The Sharp End: Doing a fare day's work

The life of a minicab despatcher is not the low-tech one it once was, finds Dave Waller.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I'm off to flex my phonetics as a cab despatcher - foxtrotting and tangoing down the radio with the taxi drivers at Addison Lee.

The first thing that strikes me when I arrive is that Addison Lee is not your typical minicab company. It has clearly moved up a gear from those old-school, nicotine-stained cab offices where at 2am a wan, stubble-bedecked bloke barks into the radio and a motley line of ancient Toyotas and Nissans lurks outside. Its Euston HQ is more like the lair of a Bond villain, full of uniformed minions plugged into banks of screens showing rolling databases and London maps. The latter are submerged under a sea of coloured dots, as if Blofeld is planning to suffocate the city with skittles.

In fact, each dot represents one of their 1,381 minicab drivers: red means they're busy, blue they're en route to a job, green they're ready for work and yellow they're reading the sport pages.

'In the old days, controllers would do everything themselves, allocating jobs, telling drivers where to go and sorting out their problems,' says VIP manager Paul Regan. 'They could only do the job for an hour at a time it was so stressful. Then someone else would take over while you went for a walk. You'd be burnt out by 40.'

Sounds horrible. Now the computers do all the job allocation, keeping tabs on drivers and dishing out work to those best placed to do it. The aim is to avoid the scourge of dead mileage. For a 10.30am booking, it will allocate the job to the nearest driver at 10.20, sending the information straight to a handheld XDA device. It means the company can now handle 1,000 jobs an hour, up from 60 or 70 jobs an hour 10 years ago.

Paul's VIP work involves looking after Addison Lee's 16,000 corporate clients, a roster that includes 50% of the FTSE-100. 'As a car service we're only 0.1% of a client's day,' he says, 'but if something goes wrong we become 10% of their day.' The likes of Barclays Capital, Merrill Lynch and Deutsche Bank are among today's clients.

It turns out this lot are earning a tasty £35,000 to £40,000 a year, and if I'm not going to witness chain-smoking and caffeine addiction or a short-wave meltdown, I feel I'm owed at least some swearing. Maybe I should have come in April, when hundreds of cyclists turned up for a 'die-in' outside, lying in the road to protest against boss John Griffin's ill-judged remarks on bikes. He suggested that irresponsible and inexperienced cyclists cause accidents on London's congested streets.

Over on the more intense minicab side, I work with Jaime, a friendly, quick-talking Londoner sat in front of four monitors. Driver Lima 48 calls and tells Jaime he's just bought a new stove. 'It's the best stove I've ever seen,' he says.

I can think of more fraught ways of earning £40,000 a year. Jaime tells me he used to drive cabs himself, so I ask whether he has the knowledge. He abandoned that when he realised it'd take four years to get through it all. But the experience does come in handy: any controller can do 95% of the job these days, but it's the old-schoolers who'll be required to help with the finer details, like supplying alternative routes when things go wrong.

Right on cue, something goes wrong: the screen is suddenly filled with red flags, warning that drivers aren't receiving jobs. It doesn't look pretty. The IT desk is alerted, meanwhile the team reverts to the old system - calling up drivers in person to tell them what their next job is. Jaime sits back, calling everyone listed. It takes five calm minutes, by which time IT has resolved the server issue. Curse these contingency plans killing all my fun.

Still, not everyone's happy. One driver calls to ask if he's still logged on. 'I've only done two jobs since 9am. Someone told me it'd be busy today.' 'Unless it's Mystic Meg telling you that then they're not worth listening to,' Jaime replies.

In the old days, says Paul, it was dangerous to fall foul of the controllers. If a driver gave them any lip he'd be sent on crappy minimum fare jobs or off on a long wild goose chase. That can't happen any more. 'Under the old system, the controller was king,' says Paul. 'The computer has no emotions.'

There's cash in those coloured dots though.

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