Interurban Buses in Public Competition


This essay explores the workings of the art of public competition, in search of the reasons for its conflict with liberalisation. It details the interurban bus “market” serving Barcelona’s hinterland, with reference to passenger usage, historical policy, administrative structure, and comparative costs. Analysis suggests a dualistic form of counter-balancing competition on key routes, regulated by the need to maintain equality between operators – albeit an equality bounded by the operators’ focus, which often masks an inequitable distribution of public funding within public transport overall. A pattern conflated by the tendency to emphasise only short run operating costs, and sometimes rely, almost blindly, on higher tiers of the state for fixed assets.

“Interurban Buses in Public Competition” is the second in a sequence of four essays titled, “The Art of Public Competition“, which together explore the competitive model underlying Spanish public transport. An anthropological analysis of the tension between this internal model and that of globalised economics, reveals the distortion of external finance on the internal workings of the art of public competition. The first essay in the sequence establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain. The third examines how the art of public competition functions when one of its most important competitors is absent, using the case of post-Independència Catalunya. The final essay ponders the strategic interplay of risk, debt and optimism, using the example of Spain’s high speed railway network.


Given its thwarted railway ambition, it would be logical for the Generalitat de Catalunya (the regional government) to become more focused on (scheduled, public) interurban buses – which when combined with autopistas (motorways) can be competitive against railway journey times. The reality is not so simple. The Expré network was initiated in 2012 as a (peak-only) commuter service intended to make use of a new High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the C-58 autopista, a busy road that links the north side of Barcelona to Sabadell and Terrassa – territory already well served by both Renfe and FGC. Thereafter (Barcelona area routes e5 and later from 2013) Expré became largely a rebranding exercise (of marketing and vehicles) for pre-existing moderate-to-high frequency interurban bus services, albeit with some marginal improvements to frequencies or hours of operation. So while the Expré network does include key Renfe Rodalies destinations such as Vic, Mataró and Vilanova i la Geltrú, and covers the Mataró-Granollers-Sabadell corridor where the Generalitat had once hoped to build as a transversal railway, it also serves Igualada, an FGC terminus. patronage data for 2017 can be be roughly compared to (the most recent) 2016 railway station usage data. FGC categorise journeys by station of origin, while Renfe provide separate totals for boarders and alighters. Renfe data for Rodalies line 3 exhibits significant differences between boarders and alighters – for example, twice as many passengers alight at Vic than board, while further up the line at Puigcerdà, ten times more people get on than off – skews not explained by underlying geography. To mitigate this error, Rodalies boarders and alighters have been summed and halved for purposes of comparison. While the nature of the network means almost all journeys counted will be to or from Barcelona, railway station data includes journeys involving intermediate stations. 34% of all Rodalies boardings (and 34% of all alightings) occur at Barcelona’s central stations, with a broadly similar proportion – a third – recorded by FGC. Assuming journeys between Barcelona’s central stations are negligible (such journeys will tend to use metro or bus), a third of all journeys board in Barcelona and a third alight in Barcelona, leaving a third that do not involve Barcelona at all. Ergo at any non-Barcelona station, half the journeys can be assumed to involve Barcelona. Assuming each of those boardings returns to its origin as a second journey, the total number of journeys between any non-Barcelona station and Barcelona is (conveniently) equal to the total number of boardings at the non-Barcelona station. While inevitably flawed in the detail, these assumptions allow rough comparisons of public transport mode share.

The table below compares Expré with the train on routes where both compete directly. Together these routes conveyed 6.3 million Exprés journeys in 2017, representing just under half of the Barcelona Exprés network’s ridership. The remainder of the Exprés routes do not match railway services sufficiently closely to warrant comparison (or in the case of Mollet del Vallès only started operation during 2017 and lack representative patronage data).

Annual Passenger Journeys (000s) by Expré and Train to/from Barcelona
Town Route Exprés FGC Renfe % Exprés Note
Sabadell e1 172 2190 3666 3 Exprés service is peak only.
Terrassa e2 89 3427 2705 1 Exprés service is peak only.
Universitat Autònoma via Cerdanyola del Vallès e3 839 1646 2820 16 FGC only serves Universitat Autònoma.
Igualada e5 872 191 82 Exprés patronage includes other services on the same corridor (see below).
Vilafranca e6 268 878 23
Mataró e11 1596 2378 40
Vic e12 541 736 42
Sant Pere de Ribes, Vilanova i la Geltrú and Sitges e14-6 1950 4391 31 Sant Pere de Ribes is not served by rail.

Igualada patronage includes other services on the same corridor, totalling over a hundred weekday departures in each direction, only about a quarter of which are Exprés services. However even a quarter of the quoted patronage would give Exprés a greater market share than FGC. This skew in favour of the bus is rational:

  • The railway station is on the east side of Igualada, not well sited for much of the town, in contrast to Exprés, which serves both east and west.
  • The Exprés travels to Barcelona in 70 minutes, while FGC takes at least 84 minutes, with broadly comparable frequencies.
  • Fares are identical for both modes (within the ATM system).

Vilafranca’s Exprés service is provided by the same operator, Monbus La Hispano Igualadina. It also has a small journey time advantage over rail, with broadly comparable frequencies in the peaks, but obtains a far lower market share – just 23%. The most obvious difference from Igualada is the location of the terminals – both rail and bus serve the centre of Vilafranca equally well. Indeed, the railway has generally better access to the centre of Barcelona, which for many journeys will offset the extra time spent travelling by train. On both these routes mode choice can primarily be explained by the transport economic logic of time minimisation, where the service associated with the lowest total (door-to-door) journey time tends to obtain the greatest market share.

The competition on the Mataró route is extremely mature – the railway is the oldest in mainland Spain, and the bus has been competing along the autopista since 1970. Journey time, frequency, terminal access and fare are close to identical for both bus and train – a pattern established by the Moventis group after buying Casas in 1996. The Rodalies secures the greater 60% of the market. A similar market share is achieved on the route to Vic, where the railway’s limited (single-track) infrastructure could make it vulnerable to high frequency bus-based competition – but in practice bus and train offer similar frequencies (with similar journey times) during the peak. Vic’s population is a third of Mataró, so neither the bus operator Sagalés, nor the rail operator Renfe, can expect to sustain Mataró-level frequencies from a much smaller base market. Short-run competition might lead one operator to attempt market domination by temporary over-supply of service (a form of competition seen in the early years of British bus deregulation), but with operations guaranteed in the short run (by a public mandate, such as a concession), competition can only occur in the long run. Where key competitive factors (fare, time, terminals) are similar for both competitors, a long run equilibrium emerges where each competitor offers a similar service and achieves a similar market share. Based on the Mataró and Vic routes, that equilibrium is currently slightly skewed towards Renfe, possibly by an intangible or irrational factor (such a social status bias towards rail travel). The equilibrium remains dynamic – for example an improvement by one operator, such as in vehicle quality, must be broadly matched by the other – and thereby competition serves to keep each operator “honest”, to keep their product offer current. As this sequence of essays progresses, it will become clearer that the “product” in this competition is more than just its transport utility, and that in turn makes this model of competition much more political and strategic than this initial economic introduction implies.

The Sabadell and Terrassa routes suggest that Exprés services that are unable to match the offer of the railways, risk achieving no tangible share of the market: Here journey times are similar (30 minutes from Sabadell, 45 from Terrassa), rail frequencies are better (typically every 10 minutes on both of two different railway lines, compared to 20 minute Exprés headways), and the railway has better access to the centre of Barcelona. On a rough calculation, vehicle occupancy on the Terrassa service averages just 7 passengers. Sabadell twice that, but still an underwhelming performance from one of the most highly trafficked interurban corridors in Spain. Cynically, these two routes serve only to justify the existence of the high occupancy vehicle lane they use. Neither route reflects well on its operator, Moventis Sarbus, which is apparently unwilling or unable to compete effectively. But since price and time are impossible to differentiate, they might reasonably retort – how? Well based on observations from other Exprés routes, match the railways by doubling or quadrupling the Exprés services’ frequency, and perhaps improve access to the centre of Barcelona. In theory both Sabadell and Terrassa have sufficient population (roughly 200,000 each, compared to Mataró’s 125,000) to sustain such high frequencies. Thus the question to ask is not how, but, why haven’t they?

In both Sabadell and Terrassa the competition between public transport operators has historically been between the two railways, FGC and Renfe’s Rodalies, as reflected in the patronage data presented above. Sabadell and Barcelona were historically also connected by bus, but only by a route intended to serve intermediate places – the A1’s one hour journey time and half-hourly frequency logically dissuades through passengers. FGC’s Sabadell service is less direct than Renfe’s, although the Generalitat has attempted to mitigate that by the 2016/17 extension of the FGC line within Sabadell, the results of which are not indicated in the (2016) patronage data. Thus to Sabadell and Terrassa, the competitive model outlined above functions as a railway duopoly. A third competitor, in the shape of a competitive Exprés service, adds nothing that the competitive model does not already achieve from its existing duopoly. That’s quite a statement to make, because a bus operator, whose buses typically have lower (full life) costs than trains, and whose infrastructure costs are distributed across many more users (especially private motorists), could compete here on journey time – and thus given a commercial market could challenge the (relative, monetary) inefficiencies of incumbant railway operators. But this market isn’t commercial: All this public transport is at the bequest of, and in substantial part paid for by, the public sector.

The Sabadell and Terrassa Exprés services are anomalies that logically will never be supported sufficiently to attain their (commercial) potential. That these routes were ever created is thus curious. As is the current intention to repeat the concept for Manresa – another strong railway duopoly and another peak-only Exprés service. The development of the Sabadell service may reflect the post-Crisis financial difficulty in completing FGC’s Sabadell extension – perhaps an attempt to try something different. Wider policy logic would seem to be utilitarian, although it can also be interpreted as the need to be seen to: The need to (be seen to) make use of the new High Occupancy Vehicle lane on the C-58 autopista, and the need to (be seen to) incorporate two of the largest cities in Barcelona’s hinterland within the coverage of the Exprés network. The utilitarian defense of transport that often isn’t, will become a recurrent theme of this sequence of essays – a function of an underlying tension between two different ways of societal organisation – of understanding, first touched on in earlier discussion of presence.

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El Procés in 7 Photographs

Parliamentary Selfie

This photo-essay summarises the Catalan independence process by reference to seven photographs that trace events from the 11th September rallies to the aftermath of Catalunya’s December 2017 regional elections. This is a more accessible text than the original Patria and Patrimonio sequence, which started with The Act of Referèndum. This photo-essay also serves as a postscript, outlining the events in November, December and January. Continue reading “El Procés in 7 Photographs”

Patria and Patrimonio

Sant Llorenç de Montgai

“Patria and Patrimonio” is the third essay in a sequence that explores the current Catalan independence process. The first essay introduces The Act of Referèndum. The second, on hope, 1714 and All That. This essay characterises state.

In September 1923, Miguel Primo de Rivera, the Captain General of Barcelona, lead a successful military coup d’etat for control of the Spanish government. Spanish society had never recovered from the humiliation of the “Disaster of 1898“, not least the Catalans, whose textile industry had previously benefited from favourable trade with what had remained of the Spanish Empire – a policy that had done nothing to assuage the Cuban separatism at the heart of the Disaster. Primo de Rivera’s paternal dictatorship manifest a pragmatic economic nationalism, in which government gave to the “working” population only in so far as it did not take from the “landed” interests of the elite. An improvement on Cánovas’ policy of absolutist suppression, that had contributed to 1898, but ultimately insufficient to avert the rise of the Second Republic, subsequent civil war, and altogether harsher dictatorship of Franco.

The railways of Spain mimic her geopolitics. That’s as true today as it was when the centralist government of Isabel II first offered state support in 1855, explicitly for new railways emanating from Madrid. An imbalance between the centre and periphery redressed in the 1870s and 1880s by the gradual formation of a near-perfect duopoly of the two dominant railway companies: Centrally-focused MZA and more peripheral Norte. The exception of Andalucía from this duopoly is notable for suggesting the geopolitics of Spain are not quite as simple as centre vs periphery: Not just that the regionally dominant “Compañía de Ferrocarriles Andaluces” remained outwith the duopoly, but that its ownership so closely mirrored wider political history – from primarily French investors in the 19th century, to Catalans in the 1920s, before collapsing into the state in the 1930s. While Spain’s railways were built as commercial concessions (the profit from their operation expected to fund most of the cost of their initial construction), the materials shortages caused by World War One had pushed operating costs beyond revenue. The creeping nationalisation of Spanish railways, which had started at the turn of the century as state protections for the railway industry, was looking increasingly inevitable by the 1920s. Sufficiently inevitable that the Spanish state could engage in railway building without incurring the wrath of the elite, just not yet in the more commercial territorial cores of the centre and periphery. Enter the era of the Explotación de Ferrocarriles por el Estado (exploitation of railways by the state), and the Málagan engineer Rafael Benjumea y Burín, the Count of Guadalhorce.

Ostensibly aimed at integrating Spain’s railways, the Guadalhorce Plan of 1926 primarily fulfilled Primo de Rivera’s policy of building “economic” infrastructure, albeit only in so far as it did not impinge on the interests of the elite – a caveat that essentially excluded economically beneficial railway investment. The fatal flaw in Primo de Rivera’s economic nationalism was his inability to apply it to the most commercial areas of the Spanish economy, commerce indicative of economic (especially industrial) benefit, because such areas remained wedded to the untouchable landed elite. Primo de Rivera’s policy none-the-less established a precedent for the state to provide infrastructure for the people, even if that infrastructure serve almost none of its implicit economic function. Most evident in railway policy, but presumably true of wider communications including power, this precedent combined with the 19th century expression of (especially central) authority through railways, an absolutism vested in God: As explained in 1714 and All That, the idea of Spain maintains the external as a god in nature, so to this way of thinking, railways serve as the physical manifestation of the external. The contemporary AVE high-speed Spanish railway network is built thus: The external, a (Bourbon legacy) mirage of France’s TGV, physically manifest for the people of Spain with scant regard for economic performance. The radial AVE network was delivered geopolitically over three decades due to the immense cost of railway construction to an internal economy which is not as strong as its external ilusión portrays. For now, radial only, the traditional peripheral counter-balance temporarily lost in a quagmire of regional autonomies that struggle to stand together against the centre, evident from the Mediterranean Corridor. Prediction, of operating costs and revenues, little more than a charade for soon-to-be bankrupt international investors, the bane of operations in a culture that can only comprehend mega-project solutions to its operational problems, but not a philosophical tenant of the idea of Spain, and thus to misunderstand ilusión – a hope to be lived.

The Guadalhorce Plan’s most infamous project was a transversal railway from south to north – Baeza in Andalucía to Saint-Girons in France – avoiding all the major cities of Spain – Seville, València, Madrid, Barcelona. Economically and operationally, such transversal railways are difficult projects to justify, even in densely populated, highly industrialised countries – a rational nonsense for relatively agrarian Spain. Yet perfectly suited to the geopolitics of the moment. In the nature of ambitious construction proposals, the Baeza-Saint Girons project outlived its moment: The project persisted (with a break in the 1930s, when Guadalhorce was in exile) until Franco’s post-isolationist stabilisation plan of 1959, which briefly injected American economic “sense” into Spanish railway development, directing investment into the productive core of the railway network. The only section to have opened, Lleida to Pobla de Segur, a glorious white elephant – that with the greatest of respect to Pobla de Segur (population three thousand), goes nowhere that warrants the cost and capacity of a railway. Spanish enthusiasm for underutilised geopolitical transport infrastructure evidently predates the “ghost airports” of the early 2000s.

Left to the tyranny of post-Francoist Spain, RENFE (Spain’s nationalised railway company) would have closed the Lleida-Pobla de Segur railway as part of their 1984 route rationalisation, a Beeching-esk response to financial deficits. Apparently under pressure from local people to save the line from closure, the autonomous community stepped in. By operating subsidy since 1984, ownership since 2005, and complete control since 2015 – the latest notable for de-implementing European policy, a shift in policy focus from national to regional, an unintended acknowledgement that the line’s original cross-border ambition was over. In addition to paying an operating subsidy of almost 2 million Euros a year, between 2006 and 2016 the Generalitat de Catalunya (the government of Catalunya, via its railway subsidiary FGC) invested 45 million Euros in the route, including a pair of new trains – which subsequently improved frequencies and patronage, albeit from a pitifully low base: Average daily passenger journeys (factoring in occasional tourist trains) had fallen as low as 200, strongly skewed to the short southern section between Lleida and Balaguer.

The epitome of politicised infrastructure, the very manifestation of the geopolitics of Spain, the Pobla de Segur railway was surely destined to illustrate the Generalitat de Catalunya’s publicity for the Act of Referèndum. The sidings at Sant Llorenç de Montgai station repurposed under the banner, “you were born with the capacity to decide – will you give that up?” With little visual pretence of neutrality, indicative of the politicisation of Catalunya’s principle civil institution, the citizen of the upcoming state of Catalunya is presented with a choice between the straight track ahead and the siding to the right. Humorous deceptions all: The straight track continues to Pobla de Segur, as close to nowhere as Catalunya’s railway network goes. The sidings have been airbrushed to show just one, avoiding any suggestion of the plural reality beyond. And not one of the two trains is in sight, the impending “choque de trenes” (socio-political train crash) left in the eye of the beholder. With specific historical context, the poster represents the perpetual geopolitical struggle that is Spain. Without, the enticing vision of a future on an empty set of railway tracks, reveals much about the relationship of people and state.

Continue reading “Patria and Patrimonio”