Monthly Archives: May 2014

London’s 3rd World Travel Experience

(Original of article for Taxi magazine).

Trains, Planes, Automobiles

Most of us would agree that Britain’s transport infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with new demands, and that we need to modernise in order to serve a growing population and to retain the competitive edge in and attracting global investment.

The debate continues over new air terminals and high speed trains.  We’re told that rival European airports are better equipped to handle large volumes of flights from new economic powerhouses such as China.  And once on English soil, our trains aren’t fast enough  – the journey from London to Birmingham taking an outrageous ninety minutes.

I’m not sure shaving twenty minutes off a train ride to Birmingham is going to make much difference, and I’m not sure it’s the frequency of flights from Shanghai that’s holding us back.   It’s the third world experience on the local infrastructure that’s causing the problem. 

Arrive at Heathrow jet-lagged from the Far East and make for Central London.  There’s nowhere to put your bags on the tube, and the stop-start routine becomes an overcrowded pain by Earl’s Court.  Pay an exorbitant £21 for a fifteen-minute overground train journey, but you only get as far as Paddington.  Take a cab all the way from Heathrow?  Things go well enough until the M4 narrows.  Then, you’ve no sooner cleared the flyovers, than you’re swerving around coaches on Cromwell Road, and in more stop-start traffic past Harrods. 

At least there’s some established infrastructure around Heathrow, however inadequate.  The train to Gatwick is fine, but try doing it by road.   It’s a devil of a drive and there’s hardly any motorway.  Visitors understandably expect a place that markets itself as a London airport to be in London, not half way to Brighton.  People wonder what they’re doing in a one-way system in Streatham an hour into the journey.  This is why I often try to talk people out of a cab ride to Gatwick.  I just don’t need the hassle.  There’s been talk about an airport on an island in Kent.  Ever tried driving to Kent?  Any major transport hub that involves bridges and tunnels is bound to be a disaster.

London’s traffic congestion is the worse in Europe bar Brussels.  Travelling by road can be even worse at weekends and on bank holidays.  Aiming for Heathrow by road on a Sunday sounds sensible.  The tubes might not be running, but you can rely on a trusty London cab.  It’ll be all right, it’s the A4 and M4 all the way.  On Piccadilly your passenger is looking up from his reading matter.  Why have we stopped?  Traffic is down to one lane between St James Street and Hyde Park Corner.  Why are people allowed to park outside the Ritz?  Why are those big vans allowed to obstruct the carriageway further down where people sell art work?  This is the main road to Wales and the West!

Many of London’s major train stations pose difficulties for the driver.  You have to queue in one and a half lanes of Gordon Street to get across Euston Road for Euston Station; you might have to queue to set down at Paddington; and there’s one-way mayhem at Victoria.  I’m never sure where we’re meant to drop off at Liverpool Street.  Top of Old Broad Street is my choice, if it’s open.  Not that you can go right up to the station this way because of the money-making cameras.  The short journey from the Bloomsbury area to St Pancras now involves a major detour around squares and one-way streets.  Even then, there might be a crane blocking the top of Mabledon Place.  Driving from St Pancras to Paddington can mean queuing up at Euston Underpass.  You can’t use the slip as a bypass and go straight through, as you can in the opposite direction, as that’s for buses only.  You can turn left into Gower Street and join Euston Road later on, but you have to fight your way past ambulance ranks and buses (I’ve never understood why ambulances are parked on the street; surely the best place for an ambulance is in a hospital).       

Some of the road chaos can be avoided by clear advance warning.  Sometimes you get yellow signs with a vague description of roads affected, sometimes nothing.  Working weekends, you never know if Old Bailey, Chancery Lane, Cannon Street, or Fleet Street are going to be open until you’ve tried using them.  Signage is sloppy and inadequate.  I’ve noticed recently that you never know if the Diversion signs are warning of a diversion further  along that particular street, or if the problem is elsewhere and you’re advised to use this street as a diversion.  

Most visitors to London will experience our unique travel chaos at some point.  There’s no real rush hour, the roads are jammed for most of the day.  You can get to Paris all right, but once back in Blighty, your onward journey can be fraught with problems.  The buses are slow, the tube trains are full, and inter-city train travel is expensive and unreliable.  Cycle rickshaws helpfully reinforce the third world ambiance.  The journey to the airport needs to be planned carefully.  Heathrow has its problems, but has some established infrastructure.  Gatwick is too far out to be considered a proper London airport and, other options put forward sound unconvincing. 

I’m not really qualified to know what the answer is, but spending so much time on the roads we can all see how improvements can be made here.  Halt road narrowing, remove unnecessary traffic lights, ban parking on major roads, inform of all road closures clearly and in advance.  These are just a few ideas.  High speed trains and bigger airports are only as good as the roads and rails serving them.  Maybe we need to think locally before we think globally?

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Electric Cabs on the Way?

(Original edit of article for CallOver magazine).

Go Electric?

Several British cities have recently been criticised for poor air quality, and as a reaction to the European Union’s huge fine for allowing such high levels of traffic pollution in London, Boris has announced that from 2018, TfL will no longer issue licences to taxis that can’t show close to zero emissions. 

Roads

Firstly, I am wondering why pollution levels are so high.  I mean we have a Congestion Charge, so surely there are fewer vehicles on Central London roads than there were years’ ago?  And engines are cleaner.    Going back to when I was a wet-behind-the-ears Butter Boy driving a filthy FX4 around, there was one important difference: there was more space.  Now, madcap anti-motorist schemes are slowing traffic up with speed humps, chicanes, blocked-off roads, and pointless diversions.  These misguided “traffic calming” schemes slow everything down and keep vehicles on the road for longer. 

Many useful roads that existed when I started out have been blocked off, narrowed to almost nothing, or have been subject to turning restrictions.  Many roads in the City were restricted on the pretext of preventing IRA terrorism in the 80s and 90s.  There’s little threat now, but the restrictions continue.  It’s almost impossible to get off Upper and Lower Thames Streets now.  Years ago, there used to be several roads you could use, but now once you’re past Blackfriars you’re stuck with it!  It’s a nasty road to be stuck on, particularly if you’re on a fixed price account job to City Airport and it’s your own time you’re wasting.  Southwark Bridge is almost inaccessible from the north or west.  Years ago you could drive straight down King Street from Gresham Street, through Queen Street, Queen Street Place, and straight on to the bridge.  Further west, Oxford Street is only wide enough in places to accommodate a bus, and it looks like Regent Street might be going the same way.  I see some of the kerbs are being removed in Oxford Street.  Is this to allow cycles and pedicabs to move smoothly on and off the pavement without harming their tyres?    

Vehicles

Years ago we were all encouraged to buy diesel vehicles.  Most taxis had diesel engines, so all was well.  Then things changed, and diesel drivers started to be held responsible for most of the pollution in our urban centres.  We’re now told that the future is electric.  True enough, a Dutch taxi company, Taxi Electric, are already running a fleet of Nissan Leaf’s, and they’re keen to roll out the new electric Nissan NV200.

Towards the end of this year we’ll be able to choose new cab, with more models to follow over the next few years.  In London, the Nissan NV200 will have a petrol engine, though the choice of electric looks likely in a year or two.  Exciting times for sure.  But I’ll hang on to my Euro 4 Filth Cart for a few more years and see how things develop.

I like the idea of driving a nice smooth cab, as quiet as a milk float.  It’ll be great to be able to converse with my passengers without twisting my head to shout through a four-inch gap in the partition.  But I prefer character over modernity.  Do I really want a van conversion?  Or any cab that doesn’t look like a cab as we know it?  No, not really, but it’s a lot cheaper to run I’d have to consider my options carefully.

I’m not sure how you’d go about charging an electric vehicle.  There are some charging points around London, though I don’t know how easy they are to use, or how much they cost.  If electric cabs take off, installing charging bays on ranks, or at taxi cafes, could be a good move.  I’m not sure what we do when we’re at home.  Can you run an extension lead out of your letter box plugged into the mains?  It sounds impractical if you live in a flat, and dangerous under any circumstance, especially when next door’s dog finds it.

The Fraser-Nash Corporation say their forthcoming hybrid Metrocab will run up to sixty miles on lithium batteries, then switch to petrol power.  The engine then re-charges the batteries in fifteen minutes.  You can also charge it at home for £1.50 per night.  I’m still not sure how the charging procedure works in practice, but it sounds an exciting development.  Whatever you think of the new Metrocab, you’ve got to admit it’s unique, and it’s a purpose-built taxi rather than a van conversion. 

It all seems too good to be true though.  If driving becomes cheaper, surely more people will do it?  The air might become cleaner, but congestion will be a nightmare.  It’s interesting that prosperity in China is leading people to dump their cycles and buy cars, while we’re going the other way! 

My main thought is that if it costs £1.50 per day to charge, the government won’t be making any money out of us.  59% of the price of diesel is tax.  I can’t imagine the government letting me fill up for £1.50 a day for very long.  What will happen when their introductory offer ends?  I’m also sceptical that the authorities are going to let motorists park for free up to five hours at charging bays should they become popular.  No, they will get their money back somehow, so watch out.

Thinking positively, it’s clear that London cab drivers will eventually have a wider range of vehicles to choose from, plus the option of going electric.  There will be van conversions, at least one purpose-built taxi, and a revamped offering from the London Taxi Company.  Time will tell if the new vehicles will prove cost-effective and reliable, and whether they can be easily charged up.  I don’t see much hope for road congestion, though it might eventually be cleaner and quieter on the streets due to cleaner, quieter, engines.  I don’t trust that pesky government though.  If I eventually take the plunge and go electric, I shall definitely be keeping an eye on my electricity bill.

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Cab Inspection Day

(original edit of article for CallOver magazine)

Lost on the Wharf

When you get your licence you need to decide whether to buy or rent a cab.  Most people start with renting and see how they get on with their new career before committing to several years of finance payments and all the responsibilities that go with owning a cab.  Renting suits some people as you pay a certain amount each week and you have peace of mind should anything go wrong.  The finance payments on even a brand new cab will be lower than the rental costs, but the expense of running a cab will push your costs up considerably.  The big difference is that you have pride in owning your cab, and when it’s eventually paid for, you will have several thousand pounds to use as a deposit on your next one.

When you own your own cab and something goes wrong it’s down to you to sort out.  Even when things aren’t going wrong there is plenty of expense and stress – particularly when you live seventy miles from London and cover 1000 miles a week.  I need three services a year, which can run into several hundred pounds if parts need replacing. 

One of the biggest stresses is the annual Inspection.  March is always an expensive month for me as this is the month when my cab needs re-licensing.  Surprisingly, the annual inspection process is cheaper than it used to be in the past.  When I bought my first Fairway nearly twenty-five years ago, it was common practice to pay a garage several hundred pounds to overhaul your cab and present it to the PCO for licensing.  In order to meet the exacting standards of the licensing regime, you’d have the chassis painted, the engine steam cleaned, and God knows what else.  I now just have a regular service, plus the two MOTs per year we now need. 

Everything went smoothly this year.  The first part of the process to get sorted was my meter hire.  This cost me £179.  By the time you read this we will have had a 0.7% rise.  Personally I think the rise should have been in line with inflation, but I’m not complaining too much about it.  Few others in the cab trade have complained either.  Times are hard for everyone, and for most people taking a taxi is a luxury.  The meter tariff change is also becoming easier than it used to be.  You normally have to queue up on some wasteland in a God-forsaken part of London in order to get a microchip replaced.  My meter now allows me to adjust it myself through a chip sent in the post.     

The Service and MOT went smoothly at the Long Lane Cab Centre.  I’d brought the missus to spend the day in London with me, but found my Knowledge put to shame en route to luncheon in Greenwich.  It should have been straightforward:  Jubilee Line from Southwark to Canary Wharf, then the DLR to Cutty Sark.  Either I missed the signs at Canary Wharf, or the DLR station is nowhere near the Jubilee Line station.  Exiting the Jubilee Line station we might as well have been in the Hong Kong Central Business District.  I’ve only experienced the Wharf by road and was totally disorientated.  Going back into the station looking for the DLR we found ourselves walking miles through shopping centres and up and down escalators and stairs.  We never did find Canary Wharf DLR station, but ended up at Heron Keys.  Despite the confusion, a ride on the DLR is something I always recommend to visitors to London, and the shopping centre is pretty nice too, if you’re into that sort of thing.  

*Note to Knowledge Boys: don’t let old cab drivers tell you the Knowledge was harder in their day.  This part of London barely existed twenty-five years ago.  Canary Wharf was all fields!

For the second year running I took the cab to the inspection centre myself.  You phone TfL in Sheffield (Yes, Sheffield) and pay £109 to book an inspection.  They don’t send any details out, and you’ve no idea what the inspectors are looking for.  You’re pretty much in the dark so it’s quite stressful. 

Last year my cab took about half an hour to be passed.  This year the bodywork was a bit ropey, due to my own crude paint touch-ups, but three days earlier it had passed its MOT so I was reasonably confident.  I booked in and five minutes later saw a man put my cab on a ramp.  I was too nervous to even read my book, so just texted a cab driver friend to talk about how nervous I was seeing my cab go on the ramp. 

After about eight minutes my man came out with my keys.  My heart sank.  He was surely  going to tell me to take my excuse for a cab as far from his inspection centre as possible, and not show my face until I’d had £££s of work done on it.  But no, he said I could collect my new plate! 

I screwed on the new plate and sped off before he changed his mind!

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