John-Paul Flintoff: Closing ranks [part 2 of 2]

John-Paul Flintoff

Closing ranks [part 2 of 2]

Confessions of a minicab driver

…Trixy’s 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.

First published in the Financial Times magazine

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