Confessions of a minicab driver
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.”
The best thing about 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 bad for the environment, because half the cabs blocking roads at any given time are empty…
…and 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