Two years of Department for Infrastructure inaction has forced over 1800 taxis off NI roads say reps
Two years of inaction by the Minister for Infrastructure and the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) has forced over 1,800 licensed taxis off Northern Ireland roads say industry representatives.
Back in December 2020, representatives from the Northern Ireland Licensed Taxi Operators Association (LTOA) taxi industry presented to the Committee for Infrastructure seeking support for the sector, and changes to the way it is regulated.
As part of the presentation, the LTOA warned: “If our efforts for support are unsuccessful, what happens next? Well as we have already said some depots have already closed, others are close (to closing) and some have delayed further redundancies in the hope that things will improve but now there is little positivity in the sector for the future.
“Services will be curtailed, sponsorship in local communities cut, charitable activity culled. Fewer taxis to welcome tourists when the market returns, more pressure on our health service to provide secondary services. Who provides transport for wheelchair users and passengers with sight difficulties and guide dogs? Who services rural areas that other transport operators cannot? One commentator on social media even went as far as to suggest an increase in drink driving when there’s no one to get you home after the pub.
“Not supporting the operators will lead to a rise in unregulated taxis and the many associated issues which we hoped had been left in the past. They will not contribute and invest in our communities. It may ultimately mean than when we have a return to normality in society there may not be a taxi sector to return to.”
Two years on from the original warning there are now 1,290 fewer taxi drivers licensed. There are only 8,077 in total remaining. Of these still licensed, DFI stated in August that only 6,218 are actively affiliated to an Operator’s licence.
With the number of drivers down, the trend continues for the number of vehicles licensed too. There are 1,895 fewer licenced taxis, down to just 6,828 in total.
The troubles affect operators where there are now 61 fewer taxi operators since December 2020, and the LTOA are also concerned that the DFI taxi tariff consultation, promised in November 2021, still remains incomplete and unpublished.
A LTOA spokesperson said: “There are simply now too few taxis and taxi drivers to meet passenger demand across Northern Ireland especially during anti-social hours at evenings and weekends, and the industry is finding it difficult to recruit more because of the licence testing regime despite high levels of interest.
“This results in passengers being unable to book, delays for passengers who have booked, and a free for all for those passengers trying to hail taxis at peak times with the price bartering that occurs when taxis are in such short supply
Most taxi drivers are self-employed in Northern Ireland and many of them, like the rest of society, have looked at their work life balance during the Pandemic. Drivers have decided it is not worth their while driving the extra hours especially evenings and weekends on the current DFI fare structure when there are additional challenges for working these hours.”
What does the LTOA propose the Department for Infrastructure do?
The LTOA has created a well documented five step plan for the industry. Their proposals for the DFI includes:
1. We need more drivers, but becoming a driver is too expensive and too complicated for the needs of the job. A theory test pass rate of only 22.2% compared to significantly higher rates for other licence types cannot simply be down to the abilities of the prospective taxi driver.
We have asked the DFI for the testing process to be temporarily rolled back to where it was in 2013 to allow driver numbers to recover (In other words, the standards that 85% of the drivers who are currently working today have) This is not deregulation, rather drivers will still need three years driving experience on a standard licence, pass a medical and an Advanced Access NI (Repute test).
2. The DFI need to close the “Class C loophole” There are some taxi operators licenced under Class C, a division never intended for taxis. Class C fares are unregulated, and in a time of high demand this results in price surging and excessive, but still legal prices for the passenger. Surging fares from Class C taxi operators promote a culture of overcharging / higher prices among drivers. The DFI should close Class C to taxis, and regulate all taxi operators and drivers in the same way.
3. Purchasing, maintaining, and operating a wheelchair capable vehicle costs significantly more than a standard taxi. While the costs are much higher for the driver, the fares that they are able to charge are the same. We do not advocate charging users of these vehicles a higher tariff, but we have asked the DFI to provide compensation to drivers of these vehicles so that they are not financially disadvantaged for doing so. This was proposed as part of the industry response to the 2021/2 DFI Taxi Tariff Consultation which remains unpublished.
4. The DFI need to complete the outstanding 2021/2 Taxi Tariff Consultation. While there was a stop gap increase to fares in 2021, this was the first increase to the maximum tariff in ten years. It was insufficient to compensate drivers then for their increased costs over this period and has since been swallowed up by the cost of living crisis experienced this year. If fares are allowed to increase at a satisfactory rate, particularly at peak times, more drivers will work these periods and with more driver supply, the occurrences of price bartering / surging will reduce. As a comparison, Northern Ireland currently ranks 281st of all the UK regions for average taxi fare which would suggest that passengers here are paying less for their taxis than the majority of passengers across the UK. Our research suggests that passengers would prefer to pay a little more for a taxi at peak times to improve service, and to avoid being subject to surge pricing.
5. Enforcement. Taxi drivers and operators who work within the metered fare structure do not condone the activities of those who work outside it, whatever the reason for doing so.
Operators have been working with the DVA (who are the agency responsible for enforcement of taxi regulations) to increase enforcement activity to reduce illegal pickups from the street and price haggling. Current legislation allows taxi drivers to pick up off the street at certain times of the week (Friday and Saturday nights) This means that companies can be left with fewer drivers for pre booked jobs for loyal customers during these periods. The ability to flag a taxi down during these hours also leads to customers bidding higher amounts than the metered fare to “jump the queue” and this encourages higher prices and bartering.
It is a challenging task for the DVA to enforce legislation in these circumstances as it can be difficult to identify which drivers are collecting a customer legally and which are not.
A LTOA spokesperson added: “The taxi industry is doing everything it can to address these issues, particularly in bringing more drivers into the sector. We have responded to the DFI fare consultation with our proposals and we continue to engage with the DVA on driver enforcement. Operators are continually recruiting for more drivers and there is no lack of interest in the roles, rather a DFI blockage in getting new drivers through the licencing process.
“Taxi operators have a business model where their income increases when the number of drivers they have increases – In other words it is in our interest to have more drivers and address these problems, but there is only so much we can do within the current legislation and in the absence of an Assembly.
“Unfortunately, until we have an Infrastructure Minister in post, and one who is prepared to address these chronic problems, nothing will happen quickly, if at all.
“If you are struggling to get a taxi this Christmas think of the reasons and warnings from the industry and remember who, and what has caused this and their ongoing unwillingness and inability to fix it.”