A row of buses parked next to the construction site of Helsinki Central Library in July.A proposal to transition towards a market-based public transport system in Greater Helsinki has received a lukewarm response from regional bus operators.

The proposal would effectively allow private bus operators to provide services the routes, fares and timetables of which do not comply with the procurement regulations of the Helsinki Region Transport (HSL). The Finnish Bus and Coach Association has lobbied particularly intensely for the reform.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications has similarly voiced its reservations about the legislative reform. The timing of the reform, for example, remains a question that has yet to be resolved by senior ministry officials, according to ministerial adviser Mikael Nyberg.

The Public Transport Act was initially scheduled for an overhaul in June.

“We're set to proceed with a major reform concerning the regulation of transport markets in June. We're still considering whether the public transport reform should be attached to this or whether it should be addressed separately at a later date,” Nyberg says.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications will according to him shed further light on the reform in January.

The first news outlet to write about the reform proposal was STT.

Tom Ward, the managing director of Nobina, and Antti Norrlin, the managing director of Koiviston Auto, are shocked about the proposal to overhaul the regional public transport system. Both of the bus operators provide services in the capital region and are members of the Finnish Bus and Coach Association.

“Because the terms and conditions of HSL's tendering process prohibit losing parties from launching competing routes, the reform wouldn't be equal. We'd be left with no way to protect ourselves. The reform is unsustainable from our perspective,” comments Ward.

Norrlin, meanwhile, is puzzled by the pace of change. He points out that a number of bus operators are finally about to get over the major equipment investments they had to make 18 months ago because of the previous major public transport reform.

Koiviston Auto is set to become a major bus operator in the capital region due to its upcoming takeover of Helsingin Bussiliikenne.

“We'd again be in a new situation. Frankly, this feels mindless,” Norrlin says.

Another major bus operator in the capital region, Transdev Finland, is still licking its wounds after losing several routes in the latest round of bidding for inner-city routes in Espoo. Sami Ojamo, the managing director of Transdev Finland, says the bus operator will not be able to assess the operational landscape until January, after it has concluded its downsizing talks.

The legislative change under preparation would effectively force bus operators in a contractual relationship with HSL to stand idly by if a third operator decided to launch a competing service. The scenario can become a reality especially for Nobina because it was awarded several bus routes feeding the Western Metro Extension in the latest round of bidding.

Bus services via Länsiväylä into Helsinki were set to vanish following the completion of the metro extension, but the reform would re-open the door to new bus operators.

Services to and from the Helsinki Airport are also likely to pique the interest of business owners who make their living on bus fares. The services would compete against both the Ring Rail Line and existing bus services.

In Sweden, a similar reform brought about an increase in the number of operators providing services to airports.

Suvi Rihtniemi, the chief executive at HSL, is disappointed that the Ministry of Transport and Communications is intent on disrupting the consensus in the capital region on a railway-based public transport system.

“The ministry hasn't commissioned any environmental impact assessments. The fact that the environmental criteria laid out in HSL's tendering conditions are stricter than the regulations on bus inspections would allow new operators to use more polluting buses than our contract services.”

The results of a study commissioned from two consulting agencies paint a rather negative picture of the reform.

Strafica and Waystep Consulting concluded that market-based service providers would probably operate the routes with the highest fare revenues while having no obligation to take into consideration the public transport system as a whole. A variety of ticketing systems and inconsistent passenger information would cause further confusion for passengers.

The results would include an unhealthy competitive landscape and the erosion of public funding efficiency. The member municipalities of HSL account for half of the costs of public transport services with their tax revenues, while the remaining half is covered with fare revenues.

The consulting agencies also acknowledge that the reform would improve the operational preconditions for market-based transport service providers and, thus, the availability of services.

Marja Salomaa – HS
Aleksi Teivainen – HT
Photo: Laura Mendelin / HS