The Problems with Driving a Hackney Cab in 2017

Driving cabs in London has always been a risky job – but you could say that it’s got even riskier in the last few years.

Cab drivers have been working on the streets of London for nearly three hundred years and although we now have the security benefits of CCTV and in-car cameras…

…it’s questionable whether today’s drivers are really any safer than our centuries-old forefathers.

Part of the territory that comes with being a cab driver in London in 2017 is having to deal with the asinine comments of customers, usually regarding how much they’re paying for their fare and how it would really be so much easier if we all just drove for companies like Uber instead.

I’m not going to spend the next few hundred words or so laying into the spoilt millennial generation that has overseen and supported the return to a form of near-slavery that I’ve no doubt they would strongly object to – that is, if they weren’t so intent on getting across London as quickly as possible to make their very important party.

I’m not going to do that because I believe that Uber drivers will be suffering from many of the same problems that we’ll also be struggling with.

I’ve been told before that us drivers have never had it so good. Pretty much every corner of the city is covered with CCTV so (theoretically) if we were going to be held up there would be a dozen or so cameras watching the perpetrator leave the scene, leaving a digital breadcrumb trail for the police to follow. Theoretically this makes sense. Unfortunately, in practice, the increased level of surveillance only serves to hinder cab drivers, rather than help them.

You see, surveillance works both ways. By all means it can aid the police to track down wrong-doers, but it also means that we’re constantly being watched for the slightest indiscretion and, thanks to our license plates, we’re always one wrong move away from endorsements on our all important license. Do you know how many points you get for failing to comply with a no entry sign? It’s 3 points and they can be the difference between feeding your family and making a trip to the food bank.

Of course, even if you do manage to evade the beady digital eye of the law, you’ll still be lucky not to run into an accident. London’s roads are busier than they’ve ever been. The population of the city swells every year with cars, motorbikes, cyclists and pedestrians all potential hazards. Whilst more people necessarily means more fares, in reality this just translates to less space, time and an increased risk of accidents.

Lastly, with more people comes more crime. Whilst London has intermittently been a fairly lawless place, statistics have shown that knife-enabled crime is now at an all time high. Many cab drivers, for their sins, still use predominantly cash, making the risk of highway robbery as dangerous (if not more) than it ever was in the pre-modern day.

So why do we continue to drive cabs?

Because the money is good, the people are brilliant and this is our city.

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Boldly Going from Supermarket Stacker to Tube Driver

No one plans on being a train driver.

I certainly didn’t.

When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut – a little rote, I know, but what do you want from me?

I was ten-years old, I loved Star Trek and in my great wisdom I believed that by the time I was ‘all grown up’ the Federation would be hiring and I’d be the first of a chosen few to boldly go where no man had gone before.

Unfortunately, by the time I’d scraped through school and college I’d come to the nagging realisation that Star Fleet was perhaps a few more decades away from coming into existence and unless they dropped their standards, I’d probably be relegated to a less exciting, less glamorous section. You never saw any cleaners vacuuming the pristine corridors of the Enterprise-D, but something tells me they were probably behind the scenes, dutifully tidying the top-tier officers’ quarters and cleaning after their raucous drinks parties and amorous social engagements with alien life forms.

I digress.

By the time I’d left college and come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be exploring the stars for a living, I had to sit down and have a long hard think about what I could realistically do with my life. I’d made a few errors during the later years of my education, like so many young men are wont to do, as such an air of melancholy had clung to me, like an ankle high cloud of dry ice in a music video from the 80s.

I found a summer job in my local supermarket and found myself surprised with how I enjoyed such an unglamorous job. I found a strange kind of camaraderie at that first job. The odd formless uniforms that we all wore bonded us in mediocrity. There were no cliques, we were all in it together and pretty soon I found that my ‘summer job’ had turned into a full-time career. When I was offered my first promotion there, after a year’s service, I knew that I’d stayed too long. I like my team, but ennui had set in. I’d had enough of living in my childhood bedroom and I couldn’t be certain, but I had the feeling that my Mum was done with cooking my dinner every night. It was time to leave.

After a year spent stacking shelves, passing items through the checkout, I felt like I’d spent enough time in a supermarket to last me a lifetime.

The cloud of disappointment had lifted, it had been replaced by something new. I’d been emboldened by my year of work, I knew that I was capable of more. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was a ‘fire in my belly’, but there was certainly a seed of ambition that had not been there before.

When my agency called me to say that I was perfect fit for the role of a train driver, there was no hesitation in my affirmative reply.

Transport for London might not be Star Fleet, but it sure pays better than shelf stacking and once more I’m part of an excellent team – it’s just a little larger than before.

Around 27,800 larger…

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From Kolkata to London

The face of London’s Transport system has changed a great deal since my time in this city.

When I first arrived here, fresh faced from the flight from Kolkata, the 80s were in full swing and a layer of grime lay like a film over the entire city.

It was hardly the healthiest of times. When I arrived in London, I was reaching my late twenties and starting to collect a small tire of flesh around my midriff.

In India, I had been a vegetarian. Living with my parents and my two younger brothers, we had eaten wholesome food in large quantities. Coupled with the excessive amount of cricket that we played throughout those long balmy evenings, those bounteous meals kept us healthy and sickness free. I’d left home in order to find myself a decent education and a career. My parents were under no illusion as to how hard that might be, for an Indian-bred man, with no formal qualifications or experience. However, they’d somehow managed to get the money together over the course of a few years and were eager to let their son see something of the world.

During the 70s and 80s, large numbers of Asian people were looking to move to England.

Many countries, still shaken by their newly acquired independence, were now gripped by civil conflicts and wars, leaving swathes of young men and women looking for work. As such, during this period of time, the number of immigrants from places such as India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were huge. One could look on this huge migration of people as a dilution of English culture, or you could see it as a natural consequence of three centuries of Colonial rule. English culture had become so ingrained with the lives of those living under their rule, that many people from Asian cultures looked on to their ex-colonists almost as guardians.

That’s certainly how I viewed her Majesty’s Government upon my arrival at Heathrow Airport.

I’d been born just a handful of years after the British retreat from India; what they left in their wake, besides countless white, Imperialistic buildings, infrastructure and hundreds of miles of train lines, was a power vacuum that led to countless inter-caste struggles. My parents were great fans of the British, despite growing up as essentially second-class citizens, they still felt that the country had benefited from the Colonial forces. All I knew was that they had built the hospitals, schools and cricket pitches where, previously, there were none.

They were the white men who had come to our country centuries before, in order to take our resources and exploit the people living there.

But they had also given me the buildings and structure that had provided me with an education and countless hours of precious memories. So when I arrived in London, I was a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, I was humbled by the flight (which had been my first) and the glittering airport, far grander than any we had in India. On the other I was a little surprised by the scruffiness, the garish lights and scowling faces. The vision of England that my parents had shared with me was one, full of well-dressed aristocrats and business men. The one that was presented to me was a surprisingly diverse melting pot of races and classes.

Thirty years later and I’m still here. Driving busses was never the career that my parents envisioned, but it’s allowed me to build a life in my adoptive country.

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First Week On The Job

The stereotypical Black Cab driver in London has a certain profile.

When tourists come to London, they love to catch our Hackney Cabs.

The bulbous, black vehicles are as iconic as the Red Telephone Box, it only follows that a ride in one should be part of the London experience.

Of course, like so many dreams harboured by tourists, the real-life incarnation of their coveted idea may well lack the glamour that they had previously imagined. England is a country that receives millions of international tourists every year (31.5 million eager visitors flocked the city in 2015, a number that shows a sharp increase on previous years, almost 20% if numbers are to believed) and with each of these comes the inevitable taxi cab ride.

When a tourist sets foot in their first black cab they are usually forced to comment on a couple of things.

Out of breath, perhaps a little damp from a light drizzle that has been falling for the last hours or so, they breathlessly bundle into the back of the cab and are shocked by how clean it is. When visiting our capital city for the first time, most tourists are forced to overcome the amount of rubbish and graffiti that litters the streets in a daily basis. Its not something that is shown in Love Actually and the grubby state of decay, that is on general display across the city, is surprisingly not explored in any of the advertising brochures.

After a couple of days, tourists have usually got used to the general mess that lines the streets.

So when they step inside a cab, especially one like mine, they are usually surprised at how clean it is.

I began my cab driving career in the height of Summer last year, whilst London was receiving it’s biggest influx of tourists since records began.

I’d spent the last 10 years as a coach driver; although London had always been my hometown, I’d not had the chance to spend too much time there recently. It had been a decade since I’d walked the damp, drizzly streets of London – in the meantime I’d been cruising the dry, sandy roads of Spain. Driving tourists around the hills and towns of Catalonia, I’d gained good experience in driving but I was growing tired of the expats living out there. Thanks to a removal company, I was able to chuck it all in, when I hit 60 and return to the East End. Although I missed the Spanish sun almost immediately, London has always been waiting for me as my hometown.

Last year, the popular taxi app, ‘Uber’, was just beginning to make it’s presence known in the industry.

I knew that I could easily find a car and work for them, but something didn’t sit right with me doing this.

The cabbies of my youth were grizzled, weighty men with pot bellies and Cockney accents. Their ‘Knowledge’, a combination of locally sourced information and a written test, put them head and shoulders above any outsider and a swift, yet eventful journey was always guaranteed. When it came time for me to sit behind the wheel of a cab, it had to be a Hackney Cab and I needed to have the Knowledge. After spending a few afternoons down my local, getting tips from the retired and semi-retired cabbies there, I was ready for the test and all set for my first fare.

The first surprise that visiting customers often get, when the step inside my black cab, is how clean it is – the second is how quickly they get to their destination.

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From Arts Student to Station Manager

No Arts Students dreams of working on the Tubes

During the 3 years I spent frantically tearing through books and writing essays, the last thing I thought I’d be doing with my well-earned degree is working on the trains.

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There are certain industries and sectors that appeal to Arts students – trains tend not to feature in any of these.

Arts students living in London, especially those hailing from the deep heart of the Northern countryside, are often the Graduates to fall the hardest. They spend 3 or 5 years embroiling themselves in an Arts driven community. The friends they make, along with the environments they grow accustomed to, are endemic of the course that they are taking. Living in a world where questions of artistic intention are more important than meeting deadlines or taking on responsibility, can lead to a shift in mental priorities that can limit people’s ambitions in later life.

When I was knee-deep in my Fine Art degree, the first job I had in mind was a pipe dream.

A chic, understated office, where everyone would make their own lattes. People would take turns putting on records and meetings would be held whilst sitting on bean bags. My vision of how a business functioned, never mind the world, was seriously warped. I was yet to discover that people who spent all their time discussing coffee and indie bands were rarely the people who could get things sorted or projects executed.

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Despite my current employment, I’ve managed to hold on to a handful of old friends working in these chic offices. Well-meaning creatives all of them, they’re now rammed into square meeting rooms and are desperately brain-storming inventive ways of marketing to college students. Where they once had the time to draw parallels between the works of Samuel Pepys and French Renaissance Pastorals, they now only have time to binge watch whatever’s hot on Netflix and pass out for 7 hours, before doing it all over again.

I count myself as lucky.

I could have been with them, stuck up in the glass plated prisons of the Information Age. I could be nobly scrapping with other creatives for credit over a lousy piece of  ‘content’. I could be mournfully looking back at my University life as the ‘good old days’. But I’m not.

In my final year at University, I ran out of money. Easily done. To make ends meet, I took a job as a Customer Service representative in Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. I dreaded that first shift, thinking of myself sinking into a dull, grey world of mediocrity. A million miles away from the sophisticated ply-wood clad office that I was dreaming of. What I found instead was a bustling, thriving community of passionate individuals striving towards one goal.

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Seeing the Underground system from the other side suddenly made me appreciate the vast, intricate nature of this convenience that I had been taking for granted for the last three years. Not only was I actively engaged in this system, I was helping it function better. My manager at the time recognised my enthusiasm and slipped me some information regarding their Graduate Scheme. A younger, shallower version of myself would have snorted in derision at this – but I did no such thing.

I took the opportunity with both hands and now I’m heading towards managing my own station.

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Working as a Revenue Protection Inspector

There’s a certain respect that an RPI gets, living in London.

In the commuter’s mind there are members of Transport for London who either exist to help or hinder them in their goal of reaching their destination.

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The status between a law-abiding citizen and an RPI is a simple one.

The citizen has bought a ticket, so all the RPI has to do is check and validate it. In this city, the upkeep and maintenance of our transport system is heavily reliant on fares. 40% of Transport for London’s running budget is generated from the honest travellers of the city. So it follows that citizens of London are more than happy to show their tickets and even exchange some pleasantries – it can be a surprisingly social job.

The parking attendant, however, falls into the latter camp. Although they perform a very similar job to myself, they are seen as barriers to the commuter, another nuisance that is halting them from getting to where they need to be.

I have many friends who are in this line of work. They struggle to make friends outside of the public sector, such is the prejudice against these decent men and women. They are not vindictive people, they are simply paid to walk the street checking tickets, much like I do on the trains. However, they are seen by the commuter as acting in a predatory fashion. Prowling the streets, hunting for cars that are just moments away from being illegally parked. Just aching to put a damper on someone’s day.

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It’s rare that you’ll hear a positive anecdote relating to a parking attendant. In return for the necessary work they do, they are branded with the status of a social pariah. Like ‘the taxman’ himself, they represent a faceless Government body snatching money out of the hands of ‘good, decent folk’. When all they are doing is simply apply unbending rules and regulations to this mess of a city. If these headstrong people didn’t commit to their jobs to the full extent, not only would the system start to bleed coins, but the streets would cease to function with any semblance of reason.

Human beings will always seek the easiest option. This isn’t a damning indictment on the human race, it’s simply a statement of truth. I include myself in this. We are hardwired to consume energy and then conserve it. If we can find a way to complete a task that takes up less energy, whether that’s illegally parking a car to shorten a walk, or skip paying for a train to save money for other things; if we can exploit a loophole or find a short cut, we’ll more than likely do it.

The next time you find a parking ticket taped to your car, and try stopping yourself from blaming the person who put it there. Think about the actions that you  have taken to get to where you are. Consider if you perhaps could have parked in a different place. Then think about the parking attendant, taking the challenging path and getting no thanks for it.

Next time you see an attendant, have a chat with them, they’re still people after all.

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Mad Dash to London City Airport

Driving a Hackney Cab in London can be a surprisingly pedestrian job at times.

London may well have the reputation of being a city that doesn’t stop.

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Filled with power walking businessmen with their heads down, furiously pacing to their next appointments.

Rammed with shuffling tourists, confusedly snapping photos of Costas. Packed with strangely dressed young people, all desperately attempting to stand out of the crowd of their contemporaries, all hopelessly dressed in the same uniform. But, when you’ve driven cabs in this town for as long as I have, all the people with their hustle and bustle become simply part of the background noise.

Unlike the hoards of Uber drivers that have flooded the streets, with their GPS systems and ‘cashless’ systems, I stick to the old ways. The street names and corners that I have seen almost every day of my life are burned on to my retinas. With each week and month, shops can be closed and buildings can be razed, but the streets remain the same.

My memory is a living creature. Dense, tunnelling tentacles that wind through the recesses of my mind; they run through my arms, out of my fingers and onto the wheel – taking my passenger and I onward to our destination. At times it can be an almost automatic experience, transcendent even.

“Bond Street to St. Pauls? No problem son, get you there in a jiffy.”

“Paddington to the Zoo? Weather not good enough to walk? Just an egg yoke mate, there before you know it.”

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Of course, every now and again, you get a curve ball thrown at you. The quiet ease with which you drive is interrupted by an angry fare. You’re perhaps accosted by a particularly drunk crowd of kids. Or you’re simply given an almost impossible challenge.

I usually try and avoid driving through rush hour. The fares may well be in abundance, but the roads can often make progress a little stilted. This day was an odd one though, I’d already driven through the night, ferrying students back and forth from a remote house party. I’d made a packet already, but now the hunger for more cash had gripped me. My hands had been firmly gripped to the wheel for hours and they weren’t ready to release me from the road – not yet.

A flash of red caught my eye, as I idled past Euston Station. The door flew open and a blast of a rich smelling perfume filled the cab.

“London City Airport – I need to be there in half an hour, can you do it?”

At 8:30am, the streets are clogged with vehicles. Eager tourists are already spilling onto the roads and students are heading to class – it’s rare that I’m given such a challenge, but feeling as hot as I am, I simply nod and let my memory fly into action.

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The fare and I both know that there’s car parking at London City Airport (found here). She could have woken up maybe an hour earlier and driven herself there. Instead of rushing and trying her luck for an experienced cab driver, she could have eased her expensive saloon into a pre-booked car parking space and sauntered into the airport with ease. A little preparation goes a long way. But, this lady was from money. She got where she needed to be at breakneck speed or not at all. Her immaculate beauty came at a price – punctuality.

Luckily for her, she flagged an experienced cab driver who was reaching the pinnacle of 10 hour hot streak.

Luckily for me, she had a couple of spare twenties in her bag to show her appreciation.

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Circling the City

There can be a million things that go through your head on a daily basis when you’re driving the busses.

Obviously driving the bus is the main thing. Mostly.

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Although the routes we drive on can change from week to week, we can often find ourselves riding the same circuit for several days in a year.

It’s an odd thing, to brush up next to so many people on a daily basis but not really know any of them, beyond their face, where they get on and where they get off. Somehow I feel like I know them. I’m told that this is a common phenomena in bus drivers who are early on in their careers, that it will fade with time and soon the faces will all appear the same. I’m not sure if that’s an alternative I prefer.

Many people have commented that driving a bus must be a lonely experience. That I must miss human interaction. As if the little cab I work in is towering hundreds of metres above the city, instead of rolling through the heart of it. The opposite is in fact true. Driving through and around the centre of London, I’m surrounded by thousands, probably millions of people. Far from being separated from them, I’m an intrinsic part of the city, a vital cog in the machine. It might seem like an old fashioned, or even dark way of seeing life here, but it’s something that comforts me.

Whilst I spend the hours of the day drifting around the city, nodding to fellow drivers, accepting fares, starting, stopping,  I feel like I’m a part of something greater. Our city is always bustling and busy – thousands of us, like ants, crawling across the pavements and roads. We might be crossing and intersecting at strange points, but we are all working towards the same goal. All thrust in the same direction, purposefully striding forward as one.

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I’ve spoken to other bus drivers about this sensation and, once more, I’m treated with the same look and condescending line. All this will pass, soon you’ll be just like us. That feeling of unification will turn to bitter loneliness. I’m not sure if that feeling will come.

Yes, the early mornings can be just as punishing as the late nights. When the Winter days come in, the nights can simply feel that they stretch on for weeks, months. If I were a trucker, rolling along deserted highways in the States, with nothing but the radio to keep me company, then perhaps the darkness would take my sanity. Endless blackness might seem like a daunting prospect, but the nights are never totally dark.

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London never experiences total blackness. There is always a light on somewhere. The streetlights wink perpetually, a window is illuminated as a man rises early in the morning, thousands of white screens glow and reflect off tired faces. How can you feel alone in a place such as this?

The darkness and bitterness that grips some of the people in my occupation is not a consequence of their work environment. This disillusionment emanates from within themselves, it is a product of their warped perception of the city. They feel insignificant, a small speck that is being swarmed and surrounded by an uncaring mass.

I am one of many reasons that this city keeps moving and I am proud to do it.

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