Brighton's The Big Lemon Bus Company has claimed it has been driven off the road by unfair competition.
The company, which was set up as a social enterprise in 2007, operates a fleet of eight distinctive yellow buses fuelled purely by waste cooking oil from restaurants in Brighton. Now, however, they say they have been forced to quit one of their main routes between Brighton's two universities because of a 'predatory pricing policy' introduced by their bigger local rivals, Brighton and Hove.
Big Lemon founder Tom Druitt claims Brighton and Hove deliberately reduced the price of a day saver ticket on services which directly compete with The Big Lemon by a third but left all their other fares unchanged. Foul play, he cries.
Not so, says Brighton and Hove, who claim not to be deliberately squeezing The Big Lemon out of business. They say they are merely doing what they have done ever since buses were deregulated – introduced promotional prices on different routes in different parts of the city. Pricing, they say, is determined by market.
Whatever the truth, what is certainly true is that the market which Brighton and Hove say dictates their fares is now a little less crowded. The traffic commissioner has decided that The Big Lemon's route 42 will stop running from 6 February, a decision which will no doubt please Brighton and Hove but which will directly affect some 10,000 weekly Big Lemon passengers, among them several hundred students who pay an annual subscription for unlimited travel.
And not just passengers. The Big Lemon Bus Company started small but now employs 18 full- and part-time staff. Losing route 42 means that some of those full-timers will now have to become part-timers.
It's estimated that the closure of route 42 will rob The Big Lemon of about 30% of its total income, but fortunately it has other growth areas. The shorter 44 route between Brighton and Sussex universities in the evenings and weekends is still profitable, and private hire which now represent around 50% of its revenue is blossoming.
Once Brighton & Hove City Council's supported bus service contracts go out to tender later this year, The Big Lemon hope to add a few more services to their portfolio, especially as they now have a more modern fleet – when they started four years ago, the average age of their vehicles was 26, whereas now it more like 16.
Is competition between bus operators a good thing? Well, we'll see. But with The Big Lemon off route 42, everyone in the city will now be watching for the much-reduced Day Saver fares on Brighton and Hove buses to suddenly start going up again...