John-Paul Flintoff: Closing ranks

John-Paul Flintoff

Closing ranks

Confessions of a minicab driver

Getting late already. We’re on the way to Hertfordshire, for a funeral, and the bloke in the back – mid-30s, not much hair, looks a bit like Nick Leeson – spends the whole time on the phone. At Muswell Hill, he asks someone: “Am I speaking to the future world champion?” On Colney Hatch Lane he calls a colleague to say some third party is taking the piss; and when he sees the heavy traffic on the North Circular he breaks off to grumble.

On another call, he too-casually mentions his uncle’s funeral (“Well, it’s one of those things”) and at Edmonton, on the A10, he reveals information about his business at a level of detail that Financial Times journalists would not ordinarily hear.

And practically every time we get stuck at traffic lights – which happens a lot – he uses his phone to make inquiries about the funeral. He says nothing to me directly, but his tense mood is infectious. At 3.42pm, 10 miles from our destination, I ask if he knows when the funeral starts. “Yeah,” he says. “Quarter to four.”

So I drive faster and more dangerously. I use the slow lane to overtake and, at a big intersection, blatantly jump a red light – causing him to pause, briefly, mid-sentence. We reach the cemetery – a chilly field of gravestones, miles from anywhere – at precisely 4pm. (On time, as it happens, because the Volvo behind us contains the minister.)

My cheeks are flushed: the drive has been intense, I’ve had nothing to eat or drink for several hours and I’m intoxicated by traffic fumes. But an hour later, when the funeral ends and mourners rush towards their cars, I’m shivering. When my man gets in, I ask him to sign a form confirming my waiting time, because this job’s on account and I won’t get any money otherwise. Then I engage first gear and he’s off again with the phone calls. On the North Circular, he decides against going back to work and asks me to take him to Golders Green, where he stops to buy cakes before directing me to his home. Finally, at 5.50pm, I ask him to sign my form again. He does, and I thank him, but this is not reciprocated. “No worries,” he says, and jumps out. He leaves no tip.

According to Transport for London (TFL), which as part of the Greater London Authority oversees all aspects of the capital’s transport system, there are 40,000 minicabs in London, accounting for approximately 70m paid journeys a year. To and from funerals as well as weddings, hospitals, restaurants, offices, theatres and Christmas parties. Anything, in fact, for which Londoners or visitors to London need transport from door to door.

Amazingly, minicabs have never been regulated – in London, that is, though they have elsewhere – till now. TFL has consolidated control of minicabs within its subsidiary, the Public Carriage Office, which previously oversaw only the more prestigious black taxis. And in November, the PCO put up on its website,, a list of about 2,000 companies that have qualified for operating licenses under the first stage of the planned reforms. (Still to come are driver and vehicle licensing.)

To capture an impression of the industry at this transition – to see what it’s really like, from the inside – I’ve applied to work as a driver. I’ve hired a car for 10 days: a white, X-reg Mondeo with 18,600 miles on the clock, costing £125 a week, plus £250 deposit. I’ve paid £160 for a month’s insurance: more than I need, but the shortest period available. Then there’s £85 payable to the firm that takes me on, in return for which they refer me work. (The fee varies from company to company. Some charge commission instead.)

For a new, large-format A-Z, a Christmas tree-shaped deodorant to combat the stench of cigarettes and the first of several tanks of diesel, I’ve paid £52.32. Thus, before starting, I’ve coughed up £672.32. It’s easy to see why people without access to such sums work illegally as touts, hawking for business on street corners in dilapidated vehicles for which they have no insurance.

Ignoring duplications, such as the 15 different trading names used by Swiss Cottage Car Service Ltd, the PCO lists 61 operators in the borough of Camden. The one I have chosen to join is Belsize Radio Cars, located on the first floor of an anonymous building near Finchley Road Tube station.

It’s from here that Mike Ferris resolves the transport problems of north London. When calls come in, Mike says, “Hello, car service..?” He takes the caller’s phone number and taps it into his computer. If they’ve used the company before, this brings up their address and other details. He asks where they’re going, then hangs up and allocates the job to whichever driver in the area has been waiting longest.

Mike covers day-shifts with his boss, Beatrix Freinthaler – known to drivers and customers alike as Trixy – a former secretary who bought into the business in the 1970s and seems to enjoy it rather less than she might. Mike’s been doing the job for 15 years and wants to get out: he’s doing the “knowledge” – to qualify as a black cab driver – because he reckons that might be more lucrative.

To obtain a licence, operators such as Belsize Radio Cars have paid between £800 and £1,400, depending on their size; taken out public liability insurance; demonstrated compliance with health and safety, fire, radio-operating and planning regulations; and undertaken to keep detailed records relating to bookings, complaints, lost property, vehicles and drivers. Having incurred this inconvenience and expense, they hope the process will produce worthwhile rewards. London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, has already announced that minicabs will be exempt from the inner London congestion charge. And he’s hinted that, like taxis, they may soon be allowed in bus lanes.

Ian Ferguson, a former soldier and lorry driver, runs three “private hire” operations (like many in the business, he dislikes the term “minicab”); publishes a monthly magazine, Private Hire & Courier; and rents out cars to drivers at his own firm and elsewhere (including me). At his office in a Tooting mews, Ferguson offers me advice and argues persuasively that minicabs are as much a public service as black taxis and deserve the same privileges. “You pick up the telephone and say to a minicab company that you want to go to… wherever. They never say they’re ‘not going that way’. But a black cab!” He bounds out of his chair to begin a surprisingly comic performance. “You’re on the Fulham Road, so you check you look all right” – he smooths his hair, tucks his shirt deeper into his trousers. “You see a taxi and you wave at it and shout,’Taxi!’ Then you say,” – he speaks precisely, with a comically poshed-up accent – ”’Hello, can you take me to Tooting, please?’ And they say they’re not going there! It’s bollocks.”

As a beginner, Ferguson reckons, I’ll probably talk too much. “You know why? You’ll be nervous as shit and vulnerable. You’ll have a complete stranger in your car.” Only last month a driver in south London called Rahmatullah Abrahimi had his throat cut and was stabbed in the hand: three men acting together stole his car, £50 in cash and his mobile phone. Similarly, a driver at Belsize Radio Cars tells me that not long ago a knife was held to his throat.

Ferguson’s colleague Jim Slater warns me about passengers doing a runner. One trick is to get in the car with shopping bags that they leave with you while “stopping off” somewhere. Too late, you find the bags are full of rubbish. He adds: “If they escape while you’re in traffic, that’s too bad, because you can’t abandon your car.”

Ferguson says: “You’ll get to see a lot of drunks from a different angle. They bore you to death. I had this customer, once, and he was such an arsehole to my drivers so I took him myself. He offered me a £5 tip. I didn’t take it. I told him a tip is a ‘gratuity bestowed upon an inferior’ – that’s what it says in the dictionary.” His response? “He didn’t quite understand, because he’d had too much to drink.”

Finally, Ferguson gives me advice about women. (No, not that.) If they’re travelling alone, it’s a good idea to hop out and open the door for them. Not only to be polite but to ensure they sit in the back, thus avoiding any potential for unpleasantness. Many women fear minicabs because they’ve heard stories, often true, about attacks by drivers. But this is highly unlikely with licensed operators, Ferguson asserts, because they keep their drivers’ details on file.

So I begin. Just finding the pick-up can be hellish. One evening, in the dark and the rain, I ring a bell at the side of a mansion block and say I’m looking for number 19. Over the intercom, a male voice says: “What’s the number on my gate?” I tell him I can’t see one. “Well go and have another look.” Peering closely, I find it says number two. “Well you haven’t found it, then. Goodbye.” A woman to whom I rush one afternoon is similarly abrupt: “But it’s not half-past!” she shrieks. “You’re too early!” (Nobody at HQ thought to tell me when I was due.) In a complex of offices behind Fleet Road, I walk into a reception area but nobody is there, so I turn to leave. From behind me, a voice says: ”’Scuse me..?” I turn to see a man standing with his hands on his hips. I say, “I’m looking for… ” But he interrupts, presumably having noticed my badge and registered that I’m nobody important, saying: “You think you can just wander around..?”

“A lot of passengers forget cab drivers are normal people,” Ferguson told me. And Lawrence Green, a fellow driver, gives me a pamphlet promoting a pressure group, the Greater London Private Hire Drivers Association, which suggests that members of the public consider a minicab driver to be “a second-rate citizen, a no-hoper, a ‘dole scrounger’, an ‘illegal immigrant’ or just plain stupid”.

My passengers, if they have such preconceptions, conceal them. But one elderly woman says I look more like a student than a taxi driver – “Are you a student?” – and a young man asks if I’m new to the firm. Is it obvious? “No, but most people who pick me up are Asian. Or Croat.”

In a 12-hour shift you see an awful lot of people on the street, including a surprising number you recognise: a hairdresser shopping with her mother, or the guy who runs your local cinema. You feel immersed in the population – but also insulated from it in your deodorised bubble. The result is a surprising feeling of loneliness, which is worsened when people get inside the car and act as if you don’t exist. (Such as the teenager I collect from her hairdresser, who phones a friend on the way to Cricklewood and says, “Yeah, I’m in a cab… Yeah, I’m on my own.”) I fully understand, now, why many drivers need only the slightest pretext to talk your head off.

One afternoon, I call in from East Acton in west London and find that Mike has been replaced by Trixy. She asks where I am and how long it will take me to get to St John’s Wood. I guess 15 to 20 minutes, so she gives me an address and says, “Hurry up!”

Her next call comes 10 minutes later, while I’m still on the Westway: the customer wants to know where I am. She calls again while I’m crossing Wellington Road and once more as I pull into the side-street where I’m meant to be. The passenger, an Asian woman in her late 30s, is waiting on the front steps, a phone in one hand and a baby in the other. As she straps a baby seat into the car, she tells me I’m 15 minutes late. She arranged the cab with Mike two hours ago – she says, using his name – because her baby is sick and must not miss her appointment with a specialist doctor.

Consulting my watch I find I have taken less than 15 minutes to get here, so I was late before I even started, as Trixy must surely have known. But there’s no point arguing.

I face the classic driver’s dilemma: how to drive at speed without making the passengers – in this case, a sick baby and her mother – feel uncomfortable. I’m not sure how I pull it off, aside from adopting a grimly determined expression, but when we reach the destination we’re on time (so perhaps Trixy knew what she was doing after all). I tell her the fare is £5.40 and she gives me £7. Hurrah.

More generally, tips disappoint. With deliveries, I expect nothing and that’s what I get. On account jobs, passengers who have signed a log sheet on behalf of their business prove consistently reluctant to tip from their own wallet or purse. And on cash jobs, though some people surprise you with their generosity (the mother with the sick baby) others turn out unexpectedly mean (a chatty musician who, when I deliver him to Euston with his cello, gives me zip).

It only takes a couple of missed jobs – missed because I’m not where Mike wants me – for me to start lying about my position. According to Trixy, all drivers make “false calls”. But fellow driver Lawrence says they’re not a good idea. “Let’s say he [Mike, over the radio] calls for drivers in Swiss Cottage and you’re at Gloucester Place. You tell him you’re on Avenue Road, but you still might not get the job – which might be a bad job anyway. And if he then calls for St John’s Wood, you can’t tell him you’re there, can you? But that might be a better job.”

Another driver, Frank Agyekum, advises me to position myself by Swiss Cottage in the mornings: this gives me a head start getting into town and if I need to go the other way the roads will be clear. Later, he says, when traffic starts flowing out of London, you’re better off waiting up the hill.

The worst thing about this job is the waiting. Nearly all journeys either start or finish in NW3. This means drivers spend half their time empty, either coming or going. Earning nothing. And with work drying up since September 11, you can sit around for ages between jobs. But you always believe the next job to be imminent, so you switch on your hazards and rush into caffs to drain cups of painfully hot tea – to find you didn’t need to hurry because the next job doesn’t come up for two hours.

On night shifts, I drive back from jobs with the heater on full-blast: this warms the cab and makes me dozy, allowing 15 minutes of sleep before the car turns into a fridge. During the day, I kill time flicking through Private Hire & Courier. On the news pages, I learn that when vehicle licensing kicks in next year, my Mondeo – of all cars – will fail to meet exacting rules on the height of front passenger seats.

On the letters page, a correspondent writes that he recently lost a lawsuit against Westminster council over a £20 parking ticket incurred while popping to the loo. Another says it’s hard to earn, after expenses, more than £45 in a 10-hour shift: “We are all only an accident or engine-rebuild away from ruin.”

He may be right: on my first day, I drive 63 miles, more than 12 hours, for a total of £68.90, before expenses. Over the following days and nights, that hourly rate does not significantly improve. Frank reckons he takes about £80 in 10 hours (of which £20 goes on fuel). Lawrence says he once, exceptionally, took £130. But he’s been doing this for years and he has many private clients.

Just to break even, I’m going to need a lot more work. So where is it? Why am I always idle? I see why drivers, susceptible to neurotic self-doubt as isolated workers can be, become convinced that their controller is giving all the work to everybody else. (“Drivers!” says Trixy. “They’re paranoid! They’re always whining. All day I hear the sob stories. Customers tell me, ‘You have such lovely drivers.’ And I think, ‘Which ones?’”)

“It’s an easy job to get into,” Ferguson told me before I started, “but hard to get out.” Why? “Because nobody can sack you. There’s nobody paying your wages, you’re earning your own money.” In fact, Trixy tells me she has occasionally sacked drivers (for overcharging). And she believes that many drivers, currently claiming state benefits, will get out rather than submit to licensing next year.

Towards the end of my stint as a driver, I pick up a character with spiky hair at Belsize Park. He doesn’t say a word till Ebury Street, in Belgravia, where he stops me outside a restaurant and hands over £10 before climbing out. So I put the money in my pocket and call back to base. This being Saturday night, there’s already another job: a couple to collect from the opera on St Martin’s Lane. Can I be there in 10 minutes? Sure, no problem. But then the guy with the spiky hair climbs back in. Sorry, he says, wrong restaurant, can you take me to the other end, please?

Ebury Street is one-way, so I go round the block and halfway to Sloane Square – “this should be far enough” – to cut back on to it. But we still can’t see the restaurant he’s after, so I go round again, this time all the way to Sloane Square – which I barge on to without even pausing, as if driving a tank. Eventually we find the restaurant and he shoves another three quid into my hand.

I’m due at St Martin’s Lane, er, now – so at Hyde Park Corner I jump a red light and at the roadworks on Constitution Hill I break the temporary speed limit. Between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, I can hardly move at all, what with all the drinkers spilling onto the road, hurling bins at each other and banging angrily on my bonnet. So I abandon the car with the hazards flashing and run round the block to the ENO with a sheet of paper, on which I’ve handwritten in huge letters the customer’s surname. There’s nobody there except an old woman looking for her own cab to Hammersmith. After 10 minutes, increasingly anxious about what may be happening to my car and angry about losing a decent job, I give up.

Later, about 3am, I come across a couple of fellow drivers outside a Mayfair nightclub. We’re here to take home members of staff. For some reason I’ve drawn the short straw: the others can look forward to journeys into NW3. I’m going to Wandsworth, south of the river. Before our passengers arrive, a crowd of young men in dinner jackets spills out of the club, demanding unsuccessfully that we take them home.

Ferguson warned me about this. “Remember,” he said, “your insurance covers you only for pre-booked jobs. If someone asks you to take them somewhere, give them your card and tell them to call your firm. The PCO does raids, they jump into someone’s car and say, ‘Can you take me to so and so?’ and then they nick ‘em.” It seems unlikely that these hoorays work for the PCO but I decide not to risk it and wait for the pre-booked passenger, a man in his 60s with the lugubriously plummy accent of a butler. After despatching the last guests, he tells me there’s been a 30th birthday party. “They get bloody pissed, a lot of them. But that’s what they pay us for, so I shouldn’t complain.” Indeed.

The only enjoyable aspect of night work is the emptiness of the streets. You can cross town at amazing speeds: from Wandsworth to Kilburn High Road in less than 20 minutes. The money’s not especially good – though there are juicy airport jobs in the early morning if you work through. It’s also colder and more lonely than ever.

The vast majority of other vehicles driving round at night are black taxis. Transport for London, hoping to choke the market for illegal drivers, recently raised black cab tariffs to encourage more drivers to work nights and weekends. The result is that they can earn more than ever: according to several I spoke to over recent weeks, it’s easy for them to earn £1,000 a week, and not hard to make twice that amount.

London has only half as many black taxis as minicabs but taxis account for 15m more journeys because they can pick up as soon as they’ve dropped off. That minicabs can’t do the same seems crazy. It’s bad for drivers, pinched by rising fuel and insurance costs, because half the time they’re on the road they earn nothing; that’s why they work epic shifts and drive like nutters. It’s also bad for the environment, because half the cabs blocking roads at any given time are empty. It’s bad for customers, too, because when they call for a cab they may be told there are none available – because none of that firm’s empty ones happens to be nearby.

There’s no avoiding it: the changes forced on minicabs by regulation will have serious consequences. Drivers growl that professionalised firms will abandon private customers in favour of corporate work, leaving the rest of us to stand on street corners waving at taxis in the cold and rain. I’m more optimistic. With a bit of investment, minicabs could finally be recognised as an intrinsic part of London’s public transport infrastructure (privately run but for public use, just like buses). If firms went into partnerships – one from each London borough, say – and branded themselves under a common name with a single telephone number, they could tap into each other’s empty cars as they passed through. “Dead time” would be a thing of the past.

To my knowledge there’s a firm in Harrow, probably not unique, that already has satellite technology in every car. This enables controllers to see each car’s location, and tells drivers which route to take. With a facility like that, why would drivers bother doing the knowledge? And why would punters pay a black taxi’s higher tariffs? The technology would cost money, certainly, but that could be recouped by charging a higher commission from drivers who would be earning more. Good drivers, I’m convinced, would fight to drive for companies that took this initiative. They might even work on salaries, with fixed shifts, and dress smartly.

Shortly after finishing my stint as a driver, I return to the chilly office to present my visionary analysis to Trixy. Apart from two dogs, she’s alone looking desperately bored. Worryingly, the phone doesn’t ring much while I’m with her. When it does, callers tend to ask what the fare will be, which Trixy considers a sure sign of hard times.

She’s moderately interested in my recommendations, but with reservations (“Drivers on a salary! God, can you imagine!”) She’s particularly absorbed by the information – readily available in the PCO’s published list of operators – that Swiss Cottage Cars is licensed under 15 separate names.

Is she thinking of doing something similar? Possibly, though I suspect not, because at the end of my visit – just as I’m closing the door behind me – Trixy looks up and asks casually if I know anybody who might be interested in buying a little minicab firm.

3969 words. First published 22 December 01. © FT Magazine

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