Boss of cab firm blames tighter regulations and pandemic for chronic driver shortages
One of Belfast’s biggest taxi firms turned away almost 3,000 customers on Saturday because they did not have enough drivers.
However, fonaCAB said the amount of lost custom is likely to be higher as it had to switch off the app people use to book taxis in addition to rejected telephone requests as it struggled to cope with demand.
The firm has blamed a range of factors on driving the taxi industry to crisis point, including the introduction of tougher entry requirements for drivers in 2013 and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to fonaCAB, the number of taxi drivers across Northern Ireland has dropped from 15,500 in 2014 to 8,500, while the number of active drivers working for the company has fallen from 1,270 last March to 870 now.
A growing number of people are struggling to get taxis at night and over the weekend, which the firm has warned will lead to an increase in anti-social behaviour and a rise in attacks on people who have to walk home after a night out.
It also said it will impact on Northern Ireland’s hospitality industry — already on its knees after 18 months of closures and draconian restrictions as health bosses have struggled to keep Covid-19 cases under control.
And on Monday night, the company boss warned the situation could deteriorate further, making it more difficult for people who rely on taxis to get to school and to attend hospital appointments.
William McCausland, managing director and owner of fonaCAB, said: “We would like to apologise to our passengers if we haven’t been able to get you a taxi, or if your taxi has been late over the last number of months.
“The taxi industry in Northern Ireland has been losing drivers since new tests were introduced in 2013 and this issue has only gotten worse because of the pandemic.
“We, like most other companies, are working with far fewer drivers at present than before the pandemic started and this has meant that demand for taxis outstrips supply at evenings and weekends.
“Unfortunately it might also start to affect weekday availability as people increasingly return to the office and schools start back.
“We are working hard to rectify this and to ensure that we keep our customers happy, but there are some issues that we cannot resolve and need the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, to help with.”
Among the barriers stopping would-be taxi drivers from starting work include the introduction of a new theory and driving test specifically for people wishing to work as a taxi driver.
According to industry insiders, it can take numerous attempts to pass, with a driver at fonaCAB, a teacher graduate, sitting the test three times before he was able to move on to his driving test.
The cost of the necessary tests, insurance and paperwork needed to work as a taxi driver runs into thousands of pounds with some potential drivers unable to cover the cost.
Meanwhile, a large number of people left their taxi driving jobs during the pandemic due to the lack of available work and many have chosen not to return.
William continued: “If you’ve been late for a doctor’s appointment, if you’ve had to walk home from a night out, if you’ve missed a celebration because you couldn’t get a taxi, we want to hear about it as we take all feedback on board, but we’d also ask you to share your frustrations by contacting Minister Mallon and asking her to act now to resolve the problems that the sector is experiencing.”
Colin Neill, chief executive of Hospitality Ulster, said he is concerned by the anecdotal evidence of challenges facing members of the public in booking taxis.
“It’s certainly an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said.
“Unfortunately, our current licensing laws mean that everyone is trying to get home at the same time. The hospitality sector is still running below capacity but when that changes, we will need adequate taxis available, so this is a situation we hope changes pretty urgently.”
A spokeswoman from the Department for Infrastructure said: "The decline in taxi driver numbers during 2020/21 is likely to have been impacted by the Covid pandemic.
“There has been limited opportunity for first time applicants to apply for their taxi driver test due to Covid restrictions on driver testing.
"However, the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) resumed practical driving tests and theory tests for all categories, including taxi drivers, on April 23, 2021.
"In addition, some existing taxi drivers, whose taxi licence expired during this period, may have decided not to incur the cost of renewing their taxi driver’s licence until the Covid restrictions were lifted.
“As taxi drivers are providing a service to the public it is necessary to ensure that such drivers undergo the necessary training to continually develop their knowledge and skills for road safety purposes throughout their career. Also the taxi theory and practical tests are a requirement of the Taxi Licensing Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015.
“During the pandemic £16.7m has been provided in both financial and regulatory support by the department to assist the taxi sector and officials continue to work closely with industry representatives during this difficult time.”