Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Carry on Cabby? The Taxi Driver Dispute

The wild cat strike, causing massive disruption in St Helier, including delays to buses, cannot have endeared the taxi drivers to the general public. Clearly there was some degree of premeditation, and also equally clearly, it was decided not to inform the Transport Minister, Eddie Noel, until he heard it on the morning news.

So why did they not alert the public? When the bus drivers last went on strike, they gave adequate notice beforehand, so that alternative travel arrangements could be made, or travel postponed.

I suspect that the rationale behind not alerting the public – and in particular the Transport Minister – was to do with alternative arrangements that he might have made, if he had been given time to react.

For most of us, there seems little difference between picking up a rank taxi at the airport, and making a booking for a cab. A survey showed that over 50% do not know the difference. The car driver is paid to take us from A to B for a fare. But there is a difference in how they are regulated, and how they can operate.

A cab, like those in “Carry on Cabby” is a bookable service. They take a booking, pick up a customer, and drop them off. A rank taxi does not take private hire bookings, but waits at designated pick up points – the ranks – for customers to come and take one. If, for example, you arrive at the airport, it will be rank taxies which will be waiting for passengers.

This means there is a difference in fares. Rank taxi far are controlled by the States of Jerseyand the Taximeters are sealed. There are four fixed tariff rates depending on the time and day that the taxi is required. Public holidays are charged in accordance with the third and fourth tariff, according to the time that the taxi is required.

Cabs drivers on the other hand work for Private Hire Cab companies who run depots and employ operators, there overheads are higher and this is why they charge more to cover those expenses. Cabs can on occasion use hailed fares off the street, but not within 100 yards of a Taxi Rank, and if they do, they must charge rank rates.

In 2013, Michelle Hervieu, a public rank taxi-drive, in a letter to the JEP noted that “A private hire cab has a different fare structure than a taxi, and charge at least 30 per cent more than a taxi. A cab driver would be very reluctant to give a price. Public rank taxis have a fare structure controlled by the States of Jersey, so we have complete transparency of our fares.”

The changes which Eddie Noel wants would erode this difference between the two kinds of service. They would be phased in over the next three years, and would allow private hire cars to use the rank. They would also allow rank cabs to take private hire bookings.

The rationale for a wildcat strike might be that Eddie Noel, if he had sufficient warning, might permit and encourage the cabs to take up the absent ranks, perhaps from locations close enough to a rank to be visible, or advise regular users of the rank to book a cab. Alternatively, it might be that their patience had simply run out.

Of the changes proposed, some I think are good, but others are poorly thought out.

As Channel TV reported:

“In future 'taxis' will be the name of vehicles that have the right wheelchair accessibility standards which means they will be able to access public ranks. 'Cabs' are licenced vehicles without wheelchair access, which won't be allowed to access the ranks.”

This demand that all taxi drivers wanting to operate on the ranks in Jersey will have to be wheelchair-friendly by 2019 sounds good on paper, but as has been apparent, some drivers have recently invested in expensive low-emissions vehicles.

It would make better sense for any new or replacement vehicles to have to be wheelchair friendly, and perhaps any vehicles over (for example) 10 years old, rather than force expense on people who are already paying off loans on their existing vehicles.

The report on taxis did not look at the age of the vehicles in service, the cost of the existing vehicles, and the reasons for purchase (e.g. low emissions). That is an omission which should be rectified, and which should have been taken into account.

Moreover the early proposals were that taxi-cab drivers operating wheelchair access vehicles will have to have passed disability awareness training and be fit enough to use wheelchair loading equipment and help disabled passengers in and out of the car. This means that as well as being able to simply drive, they will also need lifting skills, and I’m not sure it is fair to penalise the drivers in this way.

Older drivers may have to retire younger because they are simply not capable of any extra physical demands upon them although they could provide perfectly good service for those who do not need wheelchair access.

In fact, allowing cabs to use the ranks if they have wheelchair access is a good idea in the proposal, and that would mitigate against all rank taxi drivers needing them.

But since the strike, some interesting and very confusing facts have come to light. Eddie Noel has said in yesterday’s press release.

“We have found common ground on the vast majority of the reforms to the industry, including clarification on accessibility for customers with wheelchairs. This means that all vehicles will need to be able to accommodate a folded wheelchair – not necessarily provide a ‘ride in’ service for customers.”

Now consider that last sentence again:

“This means that all vehicles will need to be able to accommodate a folded wheelchair – not necessarily provide a ‘ride in’ service for customers.”

This differs massively from his proposal document which said:

“Taxi-cab drivers operating accessible vehicles will be required to have passed disability awareness training and be fit enough to utilise wheelchair loading equipment, to be able to assist disabled passengers entering and exiting their vehicle.”

A folding wheelchair does not, as far as I am aware, require specialist wheelchair loading equipment. I know – I have managed to fit one quite easily in a Peugeot 106.

It is very different from the original proposals, of the kind of taxi that one would see on a London street, for instance. I think the Minister needs to be a bit more transparent on where he has changed his original proposals, and confirm that such changes have in fact been made. He is not quite the paragon of the virtues that he would like to appear.

Of some of the other proposals, they seem to effect cabs rather than rank taxis – for instance, the proposal that maximum fares will be set by the government, with fixed off and on-peak prices is surely effecting cabs as rank taxis already have those fares regulated. For hireable cabs there is no fare regulation and they command higher prices than controlled taxis. The new proposals will, however, allow a booking fee for cabs, as long as it is stated up front.

The problem with over-regulation, of course, is that it can lead to unexpected consequences. If regulation of maximum fares for a cab, despite booking fees, makes some journeys simply uneconomic to operate, then expect cabs to limit operations geographically.

In Guernsey, which introduced a one tier system for rank taxis and bookable cabs, a recent news story reported that” a lack of taxis at Guernsey airport is damaging the island's finance and tourism industry. Business leaders claim too often they are getting complaints about a lack of cabs, and long queues at the rank.”

With regard to other proposals, the one that all taxis will have to accept credit card payments, regardless of whether they use the rank or not, is fine as long as they can make the same extra charge for processing services that other companies – and of course the States themselves do.

The Jersey Taxi Driver’s Association, as well as apologising for the strike, has this comment to make:

“The Minister continues to argue we don't control the number of hairdresser or plumbers why should we continue to control the number of Taxis?' Our answer to that is you don't control how much hairdressers or plumbers charge either, but you do control our taxi fares!”

In fact, if they’ve been following the news, the opposite is the case. Registration cards have been impacting on the number of hairdressers and plumbers – as complaints from small businesses make very clear. What is not clear is how registration cards sit with deregulation of numbers of taxis, and that is also something the Minister needs to clarify.

While the strike caused gridlock, and will not endear drivers to the public, it probably flagged up concerns rather more effectively than protests in the Royal Square, which as we have seen, are singularly ineffective in getting Ministers to change their minds.

1 comment:

Penny Kent said...

Very illuminating. I did not realise how complex a simple taxi service can be.
Could I just mention.................there/their.............and effect/affect.