Lancaster and Morecambe taxi firms in crisis as major driver shortage leaves people stranded
A shortage of taxi drivers across Lancaster and Morecambe means many people face a long wait - or a walk home - after a night out.
Taxi firm bosses say the situation is at a critical point, and is not likely to improve before Christmas - potentially leaving many festive revellers stranded in the cold as they try to get home.
Bosses say many regular drivers have not returned to the job since the pandemic hit, and the cost and length of time it takes to train is putting off potential new drivers.
This has left a major shortage across the district in the number of drivers, particularly to cope with the night-time trade.
Taxi office staff also say they are facing unprecedented levels of abuse from customers unhappy with waiting times.
One said: "I have been doing the job for 20 years and never had this level of abuse before."
Lancaster City Council licensing officers have recognised the issue and say they are looking at ways to combat the problem.
The shortage of hackney and private hire taxis is creating risks to public safety, people getting home safely, and disorder and crime, according to a new licensing report.
Issues such as the impact of Covid-19, rising fuel costs hitting drivers’ earnings and firms’ profits, the level of passenger fares, vehicle tests and driver training courses are among factors being looked at.
The district's three large taxi firms - 32090, 848848 and Coastal Taxis - have all reported major shortages since the pandemic hit.
Kelvin Ellershaw, manager of 32090-35666 taxi firm, said business is "manic" after being left a third short of his usual number of 90 drivers.
He said there is no sign of any improvement as Christmas approaches - and asked customers to be patient with his team as they try to get everyone home safely.
"There's a massive shortage of drivers at the moment," Mr Ellershaw said. "On a Friday and Saturday night we just can't keep up. People can't get home and they get frustrated. It's a real problem.
"There's no chance of us getting any new drivers before Christmas."
Mr Ellershaw said there are several constraints on prospective new drivers include the time taken to book and undertake training, along with the cost of the course.
New drivers also have to take a driving test and pass a medical and police checks.
The process can take up to 12 weeks and cost around £600.
"People can't afford to wait that long," Mr Ellershaw said. "I could apply for a takeaway delivery job and be doing it by that afternoon.
"The pressures on becoming a taxi driver are enormous. It's an incredible amount of hurdles and it costs money. If you could maybe put off some of the training until you have got some experience that night be a way forward.
"It's the experience that gives you the knowledge and expertise, not going on a course.
"It's very frustrating. We have got people we have looked after for years and now we can't supply the service that we are supposed to supply.
"All I can do is apologise to people that we can't get home."
Mark Broadbent, one of four directors of Coastal Taxis, acknowledged that the problem is a nationwide one.
"I have been away on short breaks around the country recently and you just cannot get a cab home," he said.
"We are all suffering with the same issues. It's not just the drivers either - it's the staff who run the booking offices as well. It's a permanent nightmare at the moment."
Mark said evening work is the biggest problem after a lot of the regular night drivers either didn't return post-pandemic, or they now choose to work day shifts.
Many drivers also took up jobs as parcel or food delivery drivers during Covid and have not returned.
And attracting new drivers is increasingly difficult due to the process.
"People can't afford to wait around for a few months and fork out money to train," Mark said.
"It's a concern. I have been in the business for more than 30 years and it can be very rewarding but the problem is getting to that stage.
"I just can't see a way around it at the moment, and the consequence is that the night crowds are going to suffer."
Ian Dixon, a director at 848848 taxis, said a typical day currently sees around 45 of their cars in operation - half the number they previously had.
"A lot of people are coming to our office for a taxi and having to walk home," he said. "There's only so much we can do.
"We used to be able to take everybody we got and now we can't. Sometimes we are struggling during the day as well as at night."
Ian said he had suggested proposals to the council in a bid to improve the process of hiring new drivers.
This included abolishing the four-day college course and suspending the driving test for those who haven't held a UK license for three years.
"That would attract more people and make it faster to go through the system," he said.
"It's easy to criticise the council but we have got to have a system in place that works and I have suggested a system to them."
Lancaster City Council is hoping to tackle the shortfall in drivers with a recruitment campaign as well as other action including an appeal to former drivers with expired licenses to return and cut-price training courses.
The licensing committee report states: “There is a reduced number of drivers, locally and nationally. One project has been to increase the number of licensed drivers operating in the district, both hackney carriage and private hire.
"The scope of this work has been to promote the role of becoming a taxi or private hire driver and to work alongside partners to assist applicants.
“A college course is full in November, due to reduced cost of £100 instead of £220. The council wrote to all expired drivers, 97 of them, and asked them to use a fast-track application procedure. A social media and Job Centre campaign is highlighting the work.”
Taxi vehicle tests represent another factor putting off drivers. The current system is described as labour intensive with excessive steps in the process. Changes are needed to the city council’s online vehicle test booking system to make it easier for drivers to book tests. The council will also reintroduce a paid service called Licensing Direct and personal licensing courses, with the aim of re-launching in April 2022.
The city council’s website shows there are currently 373 registered dual-license drivers. The hackney carriage register has 108 license-holders and the private hire register has 38.