Battle of the crowded cabbies: There are too many taxi drivers with 'the knowledge' and not enough work. Alison Eadie lends an ear

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POLITICS, religion and what the papers say used to be favourite topics of conversation for the drivers of London's black cabs. Not any more. Ever garrulous, cabbies are now more likely to moan about the recession, the downturn in their earnings and the glut of cabs on the road.

One cabbie, who has plied his trade in Wimbledon for 25 years, said despondently: 'I work 60 hours a week and I earn the same money I did 10 years ago.' His meter had logged just pounds 60 for nearly two full days of work. A year ago he paid pounds 20,000 for a new cab. 'It would be better to go on the dole,' he said.

Harry Feigen, general secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association, maintains that earnings have fallen by 25 to 30 per cent in the past year.

'Trade has been decreasing so much in the past two years, it is almost past the point of no return,' Mr Feigen said. The only cheerful note in his office was sounded by his pet parakeet.

It appears that everybody is cutting back. There are fewer visitors to London and charge account work for lawyers, merchant banks, oil companies and government departments has been drastically pruned, Mr Feigen said.

Moves to try to improve the cabbies' lot have not been successful so far.

The LTDA, which is the largest cab drivers' organisation, with 6,000 members, this year asked the Government for a moratorium on the issue of new licences. There are some 22,000 licensed drivers and 16,500 cabs in London.

The Department of Transport refused on the grounds that it would not benefit the travelling public and that the taxi industry was like any other and subject to free market forces. It argued that it would not be fair on those studying 'the knowledge', the two to three years of intensive A-Z studying that all drivers of London black cabs must undergo.

The problems of overcrowding are particularly acute in some suburban areas. In Wimbledon more than 250 licensed drivers jostle for 15 spaces on the rank at Wimbledon railway station. Feelings are running high.

John Turner, a cabbie at Wimbledon for 28 years and jokingly referred to by his mates as 'the foreman' because of his vociferous views, says the number of people getting off trains and taking a cab home has not fallen that much.

The problem is the steady flow of new drivers. And the main butt of Mr Turner's criticism is Brian Phillips, principal officer in charge of the Public Carriage Office, which regulates the black cab industry under the umbrella of the DoT and issues licences to new drivers.

'He's anti-suburban cab drivers,' Mr Turner insisted. 'He's issuing new licences at the rate of 10 a week at least and he sends drivers down here to a 15-space rank.' To add insult to injury, the Wimbledon drivers had their noses put out of joint during Wimbledon tennis fortnight, when business is usually brisk. The cab rank outside the All England Club was moved from its usual location 100 yards up the road towards Southfields station. The result was that it was outside the boundary of Wimbledon yellow badge holders, who may only ply for hire within area of about two miles. Only green badge holders, licensed for the whole of London, could sit on the rank.

'They brought West End cabs down here to work the tennis, when we work the area all the year round,' an unhappy Mr Turner said.

Mr Phillips understands the difficulties cab drivers are facing, but says he has no quantity control under the terms of the legislation that empowers his office. If a prospective driver passes 'the knowledge' and the medical and character criteria, then he must be licensed. 'The legislation is not designed to take account of recession,' he said.

Although the overall number of new licences issued has remained constant over the past 10 years, at 500-700 a year, there has been an increase in the number of suburban licences in the past two years, he said. In October 1989 the six large suburban areas were divided into 16 smaller areas, making it easier for yellow badge holders to gain 'the knowledge'. The change came at the request of the London Taxi Board, which represents five organisations including the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association, because too few suburban licences were being issued.

With the benefit of hindsight, Mr Phillips agrees, the change may have been a mistake. But given the way things are now, he thinks suburban drivers should be widening their scope and patrolling the streets to build up trade rather than just relying on ranks. 'It's the old story of the Vikings. When there were too many, they went to look for new pastures.'

Although organising independently-minded self-employed taxi drivers as an industry is no easy task, the London Taxi Board has made proposals to Stephen Norris, Minister for Transport in London, on the safety and licensing of minicabs.

It has suggested a single-tier system, where all drivers have to pass a form of 'the knowledge' and all new cabs should be wheelchair-accessible, as all new black cabs must be. The upshot, after a four- to five-year transition period, would spell the end of minicabbing in the capital. Limousines for weddings and funerals would be countenanced, but not for general hire.

Mr Feigen insists the present system of unlicensed minicabs and strictly controlled black cabs is 'unfair and unrealistic'.

Whether Mr Norris will be sympathetic remains to be seen. In the meantime cabbies struggle on. George Sullivan, who has been driving in Wimbledon for two years since being made redundant, says he is thinking of packing it in. He pays pounds 140 a week rent for his B-registration cab and another pounds 50 a week for diesel. 'The lads here are going into their savings.'

Roger Oldfield, of KPMG Peat Marwick, receiver to Beejays of Bethnal Green, which owned and leased out a fleet of 250 black cabs before going bust last year, said: 'People always assume cabbies make a fortune. They have to work very hard to make a living. It's almost a vocation because of the long learning curve to get there.'

(Photograph omitted)