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”


Why Barcelona has no Uber

Mobile World Taxi

Barcelona is one of the few major European cities where Uber, the mobile phone application-based ride sharing and taxi service, does not operate. Of comparably populous cities only Hamburg is currently Uber-less. Doubly confusing as Barcelona prides itself as host of the world’s largest gathering of the mobile technology industry, the World Mobile Congress. An irony not lost on visiting journalists as they queued at the airport for insufficient taxis.

On the face of it this is classic schizophrenic Barcelona: An Olympic image marketed to the world, which becomes fundamental to the vanity of the city’s population, even when that image brings detriment to that very same population. Vanity is so deeply embedded in Barcelona’s social structure as to render a schizophrenia, not mere conflict or paradox which can at least be acknowledged and rationalised. A recurrent theme, most obvious in the inability of the Ajuntament (city government) to regulate AirBnB rentals to tourists, sold on an exported image of Barcelona, that has the consequence of forcing the actual residents of Barcelona out. The imposters from Silicon Valley are guilty of nothing more than exposing a social hypocrisy. And exploiting it ruthlessly, secure in the knowledge that the disaffected cannot turn on what they cannot acknowledge, hence only on each other. A heinous crime that cannot be fairly judged because both actions exemplify their own moral good: Silicon Valley is optimistically building a better tomorrow, its Disneyland reality disguising anything that isn’t. Much as Barcelona’s hopefulness has been wedded to becoming a global city, its schizophrenia its defense against the social threats inherent in globalisation.

Uber’s official response, which bears the same title as this article, predictably eschews all that political philosophy, opting instead to reinforce some familiar Anglo-American stereotypes about Spanish regulation, under-employment, de-emphasis on utility, and general lack of free market liberalism. Indubitable, but ostensibly fails to explain why Barcelona has no Uber when Español-centric competitor Cabify is present in the city. Which is a shame, because Uber España reveals a lot about how chaotically Spanish policymakers are managing this relatively new exposure to the external world. And for a State premised on stability, the accusation of chaos is high treason indeed. But any inquisition will have to join the queue, right behind a notoriously aggressive startup and some rather volatile Taxistas. What is it about the taxi business that fosters so much hostility?

This article describes the tech disruption of the taxi business, explores why Uber’s initial incursion into Barcelona failed, analyses the limits on VTC licensing, and finally makes time for change. Continue reading “Why Barcelona has no Uber”