Three weeks in, and three weeks before the offer closed, the target was met so an additional offer of £135,000 has been opened for an additional vehicle.
There have been grants from the Department of Transport (DoT) for ultra-low emission buses and Druitt is proud that the company has never borrowed or needed venture capital. He believes people want to invest in things that they see as tangible, local and part of the future.
The six electric buses, with the four new ones coming alongside its two retrofitted ones, will mean that there is cover even when a vehicle is off the road for maintenance, so that it can run a fully electric network. A fast charger is also on order to complement the current six overnight chargers.
The drivers sitting in the office, before or after their shifts, compare notes on the electric vehicles. There is consensus that they are lovely to drive and popular with customers. Druitt backs up the drivers’ view: “Passengers love them”. It is clear that there is an art to ensuring the charge lasts for the entire day. The charge that is left can range from a comfortable 17% to a mere 2-3% on wet, cold or very hot days, where heating, air conditioning and windscreen wipers are constantly on. One driver tells of dimming the light on his ticket machine display to eek out a bit more charge.
Today, the Big Lemon has 30 staff and it has successfully competed to run some of the services that are subsidised by the city council. It gained the first of these, bidding against Brighton & Hove Bus Company, in 2012 and last summer won another six (with the challenge that the award came only ten days before it was required to take over the routes, requiring the mobilisation of eight buses and twelve drivers).
The idea of subsidised services being something that can be commissioned out by the council is an interesting one but makes perfect sense. If the council is paying, say, £170,000 annually to an operator for one route then it can turn this situation on its head, if there is competition, and seek bids from operators. By this means, the council has saved around one-third of its budget with no reduction in services. Moreover, The Big Lemon accepts all concessionary travel passes – by law, any public operator must do so – as well as single network saver tickets.
A key reason for The Big Lemon being able to bid lower than its rivals (there is now another independent operator taking on Go-Ahead) is its electric fleet. Electric buses change the financial dynamics of the company because they are much more expensive to buy but much cheaper to run.
It also has a private coach hire business, recently ran its first ever walking holiday, runs day trips including Sunday walks and provides coaches for particular events, such as music festivals, Brighton Pride and Sussex’s traditional bonfire nights.
Druitt is now looking further afield, at other cities and regions where the company might replicate its success in Brighton. In addition, it is proactively seeking to help others who want to set up their own community bus companies. It has published a guide, Community-Led Transport Initiatives, which can be downloaded for free and it also offers training and mentoring support.
“We have always wanted to enable people to live in Brighton without a car and not be disadvantaged by that,” says Druitt. He believes that philosophy can be applied across the country. Every year, the technology to run sustainable buses becomes better and cheaper, which he feels opens up huge opportunities in the next three or four years. But perhaps at least as importantly, The Big Lemon and a few other pioneers have shown how it can be done, providing the knowledge and a blueprint for other communities.