On rollicking busmen

WHAT economists grandly call the theory of duopolistic competition has a classic case study. This is of two ice-cream salesmen working a long beach. Logic suggests that each would pitch his stance a quarter way in from each end. Thus the whole beach would be conveniently served. What happens, according to the theory, is that they both go to the centre. Life offers ample confirmation of the tendency for players in a market to cluster: competing newspapers become more rather than less like each other; bookshops have accumulated in Charing Cross Road, and Greek  restaurants in Paris crowd together in a little street off the Boule MIche.

You might say that the modern Labour politician, with his smart suit and his commitment to supporting enterprise, has become remarkably like his Conservative counterpart. Not surprising, according to the theory, for they are competing for the same votes.     

To the classic literature of market forces I now propose the addition of the Cumbrae buses. On Sunday we set off to walk the 10 miles round this delightful island, so much part of the tradition of Glasgow  holiday-making but now taken for granted in the age of the costas.
As we stepped off the little ferry from Largs, the outlook was not particularly promising. There were dark clouds to the north and rain in
the distance to the south. A couple of buses were sitting at the stop but we paid little attention and set off in the anti-clockwise     

A chill north-west wind kept us moving smartly. The chimney of Inverkip power station, a companion for much of the walk, gradually
shifted behind us as we made our way round. Dunoon and then Rothesay came into sight on the far shore. With fierce concentration a man on a bench operated a remote-control glider which made repeated passes over the road, looping the loop, riding elegantly on the updraughts and then plunging almost into the sea.     

After a pit stop in the tearoom about three miles north of Millport, we were rewarded with sunshine and by the time we reached the town itself, on the leeward side, it had become warm though dark clouds still covered the mountains of Arran.     

A local cup final was being played in the park and we joined the gaggle of spectators. It was 2-2, and both teams struggled to get the
decisive score. The rival coaches ran up and down the line, exhorting the players. ”Help him, Jimmy, can ye no! When you pass you’re no feenished,” shouted one of them in exasperation at a missed chance. The excitement was worthy of Hampden but we left them to their extra time. We dallied in the town for a little. It is douce and trim, with  handsome villas and churches. There is a pub called ”Typically Tropical”. Somebody has painted the many public benches on the front in the bright and cheerful colours more typical of Irish townscapes.

I tried to find the flat in which, through the kindness of the late Duncan Macrae, we had spent happy holidays as children. I could remember the beach where I had swum, rain or shine. I had a vivid recollection of the house in my mind and of the little wooden stair up the gable-end.

Either it was not there or, more likely, memory was playing tricks again.     

The last few miles of the walk are deceptive. You think the ferry is just round the corner but it is a fair step. As we walked we became
aware of the quite extraordinary activity by local buses. Every 10 minutes or so they set off from Millport pier to meet the Largs ferry.
Not one bus but two each time, closely pursuing each other and driven furiously.     

If there were ever to be a bus grand prix, these lads would win. The man from Millport Motors seemed to have the edge on his rival from Cumbrae Coaches or maybe there was some kind of pecking order. In the final hour of the walk, pairs of buses passed us about half a dozen times, and we began to recognise the faces of the drivers. Four buses were running, we thought, but this could have been an illusion.  
At the jetty I talked to one of the drivers. He told me that there was only one bus an hour during the winter but in the six weeks or so of the high season the route became saturated. Did they all make money at it?

He shrugged and smiled.   

Talking later to a senior official of the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Executive, I discovered that this situation was typical of
many others that had followed deregulation. More buses are chasing fewer passengers. There are 10% more bus miles but the total load factor is down by between 85% and 90%. They conform to the classic market theory by jostling for custom on the busiest routes.     

Revenue is diluted. Staff may be paid less. The quality of Scotland’s bus fleet is in decline because the division of the spoils among many
operators makes investment in new buses unattractive. You can put a bus on the road for a couple of thousand if it passes its test, though it may only run for a week.     

In Cumbrae, in the short term at least, the competition is to the benefit of the public, if life-threatening to the many cyclists who     
revel in the flatness of the island circuit. Competition has greatly diminished the arrogance of British Airways. Even curmudgeonly old
British Rail is moving into Mr Rifkind’s age of the train.

The newly privatised utilities, like the English water companies, have to be policed by the Government with increasing sophistication. If they do not invest they can be punished. There is talk of making airlines or power companies give refunds or cash compensation, on the spot, to customers who have received poor service.     

Somewhere between the free market and the old public monopolies there has to be a middle point where quality can be reconciled with frequency. In the meantime, all I will say to the rollicking busmen of Cumbrae is: Mind how you go.