With more taxis on our streets than at any time in the past one driver is going ‘Back To the Future’ in order to turn a profit.
With more taxis on our streets than at any time in the past, one driver is going ‘Back To the Future’ in order to turn a profit.
Gerry Grieve was one of the first four drivers of the shared Black Taxis which were once more of a feature in the town’s estates than Ulsterbus and Army patrols combined.
Last Thursday, Gerry re-commenced the route he drove for more than 25 years. It’s a remarkable decision considering the fact that he survived two near-death experiences and lots of drama when previously driving a ‘black hack’.
“There is so much competition for and within the taxi industry that I had to do something,” said Gerry.
”I’ve seen my take home pay decrease over the last two years and I thought I had to do something to earn a wage. Taxis are the biggest employer in Derry and with each wave of job losses more drivers are expected on the road. That is just the situation. There are no other jobs for people.
“I enjoyed driving a shared taxi. There was always so much support from the local community and it is a time I recall fondly so I pitched the idea to the Derry Taxi Association and they are happy for the route to start again.”
Initially the Shantallow circuit will be served by two taxis.
“It was like that 30 years ago, people were sitting watching and wondering if we were going to make a success of it. People were always coming and asking us ‘how much are you earning?’ in the early days.”
Gerry recalls how, as an unemployed young man, he struggled to get a job until a chance encounter with, oddly enough, a BT engineer.
“I was in town trying to get insurance for a private taxi. I had £800 in my pocket and was telling my father that it didn’t seem to be working. There was a BT engineer in the house and he asked; ‘Would you drive a black taxi?’’
“I replied ‘I’d drive a donkey and cart for a job.’”
The engineer connected Gerry with Pat McColgan, manager of The Felons Club in Belfast.
Following that meeting four black taxis were bought at a price of £500 each
“We decided to work from Foyle Street and we are still there now. Those original taxis were in terrible condition. We had no mechanical experience at all of diesel engines so it was a steep learning curve. It seemed that there was always something wrong with one of the taxis. Each of the drivers had their own mechanic but we quickly realised it was better to have one at our base as our numbers increased.”
Such was the cameraderie among the first four drivers that an agreement was struck, if one taxi was off the road, the others didn’t go out until it was fixed.
“There was a strong loyalty and our resolve to make it work was strengthened by a really bad winter in our first year. It was tough with the cab being cold and breaking down regularly but the other three drivers always came to the aid of whoever required it. We certainly had a struggle on our hands to establish ourselves as a service the community could rely on.
“We had no publicity at the start but we also had little competition as in 1981 the buses were being hijacked regularly.”
The route chosen by those four drivers was so successful Ulsterbus followed their lead in 1983.
In addition to Ulsterbus and mechanical problems there was one other barrier blocking the route to success for the drivers.
“The security services paid us a lot of attention,” smiled Gerry.
“We knew our CB radios were always monitored and there was rarely a day when we weren’t stopped and searched at a checkpoint. There was always threatening behaviour. The RUC and Army were always jumping out in front of us.
“I remember I was stopped and searched 35 times in one day, I think I lost count after that. That attention was a great propaganda coup for us though. The actions of the RUC really helped win us support from the community. Everyone saw us being searched by the roadside. Once you drove a black taxi the cops marked you for life. The other upshot of this was that you never ever took a chance with the vehicle or licensing because you knew it was going to be checked.
“Of course you played a hand every now and then. For example when the army stopped me, I would refuse to give them my licence until they summoned the RUC. Then I would be ever so polite to whichever cop turned up and they would accuse the Army of wasting their time. The whole thing was a game of cat and mouse.”
Despite almost dying twice during shifts at the wheel, Gerry recalls the worst thing about those years was the “RUC attacks on Republican funerals.”
“We used the black taxis to protect the cortege and move people around. There was no fear of the RUC or Army in those days, it was just a continuous battle to stay on the road.”
Gerry retired from the route five years ago when, after feeling pains in his chest, a visit to the doctor’s surgery confirmed he had suffered a heart attack behind the wheel.
“I started out in Shantallow and ended up in the Royal,” he smiled.
This was, however, not the worst health scare for Gerry.
“I remember back in 1983 - I was trying to fight off a cold and I went home after my shift feeling terrible. I went to get out of the car and my legs just wouldn’t work. I had to drag myself along the ground up to my front door.”
Gerry was rushed to Altnagelvin Hospital where he was diagnosed with meningitis.
“I always went back though, I loved driving a taxi. Almost 1,000 men who came through the Taxi Association. Many used it as a stepping stone to other employment. There were 45 jobs at any one time. Most men had to get loans to start up. I just enjoyed the job. I always thought it was a case of ‘better the devil you know.’
“I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the people of Shantallow and Gallaigh for their support. It always made a big difference to the job.”
Gerry is now once again serving those communities with a seven seater taxi from Foyle Street and fares are only £1.