Today we have a guest post from Brian who writes about London at the Capital Letters Blog, his insights include taxis and life generally. His polemical view of today’s regulation by TfL of the Capital’s transport is well made and he laments on the demise of his old Fairway taxi, which he claims has served his well over the years. He also questions the validity of the green argument for replacing the Capital’s old taxi fleet.
HALF A MILLION MILES, two careful owners, sixteen plates. In the end, that’s all that will be remembered of my prematurely stood down London Fairway taxi, thanks to those awfully nice people at Transport for London (TfL). More of them later. And yet, within those sixteen glorious years resides a wealth of faces met, journeys I’d hope were professionally executed and an odyssey of unforgettable stories cut short when more was yet to come.
London’s best taxi
I’m told by others that my London Taxis International Driver was the best model ever made. A beautiful, reliable Nissan 2.7 litre engine that never let me down and had nothing done to it, bags of room in the front for luggage and my 36″ legs and a boot that took plenty of oil, water, tools and a personal bag. The body had hardly changed since it hit London’s streets in 1958 save for a few modifications. And this is why it had become such a historic London icon right up there with Big Ben, the red London bus and a police officer in a cape. Check all those films with London as a backdrop.
Lately, I’ve had my taxi photographed by tourists up to five times a day. My good friend Carlos taught me to invite the snapper to also sit in the driving seat for that extra special picture that then goes around the world as it hits social networks.
TfL, the Mayor or some faceless committee, in a vain effort to appear green, have decided to put a fifteen-year time limit on taxis when issuing new plates. I’m guessing that to them, old means bad and new means efficient and therefore greener.
My taxi admittedly has inferior emission standards. At a cost to ourselves, we Fairway owners were rightly forced to convert our exhaust systems to meet Euro 2 standards. But not a puff of a subsidy that London buses get. Currently, the latest TX4 is spewing out at the admirable emission standard Euro 5. That’s fine it, it even sounds nicer than Euro 2. But keep your thumb on the hand brake buttons before you let me roll down into the Thames. The Fairway has a far superior fuel consumption to the TX4. I am currently driving carefully at a rate of around 26 miles per gallon. Before exhaust modification, it was up to 29 miles per gallon with the help of the excellent Biodiesel that my radio circuit, Mountview sold to us subscribers until recently. Indeed, Radio Taxis as we’re officially known as the world’s first carbon neutral taxi circuit in the world and has used that angle to gain and retain many lucrative accounts with corporates who in turn embellish their own BSI and ISO standards by association.
Built in Britain
In green terms, all taxis were built in Coventry in the Midlands of England, the very cradle of the Industrial Revolution alongside Manchester. British goods for British people made by British people. An economic success story. The new TX taxis are now made in China, yes, the Far East. Not only are they inferior products (radiators, gearboxes not making the first annual inspection; I even saw a rear window drop out when a lady closed her passenger door), but I’m thinking carbon footprint in Yeti proportions here. With the Fairway disappearing off our streets at a scary rate now, the demand for new taxis will distil up to further unbalance the global share of the auto industry, albeit miles from multinational volumes. More shipments from the orient, outsized carbon footprint.
But it’s all set up now, factories tooled up and an increased demand for new taxis. So what could we Fairway owners do to maybe save the planet and continue to promote London with our iconic symbol?
That’s it, wouldn’t you think? A new green engine in the famous Fairway for which we’re promised five more years of annual inspections, the vehicle stays on the road saving fuel and steel production and the classic vehicle continues promoting London around the World, thus nurturing our biggest employer–tourism. But sadly, for some unfathomable reason, we’re not allowed to convert to LPG in Year 15. Thus, in my case when the plate came off on August 1st 2011, something mysterious happened on July 31st making it incompatible with or just plain unworthy of an LPG engine.
Goodby Public Carriage Office
Looks like they just don’t like us. So who are “they”? Well, TfL is the overall London transport authority that begat the bastard child of the Public Carriage Office (PCO) and called it after some hesitation TPH, Taxis and Private Hire to us taxi drivers. The old PCO stood solidly for decades in Penton St, N1. Although architecturally a prime example of Sixties brutalism, its interior felt like your old school. Going inside as qualified drivers or taxi proprietors, our memories of nerve-wracking Knowledge appearances came warmly flooding back like being read stories on the carpet by our favourite teacher. Maybe it was just a flashback to our younger days or maybe it was just that cosy feeling generated by the friendly faces at various counters we came to know and love. It also smacked of the old Welfare State where we were all securely looked after from cradle to grave, not yet living under the tyranny of the bottom line as we do now. You felt sorry for the Knowledge girls and boys you passed on the stairs as you walked to a counter for other business, the memory of knotted stomachs as you sat in the waiting room never leaves you. Who can forget that frightening draining of the memory as your examiner’s footsteps along the corridor heralded your Knowledge appearance?
Warning bells of change rang when Thatcher and her Estate Agents for Summary Execution Party transferred authority for taxis from the sound and very fair Metropolitan Police to the Department of Transport with the instruction that all Government bodies must pay for themselves. Overnight, we went from 15p to £68 for licence renewals in a world-record price hike and the atmosphere inside the PCO became less cuddly and more regimented.
Inevitably, as our political culture changed from relative liberal democracy to mediocre reformism, London institutions became centralised and the PCO was wrenched from Penton Street to the monolith that is the Palestra building in Blackfriars Road, SE1. Since then, we’ve become remote from our licensers and controllers. Instead of that interaction with real people at Penton Street, everything except for Knowledge appearances is conducted electronically now. In the event of losing one’s badge, a visit to the office is ruled out. Instead, the PDF Lost Property form is downloaded and sent off in the post. While arguably efficient, yet another human contact is deleted and we feel further remote from our masters.
In this personal vacuum, taxis have been merged closer to our unfettered rivals in Private Hire (PH). Unfettered because while our numbers have only slowly increased possibly at a rate of five to ten per week, PH has gone from 30,000 drivers to around 60,000 since they became licensed. In a shrunken ground transport market, our share of it has thus dropped further. The growth of the MPV as a standard PH vehicle and their dominance on the streets along with their semi-legal use of satellite offices where they basically ply for hire via a clipboard Johnny on the pavement outside clubs, bars and hotels has thus blurred the lines between the two sectors.
Consequently, with the demise of the Fairway, one less taxi model is visible on the streets of London. The TX will naturally replace that but some drivers will also opt for the Mercedes Vito Taxi, basically a Viano (already popular within PH) with a For Hire light on the roof. Confusion on the streets, is that a taxi or a minicab?
So, let’s look at TfL. To centralise the transport policy for London as a whole made good sense. Before, we’d had individual boroughs making policy in overlap with London Transport and the GLC. Overall, many sensible measures came in that reduced traffic volume, improved the air quality and got London moving. But now it’s too easy to take policy in that vacuum without universal consultation, redress or respect. The various TfL boards are composed of invitees and quislings. My own union RMT are excluded from any process because being radical and one, therefore, presumes a threat to the comfortable status quo, they’re not recognised and they don’t have to tell us why. The records and minutes of many meetings are secret and some appointees to committees are even salaried. Thus, one must ask in whose interests these trade representatives are acting? Exactly what was said about the fifteen-year time limit by the people on these boards whom you expect to represent the taxi trade and have some sense of tradition as mostly Londoners? Of course, we’ll never know. You’d think the TfL Philistines would look at the economic externalities of retaining the Fairway for as long as possible in order to maintain its part in promoting London as a global brand, but alas not. Tucked away in their monolith, they’re removed from our world. This executive decision to prematurely remove the Fairway is just an indicator of what may yet come. I call upon all drivers to make their representations to the Royal Commission on Taxis and Private Hire before the lines between them are blurred further beyond repair.
When the news of the new rule emerged there was hardly any opposition within the taxi trade, just some indignation and sympathetic nods from other drivers when stopped alongside me at traffic lights. Even the offer by one well-meaning taxi driver to create a legal fighting fund was met with cheques of support by just a few, thus we were unable to check the legality of the rule and make a fight. So, to the drivers who just kept rolling and thought only about the next job, you stood by while we were wronged. But now we shall all pay. As demand increases for newer TX models, their unit cost must increase with the rules of supply and demand. To our masters, you’ve let down the very city that gives you an income. If PH continues to grow unchecked and lines are further blurred with unfavourable findings by the Royal Commission into Taxis and Private Hire, the London taxi will become nothing more than a curious antiquity.
A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 14th September 2012