Wednesday 24 April 2019

Taxing times for night owls

Illegal taxi drivers, red tape and a quiet nightlife has led to calls for designated taxi areas in New Ross town as frustrations at service grow

Publican Shawn Murray of Prendergast’s Bar
Publican Shawn Murray of Prendergast’s Bar

David Looby

The lack of availability of taxis in New Ross has led to a chaotic service, leaving local night owls regularly in the lurch, and simultaneously holding back the development of the town's night-life.

A chicken and egg situation has emerged whereby a quiet town centre has lessened the need for a large scale taxi service, while the lack of several taxis lining the street is putting people off travelling in to the town for a night out.

Booking a taxi for a Saturday night return journey is an almost impossible task, and trying to get a taxi while out on a weekend night will invariably end in either a very long wait, or seeking the favour of a lift home from a family members, partner or friend.

This newspaper contacted several taxis operating in New Ross on a Wednesday and only one indicated a possibility of being able to do a return journey for a group of people living within a 15 minute drive of New Ross, leaving at 9 p.m. and returning at 2 a.m. the following Saturday.

There are two taxis working on weekend nights full-time in the area's main urban centre, servicing a population of around 15,000 people, taking in surrounding villages.

Local taxi drivers believe a designated area for taxis in the town centre is needed.

One taxi driver, who asked to remain anonymous, said: 'You need a covered area where people can queue up. The quay would be an obvious choice. I think that would be a big help because the current system is chaotic.'

Cllr Anthony Connick said it has become almost impossible for taxi drivers to get a licence because of the difficulty of tests and the cost of insurance.

'It's just impossible to get a licence. I did my test four times and got it on my fifth. One man at the centre had sat the test 16 times. Then, when you get your test it takes three months before you get your licence. Then you have the cost of buying a vehicle and getting the signs etc. It would cost you €45,000 to get started.'

Cllr Connick was out of work when he decided he'd look into getting a job as a taxi driver. 'I thought it was an opportunity,' before learning about the costs and red tape involved.

Cllr Connick said businesses in New Ross have notices up advertising taxi companies which are no longer operating.

There are three taxis operating in New Ross presently, with several hackney drivers, working mainly during the day.

'The problem is they are all looking for the same business and there is not enough business. That is a problem for them in terms of how they work it out.'

Cllr Connick was contacted by a young woman in October who tried several times to get a taxi on a week night and failing to do so, had to walk home from Butlersland to Tinneranny, a four mile journey, and at 1.30 a.m. in the dark.

'This has become a public health issue. I have raised it with the superintendent who said gardaí are powerless. They recognise that it's a problem. During the good times there were up to 15 taxis. Now people can't get a taxi when they need it and they are ringing someone at home to come and collect them. All we want is for one accident to happen.'

He said New Ross publicans have contacted him about the situation as their businesses are suffering because people won't travel into New Ross on weekend nights because they're afraid they won't be able to get a taxi home.

'It's a massive problem in the town, unless someone takes up a taxi and does it properly.'

He said people thinking about starting a taxi business are put off by the test. 'I kept at it because I am like that.'

Cllr Connick said one solution might be a taxi rank, another being a bus service run by local publicans, stopping at villages within a 12 mile radius of the town on weekend nights.

He said the National Transport Association needs to look at the need for more supports for rural towns.

'People can't go for a pint anymore. It's a problem and it's not fair. It's a mixture of everything and it's becoming a perfect storm. The lack of licences, the lack of taxis, the night-life and the fact there's not enough activities in New Ross. It's not an easy business, the taxi business.'

Shawn Murray, who owns Prendergasts pub on the quay, has taken to providing a courtesy vehicle for his customers as he wasn't able to get taxis to collect them.

Shawn mentioned several occasions, including last weekend, when groups of people living out the country have tried to get a taxi into New Ross but have been unable to get one. 'Thirteen women were coming in and they couldn't get a taxi. One of their fellas had to do four trips to bring them in.'

Several other publicans in the area have taken to driving their customers home into the early hours of the morning as they can't get a taxi for them. Three to four buses leave New Ross on weekend nights from Tesco and the Dunbrody car park for Wexford and Kilkenny, bringing thousands of euros in food and alcohol spend away from the town. 'There is nothing for young people in the town,' a local taxi driver said.

Three licensed taxi drivers from New Ross work out of Waterford because of the lack of steady business in New Ross at weekends.

Some local taxi businesses have taken to offering a day service from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m. only, with some night and weekend cover provided for loyal customers. They rely on income from regular customers and school runs.

There is a clear need for a taxi service for people staying at the Brandon House Hotel and local B&Bs who want to dine out in New Ross and enjoy a few drinks.

'If you are open at 8 a.m. and you are on call until 4 a.m. you can't do that, night after night. Saturday night is still the main night but if I can't pick you up I'll tell you I can't. There are some nights you'd be at work and you might not get a phone call from 10.30 p.m. till 1.30 a.m. so you're sitting around for three hours and then you get a call that one person wants to be collected at JKL, so you make €6. Saturday night is iffy in New Ross. Some are busy, but mostly it's not busy until 1.30 a.m. when you might get ten calls and taxi drivers can't get to someone for two hours.'

This frustration is common among local taxi drivers, who are crying out for a solution to be put forward.

'People say there is nothing to encourage them to go out in New Ross. You have to think of all the different age groups and what they need.'

The need for people to be realistic when it comes to their expectations of when a taxi can collect them is another factor. 'They want you there straight away, but if you're on a call it can take 20 or 30 minutes.'

Several taxi business owners agreed that a taxi rank could be a good solution, while some said more atmosphere, music and innovation is needed in the town's pubs.

Another taxi provider who asked to remain anonymous said: 'I did seven nights a week one time but you just can't keep it up. For a start the custom isn't there anymore. This town is completely different to any other town in the country. It's crazy for the size of it.'

Calling for more respect for taxi drivers by turning up outside a pub at the time the taxi is booked, the taxi driver said: 'A taxi rank would help.'

The problem of illegal taxi drivers operating in the area is also affecting the provision of a functioning taxi service in New Ross.

'People don't care if you have a blue badge up on your windscreen or don't. We are trying to compete against them and you're paying €2,500 in insurance. You have to have a fire extinguisher in your taxi, a hi-vis vest, a first aid kit, a pen and paper and a warning triangle. If you don't the taxi regulator will fine you €40. The illegal drivers have none of these costs and they can go in and get their €200 dole as well. There could be eight or nine illegal taxis out some weekends and the are undercutting us.'

Another taxi driver said people and local businesses need to stop supporting illegal taxis by giving them business, as it means legitimate, licensed taxi drivers lose out on business and, in turn, are less likely to offer a comprehensive service at weekends.

'At one stage you had 14 taxis in New Ross. I'm working 24/7 and if you work Friday, Saturday, Sunday night till 4 a.m. you're just covering your costs. What we need is more (licensed) taxi drivers. I am going ten years. I'm kept going on weekends but it's very hard with the illegal taxis.'

With demand peaking from midnight till 2 to 3 a.m., when diners and pub goers spill out of local businesses, taxi drivers said it's a young person's game.

'Everyone wants a taxi at the same time. A taxi rank didn't work before. People have to be educated about getting a taxi. It can take 30 minutes. I understand people's frustrations. People are all giving out to me on the phone but there's no answer unless they can get more taxis into New Ross.'

The proliferation of illegal, fly-by-night taxi drivers is badly affecting business, with some legitimate operators making only €20 for up to nine hours work during week nights.

Taxi drivers are hit with too much red tape.

'I changed my taxi last year and for one day I didn't have my plate up and they put me off the road for the whole weekend.'

The taxi driver said he looks after all of his customers within half of an hour of them ringing him. 'If you're working during the week you'd be lucky to take in €10, which is not viable. You're usually busy from 2.30 a.m. till 4 a.m. on Saturday night.

'I would have been very busy once at 10 p.m. You can't get a taxi. One chap I know is trying to set up his own business and they are looking for €11,000. Illegal taxi drivers are doing it for cheaper.'

Sergeant Eddie Wilde said gardaí have received complaints about illegal taxi drivers and have investigated them, but, to date, no prosecutions have been brought.

Sgt Wilde said: 'People who do it without a taxi licence; it's obviously very dangerous. Every so often we get complaints and we investigate them but we are reliant on people to report these people.'

New Ross Standard