Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Postcard from Tasmania: Catching the 'flea'?

‘The People Movers’, a history of Melbourne’s private buses, had an account describing the multiple operators who plied busy routes in the early days. In those days, when urban route buses were profitable and regulation was light, anyone with a converted truck could skim an established operator’s patronage by trolling their route a few minutes before the scheduled times. These scavengers of the bus world were known as ‘fleas’.

The practice ended as more people bought cars, lowering profits. Governments legislated to remove ‘wasteful competition’. Later still public subsidy came with increased control of the bus industry, which consolidated into fewer hands.

An exception, where buses still pay their way without subsidy, is airport to city bus routes. Typically these are either not provided by the city’s main transport authority (Melbourne, Canberra, Hobart, Perth International) or are all-stops regular routes (Adelaide, Perth Domestic). In Sydney and Brisbane premium fare trains fulfil this role. Because of the requirement to recover costs, fares are typically several times higher than an equivalent length trip on a regular bus or train.

Melbourne’s Skybus, for example, charges $16 for a 20-25km trip to the airport. Skybus has an exclusive contract with the State Government to operate this busy service. Service levels have risen greatly and are now at ‘turn up and go’ frequencies over more hours of the day than any other transit service in Victoria.

At least for its contract term, Skybus is a monopoly. Skybus pays for this right and runs without public subsidy.

Monopolies (in many fields) often get a bad rap for poor service, high prices or both. However Skybus can claim an impressive record of service improvement (frequency boosts from every 30 to every 10 minutes are typical) and strong patronage growth, so the poor service argument cannot be sustained here.

Possibly easier to argue though is that competition can lower prices, Although bear in mind that even here Skybus is not a complete monopoly since there is competition from alternatives eg taxis (especially for couples), airport parking and even the (slower) Metro train + Route 901 trip.

To see competition in practice, lets look at the Hobart to Hobart Airport service. Like Melbourne there is no rail link and no direct regular public transport service.

The big difference with Melbourne is that Hobart has several City – Airport express bus operators.

The Airporter is run by Redline – one of the island's largest regional operators. The fare is $15 for a 20 minute trip, making it similar to Skybus. Hobart has far fewer flights than Melbourne and commensurately less frequent airport buses. Unlike Redline’s other routes, timetables are not published and passengers need to phone up and book.

Challenging Redline is the Ten Buck Bus, which offers a simlar service for 33% less. Service is from nominated city locations (mostly hotels) and a timetable is published. This has services every 60 to 90 minutes and there is no need to book. Possibly this saves the need to take many calls or manage online bookings. Unlike Redline, Ten Buck has no public CBD-based bus terminal, and, as can be gauged from their website and business card, the cheapest possible promotion.

Due to my preference for printed timetables (unless services are very frequent), I opted for the Ten Buck service. I fronted up at the main city stop about 20 minutes early and was surprised to see a Redline bus – also going to the airport – pull up shortly later.

I asked the fare and it was only $8 – about half Redline’s usual rate and 20% lower than the Ten Buck fare (not bothering to ask the question posed on Ten Buck's stop flag – ‘If it’s not $10 ask why’).

Since ‘a bus in the hand is worth….’ and I had plenty of time, I boarded the Redline. A largely unsuccessful lap around the city netted only 2 further passengers and we were off.

It was only after boarding that I realised that I might have ridden a ‘flea’. But on further consideration, was Redline’s sending of a bus to its rival's stop less that of a flea and more that of a troll, seeking to stomp on its ten buck upstart rival? Thoughts from Tasmanian readers welcome!


Daniel said...

My recollection was that Redline's airport bus had a timetable (it's set up to meet each flight) and looking today, I found it again:

Peter Parker said...

Thanks Daniel - well spotted. Couldn't find it when looking a few days back, and had problems accessing their site earlier today.

However my 1:25pm boarding time is consistent with flea-like operation since the time (or anything near it) does not appear in the published TT.