Trains, Planes, and Taxis

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

Trains, Planes, and Taxis

We’ve a lot to deal with in the London cab trade these days, but there are things going on up the M1 that’d make your hair curl. How about local taxis being kicked off Luton Airport in favour of London mini-cabs?
I’m shocked that the contract to supply transport at Luton Airport has been given over to private hire. Travellers wanting a taxi have to pre-book in Arrivals, and then walk around to the car park where their Addison Lee mini-cab will be waiting. Customers might not think anything is amiss when they’re directed to a line of shiny black vehicles looking vaguely like taxis, but they’d surely be surprised if they realised they were being picked up by a London mini-cab. Then again, no-one can read the car’s licensing identification through the tinted glass, and many unsuspecting tourists believe they’ve landed in London anyway.
Luton Airport sits in Bedfordshire and is my local airport. Despite the misleading name, “London – Luton Airport”, it has nothing to do with London. I have a green card in the back of my cab indicating an All London licence. If Luton Airport was really in London I could pick up there too – and at Stansted, Southend and Gatwick, come to that. It’s a marketing scam aimed at conning tourists into thinking they’re flying into the capital. Once in Luton, the airport can then broker a long and expensive ride into London, while making money from those actually providing the transport.
If you’ve ever dropped off at Luton Airport you’ll know that you’re charged for the privilege. I’m unhappy at being charged £2.50, but as I’ve possibly made a day’s money in an hour, the pain doesn’t hurt for long. It’s a bigger deal for the local drivers facing an uncertain future.
We can survive by cruising the streets looking for work. We can put on at any station rank, or use City and Heathrow Airports, if we’re so declined. Outside London, drivers rely on ranks, and even when they’re allowed to rank at major transport hubs they are often charged hundreds of pounds a year for the privilege. My objection to this is that local taxis provide an essential service to these stations and airports. It shouldn’t be reliant on payments and contracts. This isn’t Ronnie and Reggie. Taxi drivers should be encouraged to rank, and for free. Without an adequate supply of taxis you will get touts forming unofficial ranks around the corner, and private hire cars blocking up residential streets awaiting calls.
Airports and stations offer a snapshot of Rip-Off Britain. These shopping centres with transport facilities attached, cynically maximise their profits by selling outrageously priced facilities such as luggage weighing machines, trolley hire; and pay-toilets at certain stations. Then there’s the over-priced food and drink offered to captive consumers, and airport duty free shops more expensive than your local supermarket.
When I lived in Northampton, the cab drivers had to pay to use the station rank. The rank had a lengthy feeder and cabs were always available. Some drivers queued two hours before getting a job. The situation appears similar in Leighton Buzzard where I live now. The station and town centre ranks are well serviced, but business often appears slow. There’s only a small shopping centre, and there’s little in the way of a night-time economy. I suspect there are few opportunities for night men at the twenty-four hour MacDonald’s.
In London, we take for granted the facilities our out of town colleagues have to fight tooth and nail for – and have to fight to keep. I hear the cab rank serving Nottingham Train Station has been moved nearly 600 metres away; and many journeys will be made longer if a proposal to restrict taxis using bus gates is imposed. Demonstrations against these changes included elderly and disability groups. People take taxis expecting a door-to-door service, and because they presume they have access to roads that private vehicles haven’t.
What about here in London? When I was a Knowledge Examiner I saw many Yellow Badge drivers studying the All London Knowledge. I’d often ask how trade was in their sector. The answer was always the same, and I don’t think it was an over-use of the traditional “The Game’s Dead” saying. I’m sure things really were tough for Suburban drivers. We can see the queues at City Airport, and there are only so many events on at the O2 and ExCel to keep the local drivers occupied. Merton drivers surely can’t survive on Wimbledon Fortnight alone.
Will the situation at Luton have a knock-on effect in London? Trips to Luton Airport are rare, but they ‘re likely to be rarer still. If Addison Lee are picking up at Luton they are surely offering good deals going the other way. On holiday in Gambia I spoke to drivers who waited two days for a job. They were hoping for the big one: an all day tour. My equivalent is a trip to Luton on my way home. My next such trip might be some way off, but I’ll certainly appreciate it when it happens.
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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