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Taxi industry sits at the crossroads

THE view from the driver’s seat of a taxi on a busy Friday night provides an interesting insight into human nature.

Amorous couples, lonely drunks and abusive or even violent customers take their place in the back seat of the car.

It’s a demanding and solitary job for the drivers. Apart from the colourful night time clientele, however, there are many people who rely on taxis to keep them mobile and get them to the shops or important appointments.

Taxi Council chairman Kevin Foley said the industry was very seasonal, with autumn and spring the slowest times of the year.

The taxi industry in WA plays an important role in tourism, he said, with the drivers often the first local a tourist talks to.

“If you compare us to Queensland, we’re much less affected by tourism, and it probably accounts for only three to four per cent of the work,” Mr Foley said.

“In the main, the work in summertime is in the evenings but in wintertime people go home early and get up in the dark, so they’re more reliant in the morning.”

But in the past few years the introduction of the Taxi Act, small vehicle charter licences and now the proposed licence plate buy back, have had an effect on this important industry.

Regulated by the Taxi Act, the Taxi Council defines appropriate behaviour for drivers and there are disciplinary procedures in place for anyone who contravenes these guidelines.

But the council also is an advocacy body for the industry and Mr Foley said it was keen to promote the industry and make drivers feel important.

“It’s pretty lonely out there in a car all day and all night. If we can make them feel appreciated, then that’s important,” he said.

The Taxi Council is made up of drivers and representatives from the different stakeholders, including owners’ management companies and radio companies, or taxi dispatch services like Swan and Black and White.

“Our role is to promote the industry and support the driver and owners in a non-political way on behalf of the operator to change regulations if needed,” Mr Foley said.

“It’s a big, heavy going industry. We will take over 12,000 phone calls a day and we exceed four million calls per annum, which is close to 80,000 calls a week.”

But problems remain and, during peak times, the demand for taxis still seems to outstrip supply. Mr Foley was quick to point out that these periods are unusual and only occur over short periods.

There are far bigger issues for the industry to focus on at the moment, with a $218 million proposal for a Government buy back of all the 1,100 taxi licence plates on the table.

If the proposal goes through, drivers would lease their plates from the Government on a contract basis.

The proposal has been put together in response to uncertainty in the industry and concern the value of the licence plates has been undercut by small private charter vehicle licences.

Small Charter Vehicles are licensed to pick up booked customers, however they are not allowed to tout for business on the streets and the fare is agreed to before the journey, rather than by a meter.

As things stand now, licence plate owners are not keen to sell their plates, having watched their value slump by almost 50 per cent during the past few years.

Taxi Unit manager for the Department of Transport Rob Leicester said the department had undertaken a major review of the taxi industry, which Cabinet had approved.

“Some independent consultants did a front-running review and the key recommendation was for the State to buy back the licences and to free up entry into the industry,” Mr Leicester said.

However, the Government recognised there was a fairly high level of customer satisfaction, with most of the complaints that were received coming from customers in the peak busy times and from people with disabilities.

“The industry was divided on whether the buy back was a good thing and there was no clear direction. But since then the industry has talked more about the buy back, and the Taxi Council did a survey, which showed a high level of support,” Mr Leicester said.

“The industry has now put forward a formal submission to the Government and the Government is ready to make the next step.”

But not everyone in the industry is happy about the proposed buy back, with many having serious concerns about how the Government will manage the leasing contracts for the plates, and at what cost.

There also are fears that, if the Government buys the plates, the market may become flooded, making it very difficult for drivers to make a living. In the end, the best drivers may leave the industry.

Taxi Operators Political Service federal president Alan Bateson said the Department of Transport had destroyed the taxi industry and created so many problems that the Government would have to buy back the plates.

“In 1994 the Department of Transport took over the industry, claiming they were going to improve things,” he said.

“They then released small charter plates for a yearly cost of $4.25 per seating capacity of the vehicle.

“There are people who own cabs and have a second vehicle registered as a small charter vehicle and they feed jobs from the cab to the secondary car.”

The Taxi Operators Political Service is no longer functioning as a political party, but Mr Bateson and his wife, executive secretary Linda Bateson, work closely with drivers who have struck difficulties.

Although they acknowledge there is not a lot of support in the industry, they see their role as vital.

Mr Bateson is critical of investors in the industry. He believes the best service comes from owner operators who will look after the car and offer the best possible level of service.

“I’ve been in the industry 12 years and it was a good living and a good industry to be in. But it’s tough now and I think GST has had a big impact,” he said.

“ In the past six weeks, drivers have said there’s been a drop in income of 30-40 per cent. Even at shopping centres now you just don’t get the walk ups.”

Things might be tough now in a financial sense, but there has been some good news in recent times, with the installation of in-car cameras providing a boost for driver safety and security.

The cameras have helped reduce violent acts by up to 80 per cent and the industries in the eastern states and the Northern Territory are considering installing cameras in all their cars.

It might be safer but it’s still a very solitary job, and computer technology has further isolated many drivers, who used to communicate regularly during a shift on their radio microphone.

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