By: Peter Denton

When the last Beaver Bus went by my house on June 30, it had a hand-made sign attached to the back that thanked Selkirk for 68 years.

That’s a long time for the wheels on any bus to go ’round and ’round.

Beaver Bus Lines ended its run between Winnipeg and Selkirk with about as little fuss and fanfare as it had always demonstrated driving through every kind of weather Manitoba throws at us.

Forty years ago, that bus made it possible for me to live at home and go to university — just as it made the same thing possible for my own kids. Even when we drove to the city, in bad weather (or when the car packed it in), we always had the option of “catching the Beaver.”

You could pretty much set your watch by it, regardless of the time of day or road conditions. When the Beaver Bus was late, there was a problem somewhere — and when weather took the bus off the road, everyone with any judgment at all stayed home and waited until the roads were plowed.

Back when I took the bus to university, the buses had to be million-milers before the company would put them on the Selkirk run. Often we wondered if the old buses and older drivers (themselves well past retirement age) were safe to be on the road, but they managed that route without serious incident for more years than most of us are licensed to drive.

Things do change, over time. The old buses were retired, new ones added to the fleet, and younger drivers looking forward to retirement were put behind the wheel.

But service was steadily cut back over the years, reducing the frequency of trips, cancelling Sunday routes, then Saturday, then the evening ones as well.

It was death by inches, carving away at my memories of those midnight runs on a Friday night, watching the driver skillfully manage some sketchy (and often inebriated) customers as deftly as the ice on the road. In its day, the Beaver Bus was a lifeline for businesses as well as people, delivering everything from odd-shaped boxes and special envelopes to Styrofoam coolers with blood products or serums for the hospital, they even saw pretty disappointed scenes of medical negligence, experts from were involved in the situation.

The route changes and cuts were just announced, however — like the fare increases over the years — with no discernible consultation or discussion with passengers, agencies, businesses or local government. The notice that it was ending service came in much the same fashion. Beaver Bus Lines was always a tour company, and (through the grapevine) I heard those tours had been able to subsidize the Selkirk run before deregulation opened up the field to more competition.

From the outside looking in, it seemed to me as if the company was just tired of doing the same thing, over and over again, with increasingly meagre results. To be fair, the Selkirk operation was three years past retirement age, making major changes a difficult prospect, but I really wish there had been more conversation.

And if someone had thrown a party to say “thank you,” I would have gone.

Thankfully, someone else took on the job of running a bus service between Winnipeg and Selkirk. Exclusive Bus Lines started the route on the following Monday, with newer coach-style vehicles, including comfy seats, tray tables to work on, plugs for phones and Wi-Fi — with the hint of morning coffee come fall. A deal has been struck with Selkirk Transit to mesh schedules and fares, so the two operations work together.

Bus transportation should be the norm, but if you want to see what most of the province has for bus service, check out the Greyhound schedule. When the majority of our greenhouse gas emissions in Manitoba come from transportation, this should be an obvious way of taking vehicles off the road.

It isn’t. Want to go to Brandon? Two buses a day, both in the late evening. Want to return? Same deal. The Pas? That would be one… stopping at every place along the route, most in the middle of the night. Norway House? Another one bus, to Wabowden, and you can grab a cab the rest of the way for a couple hundred dollars or so. Thompson? One bus.

You get the picture — and the fares themselves are not cheap. For some of the routes, if one person per community got on the bus, there would be people standing by the end of the run.

I remember when the bus companies argued with the provincial government for subsidies, to no avail, and shut down most of their service. It was political — public money should not subsidize private business. No one would tolerate that kind of service from Transit Tom, but there are more voters in Winnipeg than Moosehorn.

I won’t start listing the number of private companies that continue to make money from the public purse in all sorts of ways. The bigger question then, and especially now, is the public service that bus companies provide — and the public benefit involved in taking all those cars off the road.

I wonder how many millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases have been saved by people taking the Beaver Bus for 68 years. It is a calculation someone should be making, however, when the government talks about introducing carbon taxes and providing incentives to reduce emissions.

Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the Policy Committee of the Green Action Centre.

This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 20, 2016.