‘It’s been a stressful two years’: Drivers uncertain over future of taxi sector

Remote working, fewer tourists and ageing drivers some of challenges industry faces

Even with the scrapping of most restrictions,  the future for the taxi industry is more uncertain, according to those running it. Photograph: Alan Betson

Even with the scrapping of most restrictions, the future for the taxi industry is more uncertain, according to those running it. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Vinny Kearns had become accustomed to the sight of rows of unused cars parked up outside his Xpert Taxis office in Dublin’s Ballymount industrial estate during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The cars were kept clean, but none of them were going nowhere. A metaphor, perhaps, for a State trapped in the fever of a virus – eager to get going; but marooned.

A public health emergency that removes thousands of people from normal economic life plays havoc with many industries – pubs and restaurants, and those working in them, were the most audible over the past two years.

However, even with the scrapping of most restrictions, as people slowly return to restaurant tables and bars, the future for the taxi industry is more uncertain, according to those running it.

I can’t remember the last new business I have taken on because people are working from home. The bread and butter stuff is gone

“Over the last two years the majority of large corporate taxi companies have really felt the impact of Covid-19 because they were reliant on corporate accounts,” explains Kearns. His company was growing and adapting to changes in the industry but was about 75 per cent reliant on company accounts.

“In one swoop you are after removing 80 per cent of that 75 cent because the corporate spend has dropped,” he says, throwing out existential numbers. “I would say that’s pretty much over all for the top end of the taxi companies that focus on that corporate spend.”

Between 2005 and 2019, Xpert swallowed up nine other taxi companies, a measure, Kearns says, of the consolidation that technological advances have helped bring about. Over the past 15 years, he estimates, about 20 “reasonably sized” companies have disappeared. Just as the industry was getting on with this quiet transformation, coronavirus arrived. In early 2020, almost overnight, customers disappeared from footpaths and offices.

“I can’t remember the last new business I have taken on because people are working from home. The bread and butter stuff is gone.”

Free Now, the taxi-hailing app, has also experienced Covid-related problems, even though it says customer demand remains strong (its app saw a 30 per cent rise in new users last year).

“Airport journeys and B2B [business to business] related trips were important revenue channels for the taxi sector pre-pandemic and ones which have diminished considerably because of travel restrictions and working from home guidelines,” said general manager Niall Carson.

The company, which claims two booking requests every second, said 2020 was about survival – its cars experienced a decline in trip volumes from March onwards, quickly reaching 45 per cent of 2019 levels, as government restrictions and lockdown measures took hold.

“Demand levels plummeted as a result of remote working and foreign travel limitations.”

However, from July 2021 onwards that began to change as lockdown measures were eased before the Omicron variant emerged, and with rising vaccination levels. On December 11th last year, Free Now had its busiest day on record.

Just as some taxi companies will describe two years of poor demand and other challenges including an ageing driver pool, data paints a more nuanced and often more positive picture. Last July, albeit before the emergence of Omicron and ensuing restrictions, the global industry research company IBISWorld forecast that revenue in the sector would “surge 88.5 per cent” during 2021, recovering from a drop of more than 50 per cent in 2020.

By 2026, it expects to see industry revenue surpass pre-pandemic levels, growing at a compound annual rate of 2.8 per cent to €1.4 billion. Between last year and 2026, employment in the sector is expected to rise by 2.3 per cent, business growth by 4 per cent and wages by 2.6 per cent.

Of those using taxis in Ireland, IBISWorld breaks demand down into private customers (accounting for about 60 per cent), corporate (21 per cent) and tourists (19 per cent), the latter almost entirely wiped out.

For Jude Williams, a veteran taxi operator in Limerick whose drivers have not seen many Shannon Airport passengers of late, tourism has long been a traditional source of income.

“It’s all gone, it’s wiped out and I can’t see it coming back. I haven’t had a booking in Shannon for two years,” he says. As with others, worn by two years of pandemic, Williams is pessimistic about the future where older people are leaving the job and younger replacements cannot keep pace.

It’s been a stressful two years and you just keep saying this year will be better, next month will be better. You have to keep a positive outlook

His own children have left the business over the past two years. Just before its outbreak, his company Treaty Cabs merged with Xpert and bought out a number of smaller Limerick operators.

“If it comes back it will take a long time,” Williams says. “It won’t be this year anyway. I think maybe the year after if there aren’t any more lockdowns and people can come and visit the country. That won’t happen overnight. The tourism thing is a summer thing so if they aren’t booking hotels or flights now that means they aren’t coming.

“It’s been a stressful two years and you just keep saying this year will be better, next month will be better. You have to keep a positive outlook; you can’t just lie down and die.”

The industry continues to fight despite the 2008 financial crisis, shifts in technology and now a pandemic. Latest available data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) shows that in 2018 there were 17,179 taxis (not including hackneys), rising to 17,752 in 2019, before falling by more than 8 per cent in 2020 to 16,266.

Broader numbers from the National Transport Authority (NTA) show a consistent annual decline in small public service vehicles (SPSVs including taxis, hackneys and limousines) – from 23,777 in 2011 to 19,352 in 2020, an overall decrease of almost 19 per cent.

“Whilst this downward trend was reversed in both 2018 and 2019, the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic was a significant contributing factor in the nearly 10 per cent decline in fleet numbers recorded at year-end,” the NTA reported in its 2020 Taxi Bulletin last October.

Despite a variety of financial supports available to drivers (the pandemic unemployment payment and a €1,000 grant to help with the cost of returning to work) the pressures became apparent in September 2020 when hundreds gathered outside Dublin’s Phoenix Park before travelling in convoy to protest at Government Buildings.

A debate in the Dáil the following day heard that a quarter of all drivers (23 per cent) are now aged over 66 and excluded from the PUP scheme; 15 per cent are over 70.

This time two years ago we had probably about 120 drivers on our books, today we probably have 45

“Work has completely dried up,” Sinn Féin TD Darren O’Rourke said during the exchange. “The industry is entirely dependent on the movement of people, a busy Croke Park, a busy airport, busy nightlife, gigs and festivals, and busy businesses. All of these are gone.”

The NTA too did its bit to bail out a quickly sinking industry. There was a suspension of SPSV insurance for operators who temporarily stopped working. Late renewal fees were waived, motor tax was refunded and strict limits on vehicle age were suspended.

What will emerge on the other side of a pandemic, now apparently in retreat but with an air of enduring uncertainty, is unclear.

John Murphy, managing director of ProCabs in Galway for the past 15 years, believes nightlife might come back, but is not quite so certain about the future of corporate accounts.

“This time two years ago we had probably about 120 drivers on our books, today we probably have 45,” he says, sounding a familiar tune. Business has been down about 50 per cent on pre-pandemic times.

Murphy, who started out in the business more than three decades ago, is not sure what happens next.

“It’s hard to know, we lost a lot of drivers. I have a lot of lads that just retired. This [pandemic] was the final straw and they got out of it and they stayed out of it,” he says.

“This was like a switch [being turned] in March two years ago; everything just stopped. If we came back to some sort of normality we will be caught on the hop because you won’t have the cars or the drivers to service the demand.”

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