Friday 13 April 2012

Competition, Collusion or Collapse? [1]

fbb has been musing about the work of the Competition Commission and various (apparently non-competitive) "deals" being done throughout the bus industry. The Competition Commission is supposed to "encourage" competition by "requiring" dominant companies to make way for competitors to pinch their business. A bit like forcing Tesco to have a branch of ASDA next door!
This is the first of an occasional series. Next "at the planning stage" is a return to the "War in West Melton".
Rotala versus Stagecoach in Preston
Rotala is an Alternative Investment Market (AIM) listed company, set up in 2005 ...
... with the main intention of acquiring or gaining majority interest in businesses within a number of areas.
On 25 January 2011, Rotala agreed to buy Preston Bus from Stagecoach Group for £3.2 million, after the Competition Commission ruled that Stagecoach had to sell the company. The deal includes 85 buses, 240 employees and a depot, with Rotala pledging to keep the Preston Bus identity and invest in fleet modernisation.
That latter pledge was revealed to be genuine with a mixture of newer vehicles and a smart livery appearing very quickly after the acquisition.
Even "their" end of the tired and tatty gloriousness that is Preston bus station has had a coat of bright blue paint. Each stand has a departure list (boo!) and a map (hooray!) ...
... for the appropriate service. On the other hand, printed leaflets were conspicuous by their absence.   Progressing to Preston [4] refers to bus station enquiry offices and their contents. (read again).

It is "on the road" that the difference between the operations is most marked. To be fair, fbb's survey was far from comprehensive, but stops on Stagecoach route 40 etc via Garstang Road were, by today's standards, appalling.
There are no route numbers on the stop, especially important as the service 4 group deviates from the 40/41; very poor. And, even worse, in the timetable frame ...
... nothing of any use to man nor beast! Whereas, round the corner in Plungington Road ...
... a well filled frame (from Google as fbb forgot his camera on this trip) and some "real time" display on the flag. (ditto).
So, from a competition point of view, it would appear to an outsider that the arrival of Preston Bus has improved the service to the public, thus bringing all the bounteous benefits of competition.

But is that true? Is there more competition in Preston as a result of Stagecoach's sale of the City bus routes to Rotala? Bluntly, no.

The frequent services map (extract, map too big to blog in full) ...
... shows that Stagecoach has reverted to its historic corridors (e.g. 4, 40, 41), formerly served by Ribble ...
... whilst Rotala runs the former Preston Corporation network (e.g. 19, 19A, 22 and 23). 
For the record, independent Fishwicks have their own little corridor including the 111 running every 10 minutes Monday to Saturday daytime.
That leaves us with a provocative political poser. Why are we, as taxpayers, spending millions of our minimalistic money mountain (molehill?) on the Competition Commission when its noble and notable decisions have little effect on the service to the travelling public. Of much more use to said travelling public would be more bus priorities, more corralling of the motor car and, above all, less government interference. And less tax, rather than more!

In a true free market, the strong will always survive and the customer holds the ultimate power. If the service isn't good enough (or the price is too high) people will vote with their feet and their purses. But the ultimate result of "competition" will always be domination by the successful and extermination of the weakling.
For a timely lesson on the power of "the market" see First routes to Dalkeith etc. (near Edinburgh); but look quickly because most of its service in that particular area will soon be gone.

 Next Blog : due Saturday April 14th 


  1. Actually, it’s not quite true to say that Stagecoach have reverted entirely to their historic corridors. They continue to operate 1A (Gamull Lane via Ribbleton Avenue and until recently numbered 11) and 9 (Moor Nook via New Hall Lane), both of which run every 10 minutes and were traditionally Preston Corporation routes. On the east side of the city Stagecoach therefore compete directly with Rotala 8 (Moor Nook via Ribbleton Avenue) and 16 (Farringdon Park via New Hall Lane). Furthermore, Stagecoach 1 also runs every 10 minutes to Longridge along Ribbleton Avenue, giving a total of 18 buses per hour over much of the corridor (12 Stagecoach and 6 Rotala).

    Incidentally, I recently visited Preston Bus Station for the first time in many years and was struck by how unchanged the interior seemed from when it first opened. In particular, the signage is in a very 1960’s style – which sometimes even extends to the wording. As well as the four enquiry offices there are also two canteens – and the related signage duly reflects this. The sign between the two canteen entrances therefore has the letters PCTD in the bottom left hand corner by one entrance and RMS in the bottom right by the other. So.....what could these letters possibly stand for ?

  2. Thanks NMcB for that correction. I did say that my visit was not comprehensive, being for a family friend's baby's dedication with insufficient time to do a full review. Riding around on buses is not the best way to endear one with long-standing family friends!!

    Furthermore neither the full Lancashire map, nor the "frequent services" diagram differentiates between operators.

    Memo to self : do a bit more homework!!