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Commuters looking for easier ride on the buses.

Byline: ANNABLACKABY

Commuters who use a bus pass to get to work could enjoy an easier ride following a decision to put practices by firms like National Express West Midlands under the spotlight.

The Competition Commission has opened a consultation into the local bus market after an 18-month national investigation found "too many operators face little or no competition in local areas".

National Express, which dominates bus travel in Birmingham and the Black Country, was singled out by the regulator in a case study which looked at how its Travelcard bus pass affected the market.

Passengers who have a National Express bus pass can be left frustrated on some routes if a bus run by another operator arrives first. They either have to pay extra to board or wait for the next National Express bus.

That has prompted rival companies to complain to the regulator that the card "tied up" customers, which they said meant National Express was protected from competition.

Among other issues, the Competition Commission report highlighted how incumbent operators such as National Express can benefit where passes which are valid on any bus operator are "inferior" to their own bus passes.

In the West Midlands passengers can buy a multi-operator nBus ticket which on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis is around 30 per cent more expensive that National Express's own bus pass.

The report found "extensive evidence that the high take-up by customers of the National Express Travelcard is perceived by operators as a very significant barrier to entry into the Birmingham market, despite the continuing existence of a multi-operator scheme."

The Competition Commission has now started consulting on measures to open up local bus markets.

Jeremy Peat, chairman of the Local Buses Inquiry Group at the Competition Commission said: "We have seen a number of factors that can prevent new or enhanced competition in local areas and we are looking for practical measures that will address these factors and open markets up to the greater rivalry which will benefit passengers."

But National Express has responded by saying passengers were free to buy the nBus ticket.

Martin Hancock, business development director at National Express West Midlands, said: "In the West Midlands we already have a market-leading multioperator ticketing scheme that gives passengers one of the cheapest tickets in the country.

"In fact we are proud to say that many regions around the country are using the West Midlands as a template for how to run a multi-operator scheme."

National Express West Midlands makes up 74.4 per cent of the Birmingham and Black Country bus market. That share is higher than the national average for the dominant bus company in other urban areas, which stands at 69 per cent - a figure the Competition Commission described as "highly concentrated".

AIM-listed Rotala, which runs the Diamond Bus and Central Connect brands, has a market share of 10.3 per cent and Arriva's share is 4.1 per cent, with 11.2 per cent being supplied by other operators.

National Express Group's profits went up by 38 per cent last year to pounds 160 million.

The firm has promised to plough pounds 150 million into bus services in Birmingham over the next five years.

CAPTION(S):

Other bus companies in the West Midlands say they are victims of unfair competition by National Express West Midlands
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Title Annotation:Business
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 19, 2011
Words:556
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