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.

Continue reading “Interurban Buses in Public Competition”


The Expectations of Competition

Estació de França

This essay establishes the policy context for the liberalisation of public transport in Spain, with specific reference to the recent history of Barcelona’s railways. The text introduces three difficult policy areas for Spanish public transport competition – local system integration, the balance between nation and communities, and the understated role of presence. It questions both the applicability of super-regulatory structures to a state where power is not absolute, and the use of economic analysis to rationalise transport infrastructure that primarily serves a strategic function, instead suggesting a role for the state’s own form of internal competition, here called the art of public competition.

“The Expectations of Competition” is the first 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 second essay in the sequence explores the workings of the art of public competition using the example of interurban buses around Barcelona. 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.

Regulating Integration

To integrate transport is surely to promote a human antithesis. Integration implies one optimised model of transport provision akin to a perfectly engineered machine, where all the mechanisms mesh seamlessly. Integration is the thesis of a transport economics for which demand is derived, meaning transport is solely a means to an end. Its rational ideal is to eliminate transport completely, since all such transport activity is economically wasteful. Hence for economists, transport becomes a component of the economy which can be dehumanised without impact on the humans, flattened into one perfect mathematical form that supposedly liberates the wider economy to operate without the inefficiencies of its transport system.

Unfortunately for transport economists, their presumption of the dominance of rationality is too often irrational: Modern behavioural economics is awash with examples of irrational transport decision-making, from the status value of automotive brands, to the role of the daily commute in pacing life. Ergo transport actually encompasses the fluidity of humanity. That fluidity is contemporarily expressed in duality, as a perpetual rebalancing somewhere between one collective perfectly integrated transport system, and the total flexibility of unfettered individual choice. Since neither extreme position can (by our definition of fluidity) be sustained, transport is not to be definitively solved, but to be constantly evolved. And if a perfectly integrated transport system can, logically, only evolve through a process of de-integration, perhaps an ultimate objective of transport integration is misguided?

The underlying pattern goes broader: As transport demands becomes more flexible, the environment is perceived as more complex. To counteract this sense of unknowable complexity, the transport solutions demanded are more stable, where stable is inevitably less flexible. From Personal Rapid Transit to App’-centric goods distribution, technology appears to be skewing transport towards individual choice, and thereby fostering a far more intense competition for physical space than when the issue was just individuals’ cars. Cynically, integrated transport is primarily being promoted not because it can be achieved, but because its promotion simply opposes the prevailing technological tide of individual choice: Such a crude counter-balance reflects a lack of strategy for proactively managing everything from hoverboards to automated flying delivery crates. Proactive management is often at odds with a profession inclined (ironically) to attempt to fix transport systems (in infrastructure and schedules), not to perpetually juggle them. Simply “swimming against the tide” is a pragmatic policy response that may deliver a mathematical balance, but it gradually polarises policy positions toward their extremes. That ultimately makes it very difficult for the polis to find compromises acceptable to all, engendering sudden, dramatic policy changes that half the citizens completely disagree with. Good, living, politics is the ability to accommodate the wills of all the people, not the arbitrary imposition of the will of a majority. Catalunya’s Procés provides ample evidence of how poorly “democratic” structures deal with excessively binary policy positions.

European Union transport policy exemplifies this conflicted balance between the collective and the individual, in promoting transport integration through market competition: For the EU, competition is the agent that will minimise the unwanted economic inefficiencies of the transport system. Yet because active competition requires an element of choice, the transport system cannot be completely integrated. Monopolies, even mere collusion on fares or schedules between commercial enterprises, are typically interpreted as anti-competitive – a pattern exacerbated by the natural tendency of the transport industry toward economies of scale, especially geographical and temporal. Integration requires a degree of regulation, even where transport provision is otherwise highly liberalised.

For example, integrated ticketing between British bus operators (except in London, which was never deregulated) rests on a specific opt-out from European-derived competition legislation, currently regulated by the Competition and Markets Authority (a government agency operating without direct political control). Integrated ticketing is typically delivered through joint companies (often owned by local government and bus operators), that offer multi-operator ticket products at higher fares than those sold by individual operators, so as not to impede commercial competition. In practice the development of integrated ticketing schemes must balance policy aims with commercial aims – and often the administrative complexities of integrated ticketing outweigh the tangible customer demand for it. Of course that formal argument is often underpinned by the long running battles for control of the public transport system – especially in conurbations, where local government typically regards the 1980s privatisation of its local bus operations as an unwelcome imposition by United Kingdom (central) government. UK integrated public transport ticketing may be better understood as a policy battleground in the ongoing conflict for the administrative control of Britain, broadly between centralism and localism – a recurrent theme of the governance of Britain throughout the 20th century.

Regulation is justified in the public interest – for the people the government represent. This role of deus ex machina supposes government an impartial observer, somehow above the fray of the very society that government is constituted by. In practice such a regulator also needs effective regulation, else risks inflating into a form of totalitarianism, especially where that regulator operates outside of the political system. The practical solutions to this dilemma reflect the societies they evolve from. For example, Britain’s mechanised social structure affords clear lines of transactional responsibility – although as the structure becomes more complex power rises inextricably towards the centre, which struggles to process such complexity, even with the numeric quantification of everything. Europe, as exemplified in its competition policies, can operate within pre-defined toolboxes built on economic theory – which theoretically perpetuate without political influence, but are constrained by their inevitably inadequate theory of living society. In contrast, Spain’s traditional “family” (for want of a better term) social model doesn’t scale into a mechanised state, nor is her policymaking inherently predictive. As explored in this sequence of essays, modern Spain’s solution to the need to regulate the regulator is, in effect, to foster a competitive environment between public bodies. This is particularly apparent in the arena of transport. As one of the most important physical manifestation of “the state” in Spain, transport expresses power of greater importance than its utilitarian function might suggest.

Continue reading “The Expectations of Competition”