Bus firms threatened with 38m fines over cartel claim

Competition regulators have finished their investigation into a suspected cartel operated by long-distance passenger bus firms, and are asking the Market Court to fine seven companies a total of 38 million euros. The fines would represent around ten percent of the firms’ annual turnover.

Onnibus liikennöi Jämsässä jouluaaton aattona 23. joulukuuta 2015.
Low-cost operator Onnibus entered the Finnish market in 2011 and claims it faced opposition and obstruction from incumbents. Image: Aku Häyrinen / Lehtikuva

Finland’s competition regulator is calling for massive fines on seven bus firms, an industry association and a bus station operator, who it says have operated a cartel in the long-distance bus sector.

According to the association of long distance bus firms, Linja-autoliitto, there has been some confusion over the regulatory regime governing bus services in Finland since EU directives were incorporated into Finnish law.

"This has been a difficult time for bus firms," said the organisation’s Managing Director Mika Mäkilä. "There has been a lot of uncertainty and our gaze has turned more to legislation and its application in practice. The authorities’ actions have also been conflicted and difficult to understand."

Massive fines

Finland’s long-distance bus services were opened to competition at the EU’s behest in 2009. The Competition Authority’s investigation looked at the period from 2008 to 2012. As a result, the authority is asking for fines of 38 million euros on the seven biggest bus firms, Linja-autoliitto, and Matkahuolto, which operates bus stations.

"Fines would be a big blow," says Mäkilä. "Competition in the sector is fierce and this would weaken our chances to develop our service and invest. I hope that the Market Court will see things differently to the Competition Authority."

Linja-autoliitto is accused of urging new companies to stay away from profitable routes, while Matkahuolto is alleged to have shut out new firms from its ticketing system. Matkahuolto denied the claims in a press release, saying that it only withheld its ticketing services from certain services, not from services run by particular companies.

Newcomer difficulties

"We have at all times operated in the traveller’s best interests, and abided by official guidance on interpretation of legislation when it was given to us," said Matkahuolto.

Low-cost bus firm Onnibus sees things differently. The firm entered the Finnish market in 2011, and in 2014 it was acquired by Stagecoach boss Brian Souter’s international arm. Onnibus CEO Pekka Möttö says his firm has had problems with information delivery at bus stations.

He welcomes the Competition Authority’s report, but said he fears it might not bring the changes he hopes for.

"In the best case scenario market-based companies could finally offer consumers the kind of services they want to offer," said Möttö. "I hope that it won’t be another four years before something happens."

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