COMMUTERS, your prayers are answered. For months now, those of you who, like From the Gallery, happily travel Hong Kong Island on dilapidated blue and cream buses, avoiding the rain patches and sharing your seats with cockroaches, have been heard murmuring your rush-hour incantations. 'Oh Lord,' you intone, 'not a Mercedes-Benz.' 'Haider Barma,' you chant, 'who art in Central Government Offices, leave us this day our Leyland bus; and lead us not into the temptation of believing that brand-new, air-conditioned super-coaches with strange-sounding Euro-names are ours for the asking. 'We are not like those legislators, notably Lee Wing-tat, who doesn't even live on Hong Kong side, who want to end the China Motor Bus franchise before we know what you have in mind as a replacement. 'Nor do we believe that free-market capitalism is the solution for Hong Kong. Monopoly franchises have seen this island right for more than half a century and we fear the ways of Mammon.' Commuters, Mr Barma has heard your muttered petitions. And said: 'So be it.' The Government, he told Mr Lee, was prepared to award CMB a new franchise, when its present one expired in August. It would get three more years with a reduced number of routes. And the company's critics would just have to lump it. And in the gallery, From the Gallery said: 'Amen.' Oh, we know why people like Mr Lee object. Why compared with the service provided by Kowloon Motor Bus in his New Territories South constituency, CMB must seem ripe for the chop. We know, too, that given half a chance, Citybus would be in there with a thousand second-hand buses from Singapore - or if the Singaporean supply ran out, with pre-1962 buses from Rangoon, Jeepneys from Manila and Tata people-cum-livestock transporters from India. And that even these would be better than CMB's 40M from Wah Fu to Central. But we don't know what alternative Mr Barma has in mind. You have to understand. Back where From the Gallery comes from, a company with big red double-decker buses used to have a monopoly. But there came a time when more and more people started using cars and the buses got less frequent and became more expensive. And so even more people started using cars; and, by and by, the big, red double-deckers became small, red minibuses that came once a week on Thursdays, provided enough senior-citizens telephoned to book three days in advance. And here's the crux. A Government, of which a certain Chris Patten was a member, came along and broke up the monopoly and handed out routes to all comers in the interests of free competition and better service. And the only thing that improved was the range of colours. We had Grey-Green. We had Green Line. And we had red and white, and all the colours of the rainbow. But we still only had one bus a week. Mostly on Thursdays, but not if you were relying on it. So when Mr Barma stands up in Legco and says CMB has improved a little and deserves 'at least a pass mark' and another chance, we thank our lucky stars. Because the alternative might just be free competition. And the 40M from Wah Fu to Central might just be handed over to the nanny-van operator that takes our kids to school, so her 12-seater didn't have to stand idle between 9 am and 12 pm and again between 1 pm and 4 pm - and between 5 pm and the time she went home to fix her kids' dinner.