Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Estonica: Free Ride

Left to right: policeman, company CEO and Student Bus passenger disposing of a competitor's offending vehicle.In a display of the "nobody told us it won't work" spirit that has served Estonians so well over the last decade and a half, a grassroots service has sprung up to provide students with free bus rides between Tallinn and Tartu. The domestic equivalent of a discount airline, the Student Bus uses funding from private sponsors to hire a coach & driver and run the country's busiest route on Friday and Sunday nights. They use city bus stops and dormitory parking lots to avoid terminal fees, and officially it is not a bus line, but rather a scheduled charter. Registration is by email, there are no paper tickets, and you can only ride if you have a student ID to show. The company, registered in a country village, is the brainchild of one Liis Reinhold, a South Estonian economics student. She also doubles as the model featured on the service's website.

The regular intercity carriers are in a huff over this. The Tallinn-Tartu line is regular, with buses on the half hour throughout the week, but apparently it's subsidized by the profitable weekend runs and the midweek does not pay for itself. The curious thing is just how much they are bothered by the loss of a single coachful of discount fares in each direction, at the times when normal lines are massively overcrowded. Certainly demand for the Student Bus exceeds supply, but Reinhold's business model looks like it needs a lot more aggression - in-bus advertising or some such. The current funding by unnamed sponsors is surely down to novelty value, and the company has not discussed its future past April.

Yet the big national carrier is scared enough to resort to obvious bullying techniques. Last weekend, a Sebe bus mysteriously broke down in the parking lot of the Tallinn Technical University, boxing in the chartered Hansabuss. The prompt arrival of gallant police forces put a stop to the Sebe driver's mumbling excuses, and the offending coach was pushed out of the way - upon which event it was magically resurrected and stormed off in visible dismay.

Now, I can see the carriers' point, in a general sense. But there is no practical reason to dislike the Student Bus. It uses well-maintained equipment from a reputable company with experienced drivers, licensed to carry passengers, so this is not a return to the dark days of pirate deathcabs on the twisty Tallinn-Tartu dual carriageway. It caters to a segment of the population with a real need for regular travel, and even discounted bus tickets are fairly expensive. If a grassroots student organization can actually pull this off? More power to them.


space_maze said...

Reminds me of the way "real" airlines started squirming with the arrival of RyanAir and the such.

It just seems stupid to me. Isn't it a risk of a free market that someone might come and make better deal than you are?

Of course, they have the "right" to be quritming like this. It just kind of makes them look pretty silly.

From a broke student's point of view, more power to these companies, if they can actually keep this deal up.

antyx said...

Basically the reason that Sebe and the government is bitching about them is that they are foregoing a lot of the operating costs that normal carriers are forced to eat - namely terminal fees and the route license.

Curiously enough, the other big bus company - Taisto - is yet to complain. Taisto is the "cheaper" carrier, though the equipment is slightly more ratty.

I think the Student Bus would have a lot less public support if it didn't use a company as reputable as Hansabuss.


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