No work, no pubs. I was up in the loft earlier… Let’s Cook!
No work, no pubs. I was up in the loft earlier… Let’s Cook!
(Article written for on-line magazine, B-C-ing-U), published today:
As I sit at my PC typing this, the wind is howling outside. We’re advised not to venture out unless our journeys are essential. The port of Dover is closed. Flights are cancelled and there’s a 50 miles per hour speed limit on the train network. Some trains aren’t running at all. Some areas are flooding. Power cuts are imminent. At home, the cat won’t go out into the garden, and the rabbit is grounded on safety grounds.
This country rarely experiences extreme weather, and we’re never fully-prepared for it. When the first snowflake drops, the roads and rails grind to a halt, and all the schools close; just in case they face legal action for forcing children out into the cold. The authorities don’t like us moving around as it causes accidents and incidents that they’ll have to deal with. Transport providers don’t like us clogging up the roads, trains and buses; or causing a jam at Sunglasses Hut at the airport.
As much as I like to pretend I’m driving my rig across Alaska like on TVs Ice Road Truckers, anything more than a dusting of the white stuff and I’m on my way home. Conversely, when the first rays of sun hit our shores, the great British public head to a pub garden to order a pint of lager with a wasp in it. Others strip off and lie around drunk in our parks. Or try to get into cabs in Soho. We need to be wary. Driving in hot weather is very debilitating, even in a cab with air-conditioning.
Normally I’d be working Sunday on the cab. I’m not scared to drive into London. I’m only at home because I’m booked in for a family meal in a Hertfordshire pub. I decided to have a rare Sunday off because of today’s Winter Run and the widespread road closures the event requires. To my surprise the Winter Run was called off on Friday, two days before the event. By then I’d committed to my family lunch and I was already in holiday mode. Storm Ciara they called it. As if giving it a name makes it more serious and official. The follow-up storm a week late was named Storm Dennis – not such a glamorous-sounding name. Who thinks up these names? Well, my twelve-mile drive to Harpenden was essential, as is any visit to a pub. It passed off uneventfully, though people in many places did have serious problems.
So the Winter Run was cancelled because of a bit of wind? Surely scheduling a run in February comes with the risk of, er, winter-type weather. That’s why it’s called a Winter Run. A winter run could be expected to feature ice, snow or wind; and I’d have thought that a proper runner should be able to cope with those conditions. They’re not landing a passenger jet on an icy runway.
In some countries they drive on snow and ice. I guess they’re used to it. Everything shuts down here. Remember the “Beast from the East” two years ago? At the end of February and the beginning of March 2018, I lost four days’ work because of snow. Little over a month later we had three boiling hot days. April 19th was the hottest April day since 1949. Typical British inconsistency. Of course, under Brexit we are now free to import more extreme weather from non-European Union countries, so maybe we need to get used to strange weather.
I had a friend at university, Finnish Erik. He thought this global warming thing was great and looked forward to seeing palm trees in Helsinki. That was over twenty years ago. Since then we’ve been made aware that the hottest places in the world will become inhabitable in the future, and that folk are starting to move from hot places to more temperate ones. I wonder if there are property investment opportunities in Greenland?
Anyway, I expect that when you come to read this all the extreme weather will be over and we’ll be looking forward to a bright warm spring…
(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine – out this week):
Last summer there was an epidemic of people whizzing around London on motorised kids’ scooters. They were getting in everyone’s way and causing accidents. When it was pointed out that it was illegal to ride scooters on both public roads and pavements, the police went to work. It was widely reported that they’d stopped hundreds of people. A few were arrested, but most were let off with a lecture on the law. It appeared that time was up for these adults that had never grown up, but I hear that the powers that be are thinking of legalising scooters for road use.
This is the modern day response to illegal practices that the authorities can’t be bothered to stop. If a law is too much trouble to enforce, they just legalise it – especially if the mode of transport in question has two wheels. One of the first rules I would have learned on my Cycling Proficiency Test in 1971 would have been to never overtake on the inside. Doing so would have been considered near-suicidal. In fact, cycling in a big city would have been strictly for headcases. But here they come, zooming up the inside of cars, cabs and lorries all over London. Never mind if you’re indicating a left turn, they’ll carry straight on oblivious to the danger. They assume you’re going to look before you turn, and they assume you’ll let them undertake you. Usually, but not always, the cyclist gets lucky. Undertaking was officially sanctioned when they set up cycle lanes on the inside. Not all roads have this facility, but cyclists take it that they can undertake on all roads, whether marked out or not.
A couple of years ago we were warned that motorists were going to start getting fined for encroaching on the cyclists’ advance stop line. The advance stop line was soon accompanied by cyclists’ traffic lights that turned green before the main motorists’ light. This was another neat remedy for something that the authorities didn’t want to take responsibility for. Cyclists always accelerated through the lights before anyone else, and legalising it absolved everyone from stopping it. Anyway, the advanced stop area is now full of motorcycles. No-one appears to have been ticketed, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before this practice is legalised. Motorcyclists also think they’re being clever by undertaking on the cyclists’ lane. I can’t imagine this being made legal, but I doubt anyone’s going to do anything about it anyway.
Nobody’s going to do anything about adults acting like kids, riding plastic scooters down Oxford Street. They can’t be bothered to keep unauthorised motor vehicles off that road; a road that is essentially a bus lane. I can see what they’re doing. TfL failed in their plan to close Oxford Street to motor vehicles entirely, so they’re just waiting for the situation gets worse before trying again. Inadequate signage gives the impression that nobody really cares. The lack of enforcement backs this up. The attitude is, if no-one cares and there are no sanctions, it’s pretty much legalised. Like cycling up the inside, or riding scooters, skateboards, and segways on the road. When congestion and pollution increases, and more accidents happen involving minicabs and vans, they’ll try again to push through a total vehicle ban. With half of Oxford Street westbound currently closed, we can see how the future might look like.
There is widespread apathy from those controlling the streets. They’ll close streets off in order to make the motorists’ life harder, but allow others to create hazards. As far as I remember, cycle rickshaws started appearing about thirty years ago. They were a nuisance back them, and they’re still here. Unlicensed and unstable, these carriages of carnage are being ridden by dubious characters charging those with more money than sense £40 for a ride along Oxford Street. Neither TfL, nor a succession of London Mayors have done anything about the menace. Could we say the same about Uber? That matter is in the balance. TfL have deemed them to be unfit to provide minicabs in London, but they are still operating.
Finally, are all these vans emblazoned with advertising authorised to drive around Buckingham Palace? I thought commercial vehicles were banned. It’s not as if there are no police officers around. No, if I was running London all those vans and rickshaws would be gone, and if I saw Prince Harry riding down The Mall on a skateboard I’d nick him too.
(Original edit of article for TAXI magazine this week).
One of the big scandals of 2019 was the fake English language tests for private hire drivers. English proficiency was rightly being tested by Transport for London at designated centres. Test certificates could also be obtained through equivalent qualifications gained at private colleges. Journalists investigating this weak spot found they could simply pay a sum of money and be awarded a certificate without sitting a test. A BBC journalist paid £500 to buy a qualification. When the resulting television expose was aired TfL had questions to answer. They thanked the journos for all their good work and promised to look into the matter. Would there be a Christmas knock on the door for minicab drivers who had bought certificates from a Mickey Mouse college?
TfL appeared to act decisively, but the matter should have been looked into from the outset. Transport for London is the gatekeeper of taxi & private hire legislation. They have the responsibility to those working within the trade, and to passengers, to ensure everything is above board. It shouldn’t be left to the media to investigate suspicious practices. TfL said they were “deeply concerned” and “will support the relevant authorities with any wider investigations into these organisations.” I thought TfL were the relevant authority: they are the authority who issue taxi and private hire licences, and they involve themselves in everything imaginable that happens on London’s streets; including closing roads at will, and telling us how to conduct our business. If TfL are the police, who are policing the police? I’m not sure where the mayor is either. This is happening on his watch, in his city. Where is the geezer?
TfL refused Uber a new licence towards the end of the year. I don’t know whether the ban will hold this time, but TfL are evidently aware of suspicious goings-on in the murky world of private hire. Since private hire licensing rocketed with the coming of Uber there have been insurance scandals, serious customer data breaches, and a huge crime rate amongst drivers that Uber have tried to cover up. There are many people driving minicabs who aren’t who they say they are. Those in the know in private hire circles can put you in touch with a tame doctor who can provide a guaranteed trouble-free medical without having access to your medical records. When I renewed my taxi licence I had to make an appointment with an optician, but I understand that even this isn’t necessary in the weird and frightening world of private hire. Private colleges should have been scrutinised along with all the other possible loopholes in minicab licensing.
Has the insurance matter been resolved? Are Uber drivers telling their insurance companies that they are working in areas they are not licensed for? Wolverhampton and Brighton come up a lot in discussions on cross border hiring: would a Wolverhampton-licensed driver working in Brighton be adequately insured? Don’t ask TfL, they’ll let someone else work that out. Cross-border hiring will surely continue to be a talking point this year, but our licensing authority will wring their hands and hope it all blows over.
Taxi complaints are handled directly by TfL. Complaints are taken seriously, though not as seriously as they were under the Public Carriage Office when the Police were running the show. Private hire complaints are handled in-house by individual operators. We only get to hear of incidents if they are serious enough to interest the media. Uber never took complaints seriously and that’s part of the reason why they were denied a new London licence, and why they’re sure to go through another very long and expensive court appeal.
TfL drag their feet looking at complaints, but move like greased lightning to bank the licence money from around 113,000 minicab drivers (outnumbering by at least five times the number of taxi licences). When I worked as a Knowledge Examiner a couple of my colleagues would photograph suspicious activity by out of town minicab drivers and report it. The camera footage would be sent upstairs, but we’d rarely hear back. They were undoubtedly too busy selling licences to act on evidence of illegal activity that was handed to them on a plate. The fact is that handling complaints doesn’t bring in any money. Issuing licences does. I’ll be hoping for a lot more from our licensing authority this year.
(My original edit of my New Year article written for Taxi magazine).
At this time of year, trade is slow and we have more time on our hands. Time to catch up with some reading perhaps. Towards the end of 2019 I read a copy of PHTM magazine. There’s always something interesting to read in PHTM. It gives some thoughtful insights on issues affecting both the private hire and taxi trades. It’s not just a matter of seeing what the opposition are up to, and it’s not all about minicabs.
In November’s issue we learnt that a goose had smashed through the windscreen of a taxi in Nottingham. A photo shows the goose sitting on the back seat of a TX surrounded by broken glass. The bird appeared unharmed following veterinary attention. Vets had to give another critter the once over after a Welsh taxi driver found an escaped corn snake warming itself under the bonnet of his cab in Cardiff.
I enjoyed the article by Andy Peters, Secretary of the GMB Brighton & Hove Taxi Section. He discusses the situation in Brighton & Hove where Uber drivers are flooding in from places as far away as Wolverhampton and Sefton. The Brighton PH and taxi trades clearly have the same feelings about cross-border hiring as we do in London, and probably suffer from it more. Andy doesn’t mention London Uber drivers, but I’m sure many of them trying it on in Brighton are licensed by TfL, the licensing authority who always say “Yes”. Anyway, what amused the GMB Secretary was a photo circulating, said to be of a Southampton private hire driver asleep in the boot of his car. This is seen as evidence that out-of-towners are coming into Brighton and sleeping in their cars between shifts.
Mr Peters goes on to make comparisons between the working conditions of some PH drivers to the days of domestic slavery. He notes the way some Uber drivers are like chambermaids working for a decaying gentry, such as in TV programmes such as Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey. He’s right; sleeping in a minicab boot is similar to living in an attic waiting for to be summoned to work by the master of the house. The Uber app pinging is the modern version of a yank of the chain by their social betters. It’s as if drivers are sitting in their cars – or lying in the boot – awaiting Lord Uber of the Big House to call you up on an errand.
The fact is, if you refuse the errand, the master will simply find someone else to do it, and you won’t eat lunch today, or at least get another job for a long time. You might as well go back to sleep. Thousands of drivers with PH stickers are sitting around waiting for the call. They’re not needed, they’re victims of over-supply. But the app-based suppliers’ sole appeal is on providing a swift response to a virtual hail, and it doesn’t cost the organisation money to have drivers sitting around all day making the place look untidy. I know some London taxi drivers sleep in their cabs at Heathrow. It’s a lifestyle choice to sleep in the cab and catch the first arrivals. It’s not a lifestyle I’d choose, but things aren’t so desperate for us. There’s more element of choice when a taxi driver can choose to legally pick up from the street.
Those of us who listen to LBC may remember presenter James O’Brien comparing the Uber organisation to Victorian mill owners. Very true; though at least the mill owners paid their taxes. We don’t seem to have progressed much in the world of work really. Social cohesion, fairness and security has been forgotten about as we’ve been so occupied by the issues around Brexit, and yet more elections. Domestic slavery undoubtedly still goes on, even if the modern form now affects those independent-minded souls hiring themselves out as self-employed soul traders. If you’re dependent on someone else to provide your living you are vulnerable to exploitation.
Uber’s status in London is uncertain, but they still operate in many cities of the world. Maybe Uber, and their ilk, will die out like sending kids up chimneys did?
I was wondering if I’d fit inside the boot of a TX4. No of course, I wouldn’t. Anyway, it’s pretty dark in there. I don’t really know what goes on under the bonnet, and I’d rather not know if there’s any activity in the boot. There could be all kinds of critters living there. Keep them doors locked!
(My Christmas article for B-C-ing-U, as it appeared in the on-line mag. A similar article was edited for Taxi magazine this week, but I like this one better)
I hate working this time of year. I love Christmas, but I hate driving around London in my cab. I dread that moment in November when I’m stuck in a traffic queue, and I have to make that painful admission: Christmas has started. It gets earlier each year. This year it started at about the time they switched on the Christmas lights on Regent Street, almost obscenely in the middle of November.
This is the start of the madness. Black Friday hasn’t even appeared yet. Those traffic queues will get worse, and they’ll spread. Buses won’t be moving, delivery vans will be parked on double yellows blocking everyone’s progress. Tempers will be frayed. Out of towners will be circling the West End looking for parking that doesn’t exist, while craning their necks up at the Christmas lights. All the year’s road closures and madcap re-modelling projects will come into sharp focus as we sit and stew behind the buses. The meter is moving, but our wheels aren’t. All we can do is apologise to our customers for the delays and the inflated fares.
December is fair game for Christmas festivities, but November isn’t. I don’t even allow myself to look up at the Christmas lights until December. It’s just not right. I drive up to Piccadilly Circus eyes straight ahead, as if to gaze upon the Christmas lights in November is to bring down a curse of bad luck for the coming year.
I don’t want to see any Christmas TV adverts before December, or hear Christmas songs or carols. I don’t want to hear Noddy Holder screaming “It’s Christmas!” until December. I don’t want to see Christmas trees on sale too early either. The purchase of Christmas trees in November should be outlawed. I’m disappointed this didn’t feature in any of the General Election manifestos. I thought the Greens would be keen to stop the premature felling of trees at least.
My plastic Woolworths Christmas tree goes up on the first weekend after December 1st. It’s seen sixteen Christmasses. It’s been brought down by the cats and chewed by the rabbits, but it lives to see another year. I’d write to Woolworths to congratulate them on the quality of their replica tree, but the shop has long gone. Last year I bought a miniature pine from Morrison’s. It’s a tiny tree, just big enough to decorate a table top. But at least I can say I have a real tree. Surprisingly, the tree survived all year in a pot outdoors, and I’m expecting continued growth in 2020. If Morrison’s survives Brexit I’ll write to them next year.
A few days before the Big Day, the roads become quieter and trade drops off. We feel we’ve earned our Christmas break. I sometimes work Christmas Eve. It’s quiet, but there’s a jolly atmosphere. If I lived in London I might have tried Christmas Day just to satisfy my curiosity. Same with New Year’s Eve. I often work it, at least until the bridge closures are put in for the fireworks display. I worked a few New Year’s Days, but the road closures are so extensive now that I’ve given up on that. It can pay well though.
The New Year is a time for reflection. We look over the past year and reflect on what went well and what went badly. Hopefully we didn’t pick up many drunks. It’s difficult because many of them look respectable, and they don’t just operate in the hours of darkness either. I usually pick up at least one party of boozed-up office workers off to annoy Arab families at the Winter Wonderland, but as a paranoid cove, I manage to avoid most of the unpleasantness. It’ll be another interesting year for sure. The LEVC semi-electric cab has sold well since its launch almost two years ago, and there’s a fully-electric cab on its way. Uber are still hanging on, like a manky Christmas tree chocolate melted by the lights.
Will trade be better this year? We ask ourselves that same question every year, more in hope than expectation. There’s now the Kipper Season to endure. No-one’s sure why this time of the year is called the kipper season: some say it’s because kippers were all Victorian cabmen could afford to eat in January. Or it could just mean that the trade is as flat as a kipper. Either way, we can look forward to one, two, or even three months of poor trade. Eventually we’ll come out of that dark tunnel and the days will bring a bit more light. We can look forward to some spring warmth, and hopefully a bit more business.
Will we get to enjoy the romance of a white Christmas? Great! – If it starts late on Christmas Eve and has thawed by the time I decide to go back to work. I don’t really remember the last white Christmas – probably in the 70s. I remember some warm ones. Global warming? Perhaps Extinction Rebellion are on to something after all?
I’ve included one of my own photos taken in late February 2018; just after I called my work day off as I couldn’t get the cab off my driveway.
Have a good one!
(Original edit – and title – for article written for Taxi magazine).
With twenty mile per hour speed limits being rolled out all over London, buses now have a ten mile per hour speed limit on Tottenham Court Road. Pedestrians haven’t got used to the new two-way working and keep getting hit by buses. I shouldn’t make light of it, as it must smart a bit being hit by a bus. I certainly wouldn’t want it to happen to me, or my cab.
I wouldn’t call Tottenham Court Road a proper two-way street as the southbound lane is buses and cycles only. There’s so little traffic going south that it’s really just an under-used contraflow bus lane: a waste of space. When traffic is engineered to crawl it encourages people to walk in between buses. Gower Street has been a road to avoid for months, and I believe this road will soon become two-way too. God help us.
Even the signs are annoying: as you turn left off Tottenham Court Road into Howland Street there’s a sign at the lights saying “Cyclists Wait for Signal”. This is in the vain hope that cyclists might obey the signals if the order is displayed in print. They shouldn’t need a sign telling them to stop at a red light!
Earlier in the year, Baker Street and Gloucester Place went two-way. How’s this working out? Gloucester Place southbound moves well, but at the expense of the northbound which has got worse. Baker Street used to work all right and should not have been touched. There’s only one clear lane going south because of the right turn lanes. And you are always behind a bus or coach.
London driving is becoming more difficult through increasingly complex traffic systems. Just about every part of Central London is blighted by complicated cycle lanes and strange traffic light arrangements. The Blackfriars area has one of the most complex road systems. They’ve tried to compartmentalise space into dedicated lanes. I get what they’re trying to do, but when everyone has their own separate set of lanes and lights to adhere to it unwittingly defeats the safety object. Pedestrians think they can cross New Bridge Street because the cycles have stopped, but the vehicle lane next to it has a green light. The only way collisions are avoided is by everyone obeys the rules; and that means motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. It’s complicated though. I particularly dislike the eastbound slip from Victoria Embankment into Queen Victoria Street. Cycles are all over the place and their riders don’t always care whether you have the right of way or not. There are some tight turns in that area too; such as the left from Southwark Street on to Blackfriars Bridge, or from Webber Street into Blackfriars Road. In both cases, there’s a cycle lane facing you, and if you’re not expecting it you are driving straight into the path of a line of bikes.
The ten mile per hour limit means buses will be travelling at about the same speed as horse-drawn traffic did over a hundred years ago. Hardly progress. In considering a return to Victorian values I’ve often wondered what TfL would say if we tried to licence a horse as a taxi. Surely it’ll fit in with their green agenda. There will be no nasty diesel pollution and no speeding. We’d be in full future-proof compliance. I’m not sure about the twenty-five foot turning circle, but what is there not to like?
What about re-introducing horse-drawn buses now we’re back down to ten miles per hour? Traffic will move at a nice calm pace. Running a couple of horses is probably cheaper than diesel – or until tax on vehicle electricity inevitably rockets in price. Bus garages could be converted into stables, and a team of unemployed blacksmiths could be re-employed after a lengthy layoff. Feeding and watering can be carried out in the Hyde Park, which is already established for horse care. Or on those oases of concrete that have sprung up over the last few years: by Euston Tower, or on the opposite corner at the UCE where they usually put the Christmas tree up. Back in Blackfriars there’s that wasted space by the Black Friar pub (why on earth can we no longer turn left there? Don’t they realise that when drivers have to find another way round, their vehicles stay on the road longer and create double the pollution?). Cattle troughs still exist, and these just need to be filled with water. It’s a shame that little pond was removed from Russell Square some years ago.
One thing that needs to be sorted out is who is responsible for cleaning up emissions (do the police clean up after their horses?). I don’t want to go too far into this, but horse waste has its uses. Perhaps Extinction Rebellion activists could volunteer their valuable time and do something useful for a change? They’d get the public back on their side at least. Tune in next time for more half-baked ideas, and expect a return to the horse idea sometime in the near future.