Tag Archives: London taxi trade

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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Access All Areas?

Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine. For hard users only: this one’s a bit technical if you’re not used to driving in London.

 

People take taxis for many reasons: for work, for pleasure; and sometimes when they have little choice. Sometimes people have luggage they need to get across London to a rail station or airport. People need to make hospital appointments, and a taxi is often chosen because it’s fully accessible. Sometimes a cab is taken in an emergency. It’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing we sometimes thrive on the misfortune of others. More positively, a ride in a cab could be part of a holiday or a Christmas treat. The common denominator in every case is that the customer expects a door to door service. This is our unique selling point. Increasingly, our USP has become impossible to deliver.

Over the last few years the number of roads closed off to us has increased dramatically. The good work in making Russell Square two-way was undermined when other parts of Bloomsbury were closed off in 2015. Many people with limited mobility need to get around the many hospitals and clinics in the Bloomsbury area, and journeys have been made slower – and consequently more expensive – for them. It’s become virtually impossible to set down passengers in some streets, notably Tavistock Place. I’ve done a fair amount of Taxicard work on ComCab recently, but I wouldn’t relish trying to unload a wheelchair in this one-way, single lane, thoroughfare. In late-2018, more roads were blocked off around Bloomsbury Square and more banned turns came in. Lord knows how difficult things could become accessing the UCH if Tottenham Court Road is closed to taxis.

Many people with limited mobility rely on taxis to get them around: you wouldn’t believe how many Taxicard jobs involve West End theatres. It’s now impossible to load a wheelchair at the door of the Lyceum Theatre.

The Ned hotel in the City is inaccessible for most of the day. Last year, certain streets around Shoreditch were closed to motor vehicles at certain times of the day. Hardly a day goes by without streets being closed off; some of them destined never to be re-opened. The whole area around King’s Cross and St. Pancras Stations is a mess. Goodsway eastbound has been closed for several months, with no indications when it might re-open. The sudden closure at the top of Judd Street has resulted in misery. There are no signs informing us of what’s happening, or whether it’ll ever re-open. Many vehicle drivers think they can use Mabledon Place to escape the misery, only to find they’re being forced to turn right. The authorities should have allowed a left turn to alleviate this problem, but no; as usual, they are keeping vehicles on the roads as long as possible, thus adding to congestion and pollution.

Things used to be so much easier. Allow me to put on my psychedelic rose-tinted specs as I reflect on the time when you used to be able to drive straight down from Gresham Street on to Southwark Bridge using King Street, Queen Street and Queen Street Place. Southwark Bridge is near enough impossible to access from the west. Blackfriars is little better. The closure of Stonecutter Street causes bus congestion in Charterhouse Street, and forces other folk aiming for the bridge to drive around the smaller streets around Tudor Street – when our progress isn’t hampered by giant cranes and orange barriers.

Al Fresco reminded us of the joys of St Bride’s Street in a recent Taxi article. Indeed, when I started out we used to be able to drive straight up St Bride’s Street into Shoe Lane from just off Ludgate Circus. St Bride’s Street is now closed to through traffic, except bikes. As I sit on the Goldman Sachs rank I watch cycles scattering the suits as they quite legally tear along the path alongside the office blocks. It’s painful watching lorries making deliveries and being forced to reverse out past the Boris Bike park, cab rank, motorcycle parking area, and huge piles of building materials. It’s a miserable road for anyone who has to access this hazardous little road.

Occasionally one-way streets are opened up to two-way traffic. Baker Street and Gloucester Place worked OK as one-way streets, but we now have to sit behind buses on a single lane and swerve in and out of Right Turn lanes. It’s probably too early to provide a definitive assessment of this system, but I daresay I could get 900 words out of it another time.

Any useful road is ruined eventually. The War on Diesel ensures that the pollution side of things will eventually lessen, but it’s going to be many years before we’ve all gone electric. By that time I don’t think there will be any roads worth using anyway.

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A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way

(Original edit – and title – of article written for Taxi magazine.

 

It’s understood that through our training, London taxi drivers have an impressive grasp of the city in which we ply our trade. While our knowledge of the geography of London is sound, we are sometimes deficient in other forms of knowledge: namely car mechanics. In my experience I’ve found that cab drivers have little more mechanical knowledge than the civilian car driver. We concentrated all our energies on passing the Knowledge of London and had little contact with the vehicle we would eventually need to rely on for our living. I’ve been caught out many times when the cab has played up: sometimes things have happened beyond my control, while on other occasions having a better knowledge of mechanics would have made my life easier. My most recent breakdown resulted in a very expensive repair and an enforced holiday, just over a week after my real holiday.

I was driving into London on only my sixth work day following a relaxing week in the sun. I was about a mile from my home in Leighton Buzzard when the cab lost power. I crawled into a layby with smoke billowing out the back. I called the cavalry.

The RAC man spent a fair bit of time poking and prodding under the bonnet and consulting his laptop. After much deliberation, he said he thought I had at least one injector out. Rather than spend a depressing day at the garage, I let him tow the cab to Luton Cabs, while I walked back along the verge of the busy A505 into town. I caught a bus to the pub, which is my default action following such trauma.

I feel inadequate being at the mercy of others. Over the years I’ve paid a lot of money for parts that I don’t fully understand: wishbones, bushes, anti-roll bars. I tell myself that expense is inevitable because these parts wear out quickly due to the rigours of London’s roads; particularly all those speed bumps. I don’t really know what an injector is: I can guess what it does, but I don’t know what it looks like – or what it costs to replace. Then there are those mysterious radiators and water pumps. And the various sections of radiator hose that all too frequently need changing: hoses that seem surprised at being asked to handle hot water every now and again. Radiators have given me a lot of grief. The fluid in the expansion tank stays at the same level for months, then it suddenly plummets and there’s steam and hot fluid everywhere. Last but not least are the batteries and alternators that serve you well for a couple of years, then suddenly let you down and leave you stationary in the middle of London.

On this occasion it appeared to be an injector problem. But it wasn’t. It was far worse than that. My worst fears were realised: I needed a new engine. My 2011 TX4 has done over 290,000 miles; mostly motorway miles due to my living in Northampton, then Bedfordshire. It’s a lot of miles, and I knew that the engine could go at any time. I was thinking about selling the cab before its inspection in March and buying a new one. That plan’s gone to the wall, as have my emergency savings.

It’s not just the cost of the new engine, it’s the time off. I can get on with my writing, but it was costing me money going into town every two days to go food shopping. I can’t go into town without having a pint or two to make the trip worthwhile. Just as diesel fuels our cabs, beer fuels the writer. Reviewing my work in the pub provides satisfaction, but the costs add up when you’re doing it so often.

Even though I’m back working I’ll eventually need to change some of the parts mentioned above before I can change the cab. Now the engine’s gone, the next fear is that my ageing cab might need a new gearbox in the near future. I’ve been driving really carefully since I got the cab back. I had lots of work done while the cab was in the garage, including an MOT. I’ve been told I’ll need a new trailing arm next service. Trailing arm? I’m sure they make these names up.

Anyway, I’ll review the issue next year. I’m nervous about buying a new cab though. There are still no affordable e-cabs on offer and the charging infrastructure still needs building up. Someone told me there are two new charging points in the town centre, but it’s still not enough. Maybe things will have improved in eighteen months’ time when I’ll think again about trading up.

 

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New Year Cheer

(My first Taxi article of the year).

Let’s start off the New Year the way we mean to go on, with a discussion on Uber – come on, you love it! Even those of us who wanted to relax and think about other things during the Christmas season couldn’t help thinking about the latest Uber-related developments, and wonder what 2018 has in store for us all.

Over the last two years, taxi trade talk has been dominated by the goings on at Uber. Things became interesting when TfL realised they’d made a mistake in licensing Uber and tried to tighten up with topographical testing, English tests, a closer look at criminal record recording, and a tightening up of insurance requirements (does on/off mini-cab insurance really exist?). Uber kicked back as expected, and elements of these proposals remain contested. Another important issue is still being fought over: whether Uber’s drivers are employees or self-employed. It’s likely Uber will lose their final appeal later this year, which means they will have to treat its drivers as self-employed with all the benefits and comforts that comes with that. Uber’s business model will be out the window and they will pose less of a threat.

 

Interest turned to shock in September when TfL refused Uber a new licence. TfL did the right thing after Uber made it easy for them. Uber’s supporters say they should be given another chance. Sorry, but they already had their second chance: they were given a temporary licence for four months in which to get their house in order. Uber were arrogant and behaved even worse during this period. Even as they were crawling to TfL to get their licence back, it transpired that Uber had paid a $100,000 ransom to criminals to stop them hacking fifty-seven million Uber apps worldwide, and to keep quiet about it.

 

Uber have been refused a new operating licence, but did they get a hard refusal or a soft refusal? What I don’t understand is why they are allowed to operate after being refused a licence? Would a taxi driver be allowed to operate after being named unfit and improper? If a taxi driver has a serious complaint against him he’d be suspended from working immediately. When taxi and private hire criminal records were moved from the CRB to the DBS many drivers experienced long delays when renewing their licences. They were told by TfL that they could not work until their records came back so they could be re-licensed. Thousands of Uber drivers suspected of being issued with dodgy DBS certificates are working as normal. So all those taxi drivers we read about in the pages of Taxi who were concerned about their livelihoods needn’t have worried; they could simply carry on cabbing. I was asked by another driver whether Uber were still recruiting. I’ve no idea, but it’s an interesting question. Could new drivers be recruited to an unlicensed operator? And if so, as an employee or as a self-employed “partner”?  

 

Many towns and cities have been invaded by out of town drivers licensed in other places. Councils are powerless to stop cross-border hiring, or to deal with complaints if the drivers are not licensed in the town they are working in. With Uber causing a nuisance everywhere they go, councils looked to London for guidance. TfL’s belated decision to ban Uber has emboldened private hire authorities around the country to refuse licences. In the run-up to Christmas we heard about bans on Uber in Sheffield and York, and Uber only being granted a temporary licence in Brighton. Sheffield and Brighton have suffered considerably by out-of-town Uber invasions undermining existing local services and licensing authorities. Sheffield suspended Uber’s licence on December 18th following the operator’s failure to provide information about its management structure. The City of York ended Uber’s licence on Christmas Eve. Councillors voted seven to three in favour of the ban; on the grounds of the data breaches that affected fifty-seven million App. users worldwide, and the number of complaints against Uber in York. At the time of the ban there weren’t many Uber drivers licensed in York, but over 50% of complaints were against Uber drivers licenced out of town. Drivers that York’s licencing authority can’t do anything about. Out of 155 taxi and private hire complaints received from December 2016, only four concerned drivers or vehicles licenced in York. Banning Uber was greeted by cheers in the chamber. Hear, hear!

 

2018 is going to be an interesting year. Work levels in December were better than in the last few years, and It’s realistic to expect that this year’s kipper season won’t be quite as flat as the past couple of years. Uber are on the run for sure. I’d like to think we won’t be talking about them this time next year, but I expect we will.

 

What else can we take stock of? The credit card issue is over a year old, but there are still concerns. I think the issue of fees has faded, but many of us have processed cards only to have the transaction fail after the customer has walked off.

 

Who got caught out when they closed Cannon Street for several days at the start of December? What annoyed me was the red sign warning of Bank Junction’s closure situated right by the traffic cones where you’d normally enter Cannon Street from Queen Victoria Street. You’d think they’d have the sense to at least open Bank Junction up on this occasion to ease the pressure. The issue of Bank is going to run and run this year. Then there’s the threat to close Oxford Street to motor vehicles to contest. And contest it we must. We need to respond to all consultations and make our voices heard. There are plenty of people on our side who will listen. We need to keep our house in order this year and keep their support.

 

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