Monthly Archives: May 2019

Welcome to my Nightmare

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine)

Those of us who run our own cabs know the stress of the annual licensing Inspection. If you’re the worrying type like me you’ll feel the tension building from a good month away: do my tyres need changing? Will those paint blisters and rust spots cause any problems with the inspectors? If I blow a bulb on the way to the inspection centre will I be able to change it? There’ll be the trip to the meter supplier to get that checked and certified; then the strategy of planning a service and MOT, followed by the licensing inspection itself. There’s the worry of how to pay for it all, and the nightmare scenario if the cab doesn’t pass. Well, this year the nightmare came to pass.

Years ago I used to leave a gap between the MOT and the licensing inspection. This would give me time to fix any problems should the cab fail the MOT. It made me nervous though as I always expected something bad to happen in the following week or so.

So last time I settled on a short gap of about three days. I decided that this was the optimum period, as it gives you enough time to get work done on the cab if it fails its MOT, but not so much as a gap to worry you that a lot more can go wrong in the run up to the big day.

This year I played a dangerous game – I scheduled the inspection for the day after the MOT. What could possibly go wrong? The cab had a new engine and gearbox fitted in October, so I had confidence in the mechanics. I knew the handbrake needed doing, and there was the creaky steering. Minor issues that I reckoned could be sorted in an hour or two. I drove to my usual garage in Luton for its 9.15 service and MOT.

I was on my third unlimited coffee at Wetherspoons when the garage phoned. The creaky steering was caused by a broken power steering pipe and all the fluid had drained away. It failed the MOT and they had to order a new pipe. I therefore couldn’t make tomorrow’s licensing inspection. After a pint from Spoon’s beer festival selection and a plate of nachos, I made the grimly familiar bus journey from Luton Interchange to Leighton Buzzard and home.

I was charged £66 to change the date of the inspection to Monday. I got the cab back from Luton on Thursday, but I couldn’t work as the plate had now expired. The garage told me that the cab probably wouldn’t pass its inspection anyway because of bodywork. The split in the bumper didn’t trouble the inspectors last year, but the word was that they’ve toughened up recently. When I treated the cab to its annual soapy hand wash I also didn’t like the look of all those patches of rust and paint blisters. It was too late to do anything about it at this late stage though. I’d take it up on Monday and hope for the best.

It’s a scary experience watching them put your cab on the ramp at the inspection centre: it’s as stressful as awaiting a job interview, or a Knowledge Appearance with The Smiling Assassin. I was too nervous to read so I just fiddled with my phone. The tester came back and spent some time typing. I still had hope in my heart.

He came over and handed me a sheet. I needed a new front bumper and I needed some rust removal and re-painting. There were three items on the failure sheet related to bodywork.

I drove up to Luton from Staples Corner. I ordered a new bumper, but the body shop attached to the garage was rammed and wouldn’t even be able to start work for at least two weeks. Apparently the place was full of London taxis that had suffered a similar fate at Staples Corner. Back home I found a local garage that would try to fit my cab in around their scheduled work. I’d bring it in as soon as I got the new bumper.

When my bumper was ready for collection a few days later in Luton I didn’t stop for any sightseeing. I dropped the cab off at my local body shop, not knowing when I’d see it again.

Bolam’s body shop did a great job. I immediately re-booked the cab inspection (it’s free if you do it within a month). The best I could get was Friday April 26th –  a calendar month after the first inspection was booked for.

Between getting the cab back on the 18th and the 26th I drove very carefully around town. I went to Morrison’s, but was too nervous to go much further in case something else went wrong. My finances had flat-lined; things would be really serious if the cab didn’t pass.

At the inspection centre they didn’t put my cab on the ramp. I guess they just wanted to look at the bodywork in relation to the points on the failure sheet. It was a huge relief when the man walked over to me with my new licence (he even screwed the plates on for me).

In the past month I’d spent a small fortune on keeping my cab on the road – more than I would have got through TfLs de-licensing scheme, which gave me pause for thought. Until next year…

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Sole Trader

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I’ve spent a fair bit of my working life as a self-employed sole trader, with reasonably success. It doesn’t suit everybody though. You need self-discipline and a sense of responsibility.

You need self-discipline, as every day we face the choice of getting out of bed or not to go to work. No-one but yourself is going to reprimand you for taking unauthorised leave – or throwing a sickie. We need to be able to handle responsibility because when things go wrong it’s down to us to sort out. When your cab is out of commission for any reason it can cost you dearly (as I write this, my cab is in a local body shop following a disastrous inspection failure – more about that next time).

Being your own boss has its advantages and disadvantages. You have to take the rough with the smooth. Being self-employed helps give you motivation. You never know if you’re going to have a good or bad day, but you have some influence over the outcome. As an agent of my own destiny, I can choose my own hours using the twenty-four hour clock and experiment with different hours and days. I can work longer and turn a bad day into a one. Taking things further, I can choose to take on different work completely, or start a new business. Having a portfolio career would allow me to work the cab part-time.

I’d hate to do my job for a regular wage. It would be boring and restrictive to have to work the same hours every day for the same pay. Even the wage was good I’d be going through the motions. I’d need the motivation – excitement even – to know I had the ability to motivate myself to improve things.

Working to regular hours wouldn’t suit any of us who drive cabs. What if your agreed five days included days where it’s virtually impossible to work? I like working weekends but I’m regularly having days off to avoid disruption. I wrote a whole weekend off in March: I got just three hours in on Saturday 23rd until anti-Brexit demonstrators closed off Central London. I didn’t bother at all the following day when a half-marathon shut many of London’s key routes.

I could be having a slow day, and I’m watching the clock until I feel I’ve put in a shift and can justify heading home. Out of nowhere, someone stops me and asks for Terminal 5. A bad day has suddenly turned into a good day. This has often happened when I’m thinking of home but open to one last job.

A guaranteed income is over-rated. Whatever you’re paid you cut your cloth accordingly. If you’re not being paid much you know you’re not going to afford many luxuries, and if you sail too close to the wind, when unforeseen things happen and you’re presented with an unexpected bill, you’re in trouble. If you’re on good pay, you will get used to that level of income, and whatever you earn will be eaten up. It’s the same with having time on your hands: however much free time you have you’ll always find something to fill it with.

There’s also the matter of tax and National Insurance. It costs a lot to keep a cab on the road, but our tax bills are negligible compared with employees on similar pay. When I joined TfL as a Knowledge Examiner I was on a decent wage, but I was shocked when I received my first pay slip and saw how much I was deducted. When things were running well I was financially better off on the cab, even taking into account holiday and sick pay.

I’ve tried other self-employed pursuits, including writing. Writing is even more precarious. Few people make a full time income. I’d need five columns in national magazines every week, plus a best-selling book, to make a living. It’s a nice image, tapping a few words out in your pyjamas until it’s time to go to the pub to edit your work. You clock off after five pints and congratulate on a job well done. Of course, it’s not like that. When I look at the sales for my book the pint glass is always half empty before I start. Hence the cab

As everyone knows, driving a cab is one of the best part time jobs you can have. I’m often asked if I would choose to go into this job if I had my time again. I’d say it depends on where you’re coming from. Rather than spend three years doing the Knowledge, you could go to university (I’ve done both). It’s not always the answer. Everyone’s job has got harder, and few people have job security. After university I thought I was safe as a Careers Adviser. I took voluntary redundancy in 2010 and went back on the Knowledge. The company I worked for has downsized staff every year since then, and better folk than I were unceremoniously put out to grass in middle age. That’s scary. Probably more scary than worrying about Uber.

 

 

 

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