The unglamorous, cheap and (now totally) legal way to get to the Interior: buses

BC's travel restrictions allow buses—and, now, all their occupants—to get between the Lower Mainland and the Interior

By Tyler Olsen | December 9, 2021 |6:15 am

UPDATE: Four hours after this story was published, Rob Fleming, the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, said inter-city buses are now available to use for all passengers to travel between the Lower Mainland and the Interior. When The Current asked on Dec. 8, the province suggested the buses were allowed to operate only to enable “essential” travel to continue, even as there was no indication that non-essential travelers would be actively prohibited from traveling.


Travel restrictions banning most forms of non-essential travel on BC highways may be sticking around through Christmas, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll need to fly to get from the Lower Mainland to the Interior to see loved ones.

Remember buses?

While most talk about alternate travel options has surrounded flights, inter-city buses have continued to transport hundreds of people between far more communities than airlines serve. And while there seems to be a bit of a grey area surrounding how restrictions apply to people travelling on the buses, currently riders are using the buses to get to and from the Interior—be it to reunite with family, go to work, or even get to a ski hill reservation—without breaking the bank on expensive flights. And since buses aren’t clogging up highways—the reason the restrictions exist in the first place—there is little reason to expect things to change.

The demise of Greyhound three years ago seems to have led many to forget that a personal vehicle isn’t the only form of ground-based transportation that can get people between cities in British Columbia. (This reporter suffered from that same blindspot until being reminded this week.)

Greyhound is gone—but it has now been replaced by several companies. The largest is Ebus, which continues to run vehicles  between the Lower Mainland and several Interior cities, including Kelowna, Kamloops, Vernon, and Salmon Arm. Rider Express operates along similar routes. Mountain Man Mike’s Bus is providing service between the Lower Mainland and the Kootenays. And Adventure Charters has a bus running between the Lower Mainland and Prince George. There are also companies, like Thompson Valley Charters, that offer the equivalent of bus-spur lines between smaller communities in the Interior.

Inter-city buses are considered essential services, and the buses are still travelling. And while they are included as such to allow people to use them to “travel for essential purposes,” according to the Ministry, others seeking to get between the Interior and the Coast are also being allowed to board the buses to make the journey. (The province slightly altered its stance in the hours after this story was published. See update above.)

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The price might be right

Aside from connections to and from Kelowna, the buses are far cheaper than flying. The only flights the Current has found that compete with Ebus on price are being offered by Swoop, which has one-way tickets to Kelowna for between $79 and $129. That’s not much more expensive than the $71 cost for a bus, though the air travel comes with extra luggage fees. But outside of the Central Okanagan, flights to other airports are vastly more expensive. Smaller companies, like Pacific Coastal Airlines, have also added flights but the two main carriers, Air Canada and WestJet, have both been accused of price-gouging by customers. Air Canada return trips, with a transfer, from Vancouver to Kamloops are being sold for more than $1,000, depending on the day. A return trip on the bus will set you back around $100. (VIA Rail is also running weekly service, with one-way trips between Vancouver and Kamloops costing about $100. The location of Fraser Valley stops are inconsistent so it is recommended people call for more information or book through a travel agent.)

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Of course, the cheaper cost does carry risk and time delays. Bus trips are both longer, and more susceptible to weather-related disruptions. The closure of Highway 5 south of Merritt, a key corridor for bus travel, has added about two hours to trips. A trip from Chilliwack to Kamloops now takes around four hours and 20 minutes. And repeated accidents on Highway 3 has created regular delays.

But delays or no, people need to get around and trying to figure out how to make that happen.

Essential travel is different for buses than cars

Most bus operators don’t seem to be running more vehicles than normal. At Mountain Man Mike’s, “the phones are ringing off the hook,” customer service rep Shon Cottrill told The Current. Many are trying to get to work, others are wondering about the holidays.

The purpose of the new travel restrictions is not to limit movement (as was the case during COVID restrictions) but to free up room on provincial highways so trucks can get goods from Point A to Point B. So while driving in one’s own personal vehicles doesn’t make the list of essential travel, there have been few objections to the use of buses.

“It’s better that they’re on the bus than driving by themselves in a vehicle,” Cottrill said.

While holiday travel might not be technically essential, many were hoping to reunite with family in 2021 after COVID restrictions made last year’s Christmas less-than-spectacular.

A bus could be one way of making that happen, so long as the province doesn’t change how it polices buses. In a statement, a Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure spokesperson wrote that “The ministry continues to assess the travel restriction orders to determine if amendments are needed to manage traffic and capacity over the impacted highways.”

But buses, even those traveling for technically “non-essential reasons” like work, have been consistently allowed through checkpoints without a hassle. More enforcement seems unlikely. When travel restrictions were in place on the only route through the Fraser Valley, the Abbotsford School Board used a coach bus to transport teachers between Chilliwack and Abbotsford. Buses are also being actively used by hockey teams and other groups travelling across the province for a range of reasons. And the essential service inter-city buses provide—ferrying essential workers across the province—is likely financially feasible only because bus operators are also taking fares from passengers travelling for supposedly non-essential reasons.

For operators, things are now more stable than last month, when Highway 1 through the valley was closed and the buses were forced to take Highway 7. Road closures, for accidents and other reasons, have become rarer. But Highway 3 remains “nuts,” Cottrill said.

The value of meds, water, and snacks

And November’s highway chaos reinforced the need for riders—just like drivers—to prepare for the possibility that they could be stranded on the highway, according to Ebus operations manager Glen Desjardine said.

After the first landslides in mid-November, passengers on four of the company’s buses were stranded—two in Hope and two at Manning Park. That could happen again, potentially in places with fewer amenities, so riders should pack multiple days worth of medications, along with a supply of water and some snacks.

(One additional challenge for helping people get around the province: regulations that limit the communities where companies can pick up riders. During the closure of Highway 1, Ebus could drop off Chilliwack-bound passengers in Agassiz, but couldn’t pick up passengers there. The same goes for Princeton. Mountain Man Mike’s has plans to run buses between Vancouver and Calgary, but still needs regulatory approval.)

Ebus is still only running a single trip during the day, rather than multiple ones at all hours like it was before. That, Desjardine said, allows the company to get riders back to their starting point, if highways are closed again. (The company has also made tickets fully refundable.)

The fast-approaching 2021 holiday season is another unknown, he said. The company normally sees around three to four times its normal passenger volumes around Christmas time. But he doesn’t know what this December holds in store.

“I’ve been in this business for a number of years and I don’t know really what to expect for Christmas,” he said. “The first week or two of December is always the calm before the storm, and we’re seeing that right now.”

That is helpful at the moment, given the convoluted routes that buses have been running.

“It’s allowed us to get our feet underneath us and really identify what the running times are between Point A and Point B and how we’re going to get accurate times to the customers.”

There are no plans to specifically market bus travel as a solution to potential holiday woes, Desjardine said. But the company does have the ability to run more buses if and when higher passenger demand materializes.

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A key aspect of that is having the drivers to do so. Bus systems across the Lower Mainland have been struggling to find enough qualified drivers. That has delayed the expansion of the Fraser Valley Express to include trips to Lougheed Station and also led to repeated cancellations of school bus service in Abbotsford, where hundreds of students have been forced to find other ways to get to classes.

Both BC Transit and the Abbotsford School District have pointed their fingers at widespread challenges in recruiting and retaining drivers.

Desjardine, however, said Ebus has a complete roster of drivers and isn’t currently recruiting. He pointed to the company’s wages and benefits package as a key factor, along with the job itself: once prospective drivers figure out if they like driving a bus on BC’s highways, they tend to stick, he said.

“People either love to do the job, they love the customer service aspect of it and the highway driving of it, or they hate it.”

These days, professional drivers have many choices. But those looking to get from Point A to Point B in BC have far fewer options this December. You can fly. Or you can ride the bus. It might not be glamorous, but it will probably get you past a checkpoint. Just pack those snacks.

More of our in-depth coverage of the 2021 Fraser Valley floods:

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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