Author Archives: Pubcat London Taxi Tails

About Pubcat London Taxi Tails

I' m a London Cab Driver, writer, and a qualified Careers Adviser. I am also a former Knowledge of London Examiner (old customers need not call me Sir any more, we're all equals here, dude). I'll use this site to give my own idiosyncratic spin on the cab trade, and other social issues. There will be original edits of published magazine articles, plus shorter comments. So, why Pubcat? Simply because I like pubs and I like cats; and I support the social inclusion of all animals in pubs (Yes, that's my house tiger, Rocky, sat on a London map when I was studying the Knowledge the second time round).

Electric Warrior

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine)

 

Donald Trump called the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, a “stone cold loser” when he visited these shores in May. Although Trump was referring to violent crime rather than charging points for electric cabs, Sadiq really could prove to be a loser when the Mayoral elections come up next year.

While being quizzed by Conservative Assembly Member, Shaun Bailey, on the number of electrical charging points for taxis, Mr Khan said there were enough charging points “as things stand.” A rather cavalier comment, if I may say so. As of May 8th there were over 200 rapid charging points. This includes 72 dedicated to taxis. London boroughs have also installed over 1,000 lamp column charging points for overnight charging. There might just be enough charging points right now, but there are over 2,000 electric cabs in London and that number is growing fast. Around 40 new electric cabs are being bought every week. It’s the Mayor who told us to go electric and stopped us buying new diesels. It’s his responsibility to provide the infrastructure. If the self-styled electric warrior doesn’t see a problem looming, he’ll be caught out later on.

There are websites showing the location of charging points, but nobody should have to consult the internet to plan their re-fuelling. If people are currently driving around looking for points, it’s going to get worse if provision doesn’t keep up with demand. Then there’s the time spent waiting to charge up. An electric cab saves money on fuel, but not on time; and as we all know, time is money. I wouldn’t want to sit around for half an hour just to save a couple of quid. The situation isn’t so bad for the civilian car driver who doesn’t clock up the kind of miles that a taxi does. Many of us need to drive many miles before we can even start work. I burn up 70 miles just driving into Central London and back, then add another 60 or 70 miles in stop-start urban traffic. The current TXE has a petrol engine back-up, but it would still need a daily charge. Forthcoming electric taxis probably won’t have a petrol back-up. I could easily run out of power on the M1 going home, or if I trap a roader late on in the day.

A few years ago we were told we’d have a choice of five new taxi models to choose from. We still only have one. We were meant to have a new Nissan, which was said to have a better range. This model is meant to be coming out this summer, but they’ve been saying that for years.

The cost of the vehicle is a big factor too. We don’t know how much any new cab is going to cost. The TXE is out of the price range of many drivers, and I’m surprised they’ve sold so many. Who are buying these sixty-grand cabs? Clearly people who are working longer hours than I am. Will the TXE continue to sell well? It’s surely dependent on the Mayor’s attitude to charging. We need confidence that he’s committed to the electronic switchover, but we’re not getting it.

It’s inevitable that the current (current – get it?) price of charging will prove to be an introductory offer. The government will want to get the money back it’s losing on petrol and diesel tax. There could come a time when electrical re-fuelling becomes as expensive as diesel, but taking much longer to do. Anyway, that’s a matter for the government and whoever sails in her, to sort out in the coming years.  In the meantime, the Mayoral candidates need to be grilled on their plans for electrical charging. The people of London can then decide.

Cab families make up a fair chunk of the electorate. I’m unable to vote as I live well out of London, but I can’t afford to be smug as I’m as affected by many of the goings on within the M25 as those who live there (though I’m glad my Council Tax didn’t go towards Boris’s garden bridge project which had to be abandoned by the new Mayor in order to save further waste – to think Boris is likely to be our new Prime Minister in a couple of weeks!).

I hear Mr Khan is planning a no-car day in London on Sunday September 22nd in order to improve air quality. London’s air quality isn’t caused by extra traffic; it’s caused by daft road re-modelling. I assume he’s not including taxis and minicabs in the ban? If he does, we’ll know that he’s a loser who has really lost it.

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Live at the Comedy Store

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine this week).

Once again, it’s my weekend off and I’m watching TV footage of demos closing off London. Last time it was Extinction Rebellion; this time it’s the State Visit of Donald Trump. This one had a much funnier side to it though, and I really enjoyed the handbags between Trump and the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan. The American President had already caused a stir by expressing support for Brexit, and various British politicians had expressed disapproval of the President. Sadiq Khan, had called Trump a “global threat”. Jeremy Corbyn called him a “negative force” and even attended a demonstration against him. Several dignitaries declined to meet Mr Trump while he was in England, or attend the Queen’s dinner in his honour.

Mr Trump’s plane hadn’t even touched the tarmac when he started tweeting. He compared the London Mayor with his New York counterpart, calling Sadiq Khan “the twin of de Blasio, except shorter”. I was highly amused when Trump called Mr Khan a “stone cold loser”.  Trump’s comments were possibly cruel, but he’d been badly let down by his hosts. Whatever you think of Donald Trump as a person, he holds the office of the President of the United States; our closest political friend. And we could do with as many friends as possible at the moment.

In the taxi game you need a sense of humour. It’s what gets us through. I found myself comparing politicians with comedians. Boris provided a few laughs as London Mayor, but there was little substance underlying his comedy (London taxpayers will remember the £513 million he wasted on a phantom garden bridge). Mayor Khan never got going, and it’s certainly not funny what he allowed to happen to London’s road systems. The new workings at Old Street gyratory make the travel news every day, and many of us have been sat behind a bus on a single lane on Tottenham Court Road since re-modelling. Artificially engineered traffic jams: he’s a real funny guy.

So who would you pay money to see at the Comedy Store? Mr Trump has the air of a seventies comedian, Mr Khan doesn’t. Trump would appeal to the old school Bernard Manning-type crowd, while Mayor Khan would be more like Ben Elton in the eighties, going on about Mrs Thatch, only less funny. I bet Trump gets on great with Prince Phillip. If Trump and Khan teamed up as a Little and Large type-act, Khan would definitely play the straight man. He’d be too right-on to blame Old Street on the mother-in-law. Add Boris into the mix though, and you’d have a good comedy evening to please everybody.

Trump, and his best mate, Boris, are like drunken uncles coming round at Christmas. We know they’re not PC, and we know they’ll say something outrageous. If we’re being honest, that’s why we like them, or at least find them entertaining. Boris would be an entertaining PM, but he’d soon outstay his welcome.

Mr Trump showed impressive comedy timing at a press conference during his visit. Mrs May laughed along, but I don’t think she quite gets it. Mr Khan’s people described Trump’s insults as “childish”. That’s the thing: childish humour is a very male thing. Male humour is based on insults. It means nothing. It’s a sign of affection. Look at the way we talk to each other in the cab caffs. You’re not accepted until you’re given a nickname and are insulted every time you make an entrance. Men enjoy the same humour we did in the school playground. My wife humours me with a strained grin when I chase around the kitchen pretending I’m Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre every time I carve a roast with the electric knife. Every man worth his salt when presented with a torch will put it on under his chin and pretend to be a ghost, complete with “Woo!” sound effects (come on, it’s not just me, is it?…).  It’s only men who play air guitar, or quote lines from our favourite films (I did it earlier in this article). Have any of us never done an impression of Robert Di Niro in Taxi Driver?

More political comedy was to come when candidates for Prime Minister jostled for position. They set out their views on Brexit, taxation – and their drugs of choice. It was all a bit silly and improbable. One hopeful said he had a cannabis lassi while backpacking through India, while another took opium at a wedding in Iran. As you do. Boris once claimed to have tried coke, but sneezed at the moment of impact and missed out on the powder. The regular dope-smokers were pretty much ignored, but Michael Gove was singled out for special treatment. I’m not sure why, and it’s hard to gauge whether public opinion of him has become worse or better. Mr Gove has something of the Mr Bean about him, and I think he’s made himself more interesting by admitting to taking cocaine twenty years ago by mistake. At the Comedy Store, Michael Gove could surely now tell a few spliff jokes to get the students on his side.

So, could we be getting a stoner PM? The Europeans might well be laughing at us, but we can take it. We can laugh at ourselves. The USA is our friend because of a shared language. We share culture and comedy too. So let’s hear it for Trump, Boris, Gove, and all the other greats in the great British comedy tradition.

 

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Women’s Football

I’m finally starting to engage with women’s football. The women are certainly less irritating than the men. Watching the Women’s World Cup matches on TV I haven’t seen anyone wearing headphones, whole sleeves of tattoos, or stupid haircuts. And they’re not rolling around every five minutes as if they’ve been shot. Go Lionesses! (at the time of writing Scotland haven’t been sent home yet, but it shouldn’t be long for them to keep up with tradition).

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Up The Workers

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

 

I read with interest that Uber drivers have taken strike action to demand they are recognised as employees and are paid the minimum wage. I thought this employees v self-employed thing was sorted ages ago. Apparently not; the appeals go on and there are still court cases pending. The last time I saw an Uber advert aimed at recruiting drivers they were promising huge amounts of money to drivers. Do you think they were telling porkies?

Anyway, I’m not here to have a pop at Uber drivers; they have it hard enough with their employer/agency supporting the ULEZ charge. Ain’t that a kick in the head? Good luck with the holiday and sick pay.

I wonder if we could claim we are employed workers of TfL and get holiday and sick pay? We’re told what to drive and where we can do it. TfL control just about everything to do with our business. We are just as dependent on TfL as Uber drivers are on their organisation.

In terms of vehicle, we’re even more restricted. We can only buy one model from new, and I’m unconvinced we’re going to see more. All London taxis have had to be wheelchair accessible as far back as I can remember. They also have to comply with the twenty-five feet turning circle. It’s a great feature, but it undoubtedly puts the price up. TfL have got it the wrong way round anyway: minicabs outnumber us about 4 to 1, so it’s minicabs that should have the turning circle requirement.

We’re told where to place the stickers and notices provided by TfL. We’re compelled to publicise certain credit card companies; but we could be in trouble if we publicise our own business ventures. All advertising has to conform to increasingly strict guidelines. TfL decide what’s permissible in the style of a Taliban censor: no women in underwear, and nothing dangerous like guns, bombs, salt or sugar. Are our cabs even our own? We learnt in a recent edition of Taxi that a taxi is “a designated public space.”

We used to think of the road network as a designated public space, but it now appears to be privately-owned by TfL. They decide who can use it, when to close it; and they can muck about with the roads as much as they like. The useable roads are reducing at an alarming rate each week, and whole areas are out of bounds (ie. Bank Junction). Their cameras are watching our every move. Any mistake and we get a photo of our cab in the post with a demand for money.

We’re told where we can work: fair enough. I don’t have much grasp of what goes on east of Bishopsgate so I’m not going to be plying for hire in Essex. There don’t seem to be the same restrictions for minicabs operating out of their licensing areas though. TfL-licenced cars are famously operating all over the country with impunity. If we tried picking up folk in Wolverhampton our feet wouldn’t touch.

We’re told what to charge by a tamper-proof meter.  Fine; but private hire companies can charge what they like. Uber are keeping their fares as low as possible until they’ve taken over the world, but they can’t resist ratchetting up the fare when there’s a spike in demand (in the unlikely event they do take over the world, their surge-pricing fares will become the norm. 370% I heard recently).

We have to use ranks appointed by TfL, and we can’t turn jobs down when our For Hire light is on. We’re compelled to take a passenger twelve miles out (we should be so lucky; I can’t remember the last time I had a job longer than twelve miles). Minicab drivers are under pressure to take every job offered, but the pressure come from their organisation rather than TfL – whether they’re self-employed or not.

Our training is clearly stipulated. You can combine study at home with riding around London with a clipboard, but there’s no distance learning option: you have to physically present yourself at an exam centre for a very traumatic series of Appearances. There’s virtually no transparency or flexibility. Complaining is pointless, resistance is futile.

What else? Ah yes, we haven’t yet been told what we can and can’t wear, but give it time. In fairness, the opposition tend to dress smarter than we do, though I don’t see why anyone needs to wear a suit to drive someone to Euston. Aspiring taxi drivers pretty much have to wear a suit and tie for Knowledge exams. I shouldn’t think trainee barristers have to wear suits for law exams.

My ideas might be a touch under-baked, but there is certainly compelling evidence suggesting that we are merely employees of TfL. I could do with some holiday pay, so I think it’s worth taking this one to court. To register your interest in my crowdfunding claim, just send me your money in a brown paper bag. I regret I’m unable to accept credit cards or give change. Oh, I forgot to mention mandatory credit card acceptance…

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Mutiny on the High Seas

(Original version of article written for TAXI magazine)

Yacht Club

Those of you who read my last article will know that I had another enforced holiday in April when my cab failed its annual licensing inspection. Did I miss much? I don’t think so. While I was trying to enjoy myself as a man of leisure I watched the horror of the Extinction Rebellion fiasco unfold on BBC news. The last time this group disrupted the streets I drove home in despair unable to work. This time I wasn’t a war correspondent, I was a spectator watching it on TV.

It seems the police had learnt nothing from last time. They carried people off the streets one at a time, but it was a futile exercise as other demonstrators quickly came to replace them. They reacted too slowly and too indecisively, and pretty much let them get on with it. There were video clips circulating showing the police dancing to music with the protestors. The protestors even sat on a yacht at Oxford Circus. A yacht! How can you unload a yacht at one of Central London’s busiest junctions without anybody noticing?

As protestors glued themselves to Waterloo Bridge I was shouting at the TV: “Why don’t they just hose them off the streets?!” I don’t mean Boris’s water cannon; I just mean some kind of beefed-up garden hose. I suppose they were worried about infringing human rights, or something. There might even be an EU law against it.

I agree that more needs to be done about the environment, and that it needs to be done now; but such disruption just annoys people: even people like who are watching it on TV in the comfort of their own homes. What about the rights of people innocently going about their business in London? And where did the buses go??

The whole thing is estimated to have cost the country seven million pounds. They also left a hell of a mess for people so concerned about the environment. The specific demands of Extinction Rebellion aren’t clear. I probably support their aims – if not their methods. They want to talk to the government about global issues, but what can we do on the ground? I’m painfully aware that I’m part of the problem driving my diesel cab around London. I’d be specific and ask why electric vehicles are so expensive, and why there still aren’t enough charging points. The trustafarians gluing themselves to bridges, and the luvvies speaking to the media from the Oxford Circus yacht don’t need to worry too much about the price of electric vehicles, but most regular drivers simply can’t afford to dump their diesels.

Waterworks

I turned off the TV and read the papers instead. Something I read both annoyed and amused me. I read about a water company that used Uber drivers to report on leaks. Severn Trent is one of several firms to have missed water leak reduction targets. In a series of two-week trials named “Virtual Fieldworker Programme”, the company hired taxis and Uber drivers to visit around 50 sites and film evidence of water leaks. The drivers then send images back to the company for them to despatch engineers out as appropriate. It’s obviously cheaper than sending surveyors out. Not everyone was amused. The GMB union’s National Officer, Stuart Fegan, spoke of the safety implications, commentating that trained engineers should be deciding if water is contaminated, not taxi drivers: “And how is someone going to feel after they report a leak, expecting a Severn Trent worker to attend with a uniform and the necessary training and a taxi driver turns up. They’d think it was a hoax call.”

When I think of it, I can’t remember the last time I saw a utility worker in a uniform inspecting anything. No-one’s been to read my gas and electricity meters for about ten years. I’ve been with various companies and they’ve all hassled me every three months to read my own meters and email the figures through. I suppose it saves paying an Uber driver to do it.

I wonder what else taxi and minicab drivers could get involved in? Perhaps feeding the cat when I’m on holiday? Changing the litter, £4 extra? We’ve all been used as a removal van. Shopping? Most of us who do account work have gone shopping for our esteemed clients. I’ve picked up dry cleaning and lost coats from offices, and boxes of gourmet cat food for a lady in Little Venice. Some years ago I picked up a lady from a posh block of flats on a Taxicard. Before we set off she persuaded me to walk down to St John’s Wood Station and buy her a newspaper. I was so amused by the request that I carried it out without question. Only when I dropped her off for her lunch date at Roast did I feel a slight twinge of resentment.

I don’t come into contact with ladies of the night as I no longer work late, but older drivers can tell tales of their cabs being used as knocking shops; by both professionals and skilled amateurs. Apparently being asked to drive slowly around Regent’s Park Outer Circle was once a common request by those desiring some privacy.

Anyway, back to the sea: the government has approved a new runway at Heathrow, so brace yourself for a return of the yacht.

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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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