Driver shortage hitting Preston taxi trade hard as city tries to get back to normal after Covid
Taxi firms in Preston are urging people to be patient as a shortage of drivers is leading to long delays in getting a cab.
Private hire companies in the city say they have lost between 25 and 40 per cent of their staff to other driving jobs during the pandemic.
And most have not returned to the taxi business now things have eased, sparking public safety fears with customers left waiting in the street, or being tempted to walk home late at night.
The city's biggest outfit, Miller Citax, says it has lost up to 80 drivers from its fleet of 260 vehicles since Covid struck - many of them switching to parcel and food deliveries during lockdown.
New City Taxis, which had between 70 and 80 cabbies pre-pandemic, are now down to 45 or 50.
"We're trying to recruit," said New City managing director Jane Jones. "But obviously the shortage means people are having to wait longer for a taxi.
"It's the same all across the country. Customers are having to wait an hour, sometimes even longer at peak times.
"We can only apologise and ask people to be patient. We're trying our best."
The taxi trade was hit hard by Covid lockdown - nationally there are thought to be around 160,000 fewer cabs on the road than there were pre-pandemic.
Preston City Council has acted to try and speed up recruitment of new drivers by suspending the knowledge test which all candidates were required to take before they could be licensed.
"The council are trying to make things easier for us, but it's still an expensive business for new drivers wanting to get started," said Mick Jolly at Miller Citax which is running a vigorous recruitment campaign to address the shortfall.
"We're probably around 70 to 80 drivers down on where we were before Covid. We've been very proactive to try and recruit, but it isn't easy.
"These are troubling times for the trade. We're trying hard to make sure the general public get the service they require and deserve. But with such a shortage of drivers there are bound to be delays.
"As a company I would say we are between 35 and 40 per cent down on where we were before coronavirus. And I think that's generally the case across the board in Preston. There's a huge shortage.
"Three or four weeks ago I think there were 110 (new) drivers waiting to come through the system.
"The council has made a few alterations to make it slightly easier to get a badge. The dropping of the knowledge test will help. That test is much tougher in Preston than it is in some other places like South Ribble.
"Let's face it, drivers use satnav these days and so they are being offered the chance to take the test in 12 months time when they should know the city better.
"It's been a tough time for the taxi trade these past 18 months or so. And it isn't over by any means now things have eased.
"Personally I think we will recover fully, but it will take 12 to 18 months before we are back to where we were. I think drivers will start coming back because the demand is now there from customers."
Zafar Iqbal, chairman of the city's RMT Union branch which includes drivers of black cabs in Preston, said the situation on the taxi ranks was largely unaffected now the hospitality industry is back up and running.
"It's not so much us, more the private hire companies," he said. "We have 188 licensed vehicles in the city and there are something like 800 private hire taxis, although that was how it was before Covid," he explained.
"As far as I can tell there's about a 40 per cent shortfall in private hire drivers and that's a big loss. Many of the drivers have moved into something else, like parcels or food deliveries.
"The black cabs are busy because there is a massive shortage of private hire drivers. But people are still having to wait longer because there aren't enough taxis to go round.
"The customers have been very good. They seem to understand why there is a shortage. But it's going to be a while yet before things get back to normal."