EMBER – an electric bus company running coaches between Dundee, Edinburgh, Perth and Glasgow (and many towns in between) – is unlike any other service in Scotland.

Gone are the constantly changing price schemes and fines for having the audacity to change your preferred journey time.

Gone, too, are the surly drivers.

And, most surprisingly, gone are the dark, smelly and unclean toilets.

“Basically, it’s a passenger-centred service,” said Keith Bradbury, co-founder of Ember.

Before Bradbury and his business partner Pierce Glennie started the business in 2019, they travelled the world on buses using services on nearly every continent.

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“After doing that we had this general view that buses as tools for public transport can be really good,” said Bradbury.

“But the thing that was holding them back here in the UK wasn’t some conceptual problem with buses themselves but how they’re being used.

“We figured that if you could build a really good service for passengers by focusing on the things that passengers want, then you’d end up with something people actually want to use.

“If you could do that with zero emissions, you’d also have this huge win for the climate in the background, too”.

Now, after launching their first coaches in 2020, Bradbury and Glennie’s theory has been proven right.

The National: The fully-electric Ember buses have a range of around 300 kilometres on a single charge (Credit: Ember)The fully-electric Ember buses have a range of around 300 kilometres on a single charge (Credit: Ember) (Image: Ember)

They now have thousands of passengers using their service every single week. Taking a trip on an Ember bus, it’s easy to see why.

Having previously worked together at a financial technology company in London, Bradbury and Glennie knew that inconveniences built into other services - unannounced delays or costly fees to change your journey time – could be solved with the use of intelligent software.

“The reason many people use cars is primarily because of reliability and flexibility,” said Bradbury.

“If you miss your bus, you might have to pay £20 plus an admin fee because the price has gone up as it’s a last-minute booking.

“That’s not a good service. Whereas if you have a car and need to leave 10 minutes later than planned, it’s not going to cost you anything.

“But there’s no reason why you can’t replicate that for buses.”

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Ember’s technology means passengers receive a text if their bus is going to be late. If it’s delayed by more than 30 minutes, they get an automatic refund.

Missed the bus? No problem. Passengers are permitted to change their journey times free of charge up to an hour after their original bus has left.

Drivers are equipped with iPads hosting Ember’s software, meaning they often greet passengers by name as they step on board.

Furthermore, flat pricing means tickets cost exactly the same no matter when you travel or what time you book, with a single from Dundee to Edinburgh currently sitting at an affordable £8.30.

Bradbury added: “All of that stuff comes from us being a tech company at heart.

“We’ve built an entire platform which manages our buses, drivers and passengers. It seems like madness to build all of this technology just for a few routes but the thing is, now it’s built, it’s completely scalable.

The National: Bosses at Ember say the technology within their vehicles can easily be scaled to serve more routes (Credit: Ember)Bosses at Ember say the technology within their vehicles can easily be scaled to serve more routes (Credit: Ember) (Image: Ember)

“We could add another 100 buses or another 1000.

"It doesn’t just have to be in the UK, either. You might need a bit of localisation in terms of language, but the system can really do it all.”

Currently, Ember operates out of Dundee.

The electric buses have a range of around 300 kilometres and take a little more than two hours to charge, meaning they also stop by smaller towns, collecting and dropping off passengers in areas with dire need of public transport links to big cities.

For people in places like Bridge of Earn and Auchterarder, Ember buses meet a genuine need which may very well eliminate some car journeys.

When the buses return to Dundee from either Edinburgh or Glasgow, they’re also cleaned by a dedicated team.

A fact noticeable in the shockingly spacious, bright and altogether pleasant toilets.

“We put a lot of thought into the design of them and the hardware we installed,” said Bradbury.

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“We wanted to make sure it was decent because that’s another reality of travelling on buses that feels endemic but doesn’t have to be.

“There’s no reason for toilets to be out of order or dirty.”

Of course, as a young company, they have encountered obstacles - the financial uncertainty of being a transport business during coronavirus lockdowns, chronic driver shortages in the sector, and the volatility of electricity prices during the cost of living crisis.

Ultimately, however, the future is bright for Ember. They’re adding more charging hubs and looking to have a national network within a few years.

They’re also looking at investing in a new generation of vehicles with longer ranges and faster charging times.

That a company has sprung up in Scotland that seems to understand what is needed to ignite necessary changes in the public transport system is heartening.

But, as Bradbury acknowledges, support from the public sector is vital to ensure that needs are met.

“I can’t go out and paint a bus lane or commit more space in cities to bus gates.

“That stuff really does take a bold vision and some bold targets for improving infrastructure.”

Still, Ember shows that dramatic changes in public transport really are possible – and that, perhaps, filthy toilets and expensive penalties are a thing of the past.