but said it is far from a sure thing.
“It’s not something you can do a month or two,” he said. “Right now, we’re trying to feel if, first of all, there’s an interest in the community.”
Ultimately, there is a lot of exploration of possible replacement options for the lost Greyhound services, but as of yet, there is no robust plan in effect.