What was it that challenger Roger French of Brighton & Hove said about The Big Lemon? “Another copycat competitor”? Well, not for much longer, it seems. This particular slice of Brighton bus actuality will shortly sour. In spite of French’s statements about competition and his welcoming of Lemon, he will no doubt be relieved to see the latest opposition pipped. Not that it was anything more than a minor irritant, really. Some would argue it creamed off term-time student business, and only when the going was good—avoiding holidays.
Indeed, the Lemon 42 was squarely aimed at students who have more of an affinity with price rather than quality. B&H, on the other hand, continues with a consistent quality across its entire operation. As French has stated on many occasions, you should never give quality away too cheaply. But that’s assuming everyone wants to pay for such a high-end service. Others may welcome something a little lower down the scale, hence Lemon and students.
But the problem for low-cost operators come when the quality service continues while matching the low-cost operator’s price. That’s what B&H started to do earlier this year on B&H’s parallel 25.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Lemon squarely blames the opposition. Lemon feels that it has been “squeezed out” by lower fares and more frequent services. As is usual, the newcomer seems to think that it has more of a right than the incumbent. I just wonder what Lemon expected. But we’re about to enter the slightly braver (or slightly impotent?) new post-Competition Commission world. It’s hard to say what the Competition Commission will make of Lemon’s deregistration and the reasons given by the hi-vis operator.
It was in 2007 that it all started. Then, the Lemon 42 was a limited stop service from Brighton Station to Falmer Station. Lemon had high-minded hopes of using the 42 as a springboard for expansion as a community interest company across more of Brighton.
Launched by none other than a Green Party MEP, Lemon displayed its green credentials by using biodiesel that included refined, locally sourced kitchen oil waste. But its much older vehicles couldn’t match the Euro III, IV or V of its competitor fleet.
The former care home manager soon realised that operating an half-hourly commercial bus service was no easy way of printing money. Demand wasn’t as high as expected and by November 2007 Lemon was in trouble. Caught in the trap of not having sufficient resources to operate, yet facing a fine or loss of its O licence for willfully circumventing the 56-day notice period, Lemon actually asked its passengers to appeal directly to the traffic commissioner. About 150 responded. To many in the industry, this sounded a little naïf, unprofessional, if not down right brass necked. To its passengers, it seemed sensible and rational. Why should passengers understand the rules by which operators run their services?
Part of Lemon’s 2007 problems resulted from it being perhaps a little too candid with its drivers. Keeping them on board is one thing but once they caught a whiff of financial problems and a consequent major restructure, Lemon found that it had to add deserting staff to its list of problems.
To the end of January 2008, Lemon did cut its service but not without the attention of the traffic commissioner. It then paused and relaunched in February 2008 as a student-orientated service during university term times only.
Lemon introduced a number of gimmicks and unorthodox approaches, including appeals, to try to galvanise supportTo its credit, Lemon had built up the 42 again to half hourly, to 0400, though still during term times. This, of course, is no match for the established B&H 25 (every 10 minutes, including night buses at this frequency during term times).
The next installment came in April 2008, when Lemon proved it was no less dependent on commodity prices than anyone else. It announced a nine per cent hike in the cost of the waste cooking oil it used.
In July 2008, Lemon stated it was suspending operations over the summer, to coincide with the universities’ term dates. It became clear that students were the main beneficiary of a cheaper, no-frills service, where cost was more important, to them, than quality. Lemon had also announced the launch of a membership scheme where you could join the Lemon and get free travel as your reward.
Fast forward to March 2011 and the rot really began after B&H announced lower fares on the 25. It had already begun to provide artics on the route, to cope with peak student flows. There was a bit of a backlash from either Lemon supporters or from those who distrusted B&H. And then last week, Lemon announced the cancellation if its 42. The 44 between hall and Brighton University (and city centre in the evenings) continues, as does its private hires.
Were I to take any lessons from this adventure, I’d say that you should never under-estimate the costs of entering bus service operation and over-estimate the likely revenue. Like a lot of competition in England, much’s relatively short-term in nature and unsustainable. And for a community interest company to rely on goodwill, students, gimmicks, unorthodox approaches and contributions such as membership is probably meringue pie in the sky. Some things are just best left to commercial operators.