Rising costs, flawed infrastructure and competition threaten the trade
The ride back home to Triplicane from the Central Railway Station in a taxi every time G. Dhanalakshmi (76) arrives from Vellore is very different from what it used to be 50 years ago. “I used to love these black and yellow taxis, but they sometimes refuse to ply short distances,” she says. Her son, G. Rajaram prefers the air-conditioned call taxis mainly because they hand out detailed bills. “The pre-paid ones do not have a sorted out list of places. They end up charging more many times,” he says.
Despite all the grievances, there is, surprisingly, a clientele that still swears by these taxis which now almost have a vintage value, for they have been plying for decades. “Most foreigners insist on travelling with us, so do many people from north India who bring along huge boxes. This is the only dickey that would accommodate that,” says S. Murugan, a driver.
According to Southern Railway officials, the taxi drivers' association pays Rs.7,500 a year per taxi to use the premises. “It is unfortunate that while we also pay the railway pass, and the deposit of Rs. 15,000, we lack basic facilities, “ says G. Saravanan, secretary, Prepaid Taxi drivers welfare Union, pointing to the parking lot that is quite frequently used as a urinal for many, and almost never cleaned. “There are over 900 auto rickshaw drivers who invariably take away most shared parking space and customers,” he adds.
“To counter competition, we hand out proper receipts now and ply throughout the night too,” says B. Jeyaraj, a driver for 20 years. The service is available at the Central railway station and airport. The planned facility at the Egmore railway station is yet to materialise.
While focusing on out-station travel to nearby places including Tiruvannamalai, Villupuram, Puducherry and Vellore has improved the business a little, increasing diesel prices have been a blow. “Letting out the contract for pre-paid cab services to private players has affected our business badly,” says Mr. Jayaraj.
Records show that while there were over 600 such taxis at a time in the city alone, now there are barely 70. Only 57 are functional in Central Railway Station.
The drivers had gone on a strike twice last year to forward their demands, but things have not changed they say.
Many of the 120 drivers have been in this profession for at least two generations now. “Though there are openings for drivers in software companies, they say this experience driving Ambassador cars won't suffice, ,” says Mr. Murugan.
Historians believe the block taxi service in the four metro cities of the country started sometime in the early twentieth century to complement horse wagons. Cities including Mumbai have over 30,000 taxis plying on the roads with constant efforts being made to refurbish the models .
At a time when most call taxis are making extensive use of technology to ensure a safe ride to customers, the old taxis too should rev up and professionalise services, say experts.
“Many of these vehicles are in a state of repair. The taxis have driven themselves out of the market, owing to their own services. Their historic significance is important, but passengers want hassle-free transport and that is what they should work for,” says S. Anantharaman, Divisional Railway Manager, Southern Railway.