New Delhi / Mumbai: How many of us would move faster to fire the driver who can’t drive if we didn’t have to worry about parking the car once we got to work? Or, if we could still read our copy of Mint en route to the office without fretting about being stuck in traffic? If someone promised us taxis which were clean, free of smells, air-conditioned, punctual and driven by courteous people who didn’t want to rip you off at the drop of a meter, would there even be need for a driver? Or, for you to take your car out of the garage everyday?
The radio taxi revolution that is currently underway promises all this and much more. Most radio taxi operators claim their drivers meet the strictest criteria. “Our drivers are selected after we test their driving skills, put them through a medical examination, and finally, an attitude test with a psychologist. After selection, they are trained and given a laminated list of dos and don’ts,” says Rajiv K. Vij, chief executive officer (CEO), Carzonrent, which runs the Easy Cabs service in New Delhi. Adds Neeraj Kumar, CEO, Orix Auto Infrastructure Services Limited (OAIS), which runs Delhi Cabs, the latest service in the city: “All our drivers have been equipped to deal with a ‘what if’ situation. They have to follow protocol and not take random decisions.”
At Meru Cabs in Mumbai, which offers umbrellas and first-aid kits in its cars, the list for drivers is as long. “Courtesy, etiquette, don’t refuse a kerbside fare even if it’s for a short distance, don’t smoke in the car, no paan masala, shave everyday, wear ironed clothes and polished shoes,” rattles Anjan Deb, chief operating officer (COO) of V-Link Group, which runs this service. Another first is that radio cab companies such as Easy Cabs and Delhi Cabs claim their drivers and vehicles are fully insured.
“Our aim is that in the next couple of years people in New Delhi and, hopefully, other metros will not feel the need to buy a car. Radio taxis will change the way people move in metros across India,” says Kumar.
While New Delhi’s commissioner (transport), R. Chandra Mohan, says that scenario is still a while off due to the relatively small number of radio taxis, we decided to see if these companies deliver the goodies they currently promise.
Cab route: Mumbai, including Vashi
Started service: 1 April 2007
Cab model:Maruti Esteem
How many cabs? Currently 150 and targeting 1,000 by March 2008. They plan to launch in New Delhi in October, followed by Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Test drive: Sonu Dubey was understandably nervous. After all, I was his first-ever pickup. It took him a while to start the meter, and it didn’t help when I asked, “Are you sure it’s working?” Then he got the system going and, despite the fancy Global Positioning System (GPS), drove straight instead of swinging a left to my workplace. Eventually, I decided to relax. The air conditioning was perfect and the confined space smelt pleasantly neutral. The seats were clean, black Rexine, and the taxi arrived on time. At a flag down charge of Rs15, and Rs13 for every additional km, the service is expensive but not unaffordable. I even got the hang of booking a cab two hours in advance (their minimum requirement) and began thinking that perhaps I didn’t need to find myself a driver. Until, one day, the cab didn’t show up at the appointed 9.30am. I called, and a concerned lady who addressed me by name said she would call the “chauffeur” and get back. I waited 10 minutes, called again, and was put on hold for 10 minutes. Finally, I hung up. At 10am, I got a call saying the driver was waiting for me. By then, I was already in office and looking for a driver. CEO Deb says they get 500-plus bookings everyday and their primarily corporate customers are very happy with the service. He says my problem probably occurred because my booking timing coincided with the start of the morning shift.
Fast forward to one week later. I booked a taxi for 9.30am the following day. This time, there was no call and no car. The driver finally showed up at 10—that night.
Cab route: Mumbai, and even to neighbouring Alibaug and Khopoli
Started service: October 2006
Cab model: Maruti Esteem or Tata Indigo Marina
Coming up: Toyota Corolla and Innova
How many cabs? 600, and likely to add between 300 and 400 by the end of August.
Test drive:The first time I called, they couldn’t squeeze me in. Apparently, I had to book four to six hours in advance. The next time, I booked the cab even before I bought my air ticket. The driver was in headphone bliss and didn’t see me until I patted him on the shoulder. He didn’t see my bag even after that. We were headed for the domestic airport and he took a short cut only a city insider would know. The interior of the vehicle was clean but the seat was stained and the driver didn’t look the type who would toe a long list of etiquette dos and don’ts. He answered in monosyllables and didn’t succumb to my interrogation about the service.
The mystery was solved when I spoke to Arun Sabnis, a managing trustee of Fulora Foundation, which runs this service. Existing Mumbai cabbies can hand in their old vehicles for a new one and sign up for the programme. There’s a minimum five-year contract and the driver has to pay Rs350 per day to the company. “In our estimation, the drivers earn up to Rs1,200 per day, of which they spend about Rs200 on CNG and give us a rental of Rs350. The rest, they take home. Our aim is to transform the existing system. Ultimately, if you want to sustain change, that’s the only way to do it. Otherwise, taxi drivers will lose their bread and butter,” says Sabnis. “We have given them a free hand,” he adds. Translated, that means no uniforms. The company is also offering accident insurance for drivers, medical insurance for their families and negotiating the launch of a pension scheme for all participating cabbies.
Cab route: Entire Delhi, and National Capital Region (NCR), including Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida and Ghaziabad (commercial vehicle tax extra in Uttar Pradesh)
Started service: In 2001, with an upgrade in December 2006
Cab model: Tata Indigo Marina
How many cabs? 280 in New Delhi and 50 in Chandigarh. “We’ve already had a soft launch in Mumbai and, hopefully by mid-July, we will have 250 cabs plying in India’s financial capital,” says Binod Mishra, head of operations, Mega Cabs.
Test drive:On the two occasions I used their service, the customer care executives were courteous, explained at the onset that cash was the only mode of payment, and informed me that charges were Rs15 per km (for all radio cabs in New Delhi and NCR), and Rs100 per hour for waiting. She also asked me for a landmark close to the pickup point and explained that while GPS worked in their control room, having a well-known landmark helped the drivers reach the destination faster. Both times, the Mega Cab arrived 10 minutes before time and the drivers informed me of their arrival by calling on my cellphone. “We are in the process of upgrading our tracking system and soon, the drivers will be sent automatic dispatches via text message on screens installed in their cabs,” says Mishra. On both journeys, the cabs were clean, the driving steady and the drivers neatly dressed. However, the air conditioning was not very effective and the electronic receipt printer was not functional. I received a handwritten bill. Both times, the drivers tendered change for Rs500.
“Road safety is our USP and all our drivers are enrolled in safe-driving programmes run by the trainers at Hubert Ebner (see box). Apart from driving skill, they even attend in-house training drills on how to behave with customers,” says Mishra.
Cab route: Entire Delhi and NCR (commercial vehicle tax extra in Uttar Pradesh), and Sonepat
Started service: 1 January, 2007
Cab model: Maruti Esteem
Coming up: Tata Indigo Marina
How many cabs? 250 in New Delhi and 50 in Chandigarh. Rajiv Vij, CEO, Carzonrent, says: “We are adding another 250 cabs in New Delhi by mid-July and will be expanding services to Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad by end-2007.”
Test drive: Imagine waiting for more than 25 minutes under New Delhi’s sweltering summer sun, only to be told repeatedly by a customer care executive at the other end of the phone that the cab is just about to reach. So much then for having GPS in the control room to track a cab’s progress. A few frantic calls to the driver, and finally he spotted me making my way towards him at a busy intersection. He jumped out of the cab to open the door in the middle of heavy traffic. Sure, it made me feel like a princess, but one that was running very late. The cab’s tardiness was blamed on a faulty red light en route. As for not finding the correct pickup point, the rather morose driver set the record straight: GPS tracks the cab’s progress in the control room and the driver is informed via cellphone in case he is off the mark. There are no radio dispatches in an Easy Cab and all information is exchanged on cellphones.
Vij seems surprised to hear that I had to give a two-hour advance notice to book a cab. “A lot of radio taxis are used by passengers for inter-city travel in Gurgaon and many call centres also use our services. We usually get more bookings than we can handle specially during peak hours (9am to 11am in the morning and 5pm to 8pm in the evening). Otherwise, our response time is half an hour,” he adds.
The cab service gets full marks for cleanliness and the Esteem’s air conditioning certainly scored. The electronic meter worked and, at the end of the journey, an electronically generated receipt was handed over. Perhaps it was too much to expect the driver to have change for Rs500 on his first trip of the day. Finally, the paanwalabeneath my office offered smaller notes to settle the bill.
“Easy Cabs is the only service provider in New Delhi which has a help desk inside both the international and domestic airport terminals, hence, there is no need to book our service in advance if you need an airport transfer. You will always find an Easy Cab at the airport no matter what time you arrive,” says Vij, who also claims that all their drivers are police verified and hence extremely safe for first-time travellers to New Delhi.
Metro Radio Cabs
Cab routes: Entire Delhi, Gurgaon and Faridabad. “We don’t ply to Noida and Ghaziabad because the cab has to pay Rs240 in tax in Uttar Pradesh,” says Abhishek Jasrasaria, director, Metro Radio Cabs.
Started service: Since 2001, but revamped service in December 2006
Cab model: Tata Indigo Marina
How many cabs? 25 cabs in New Delhi, but fleet size to increase to 100 by mid-July.
Test drive: Ashish Kumar Chaudhury drove a black and yellow taxi for 12 years before joining Metro Radio Cabs (MRC). “Radio cabs are the future,” he told me confidently. I was able to book an MRC for inter-city travel on only the second attempt and yes, the two-hour notice held firm even though Jasrasaria says 45 minutes is good enough lead time for a booking. On a Sunday, when I put in a request for a cab to ferry me from South Delhi to Hari Nagar in East Delhi, I was assured that the cab would arrive on time. The operator was courteous and asked for directions to make sure that there would be no delay.
Why directions? “GPS is used only by the control room to track where the cab is and not by the drivers to get to the destination. Technology, where the driver can see on the screen where he needs to go, is not available as yet,” explains Jasrasaria. The driver came to my doorstep to announce his timely arrival, and I even got a call from the customer care executive to check if the cab had reached. The taxi’s air conditioning was not very effective, nor was it very clean. Of course, the sudden downpour in New Delhi could be blamed for mud on the footpads. The headrests were cushioned in cheery red Rexine, which added relief to the otherwise grey interiors. The driver drove at reasonable speed and even attended a radio dispatch with ease while navigating the Dhaula Kuan flyover. The electronic fare meter was working, but the printer was not.
Cab route: Entire Delhi, NCR (commercial vehicle tax extra in Uttar Pradesh)
Started service: 3 May 2007
Cab model: Tata Indigo Marina
How many cabs? 100 cabs in New Delhi. “We plan to add another 100 cabs by mid-July,” says Neeraj Kumar, CEO, Orix Auto Infrastructure Services Limited, which runs the service.
Test drive: Delhi Cabs was fourth on my list of radio taxi trials in Delhi. By now, I was prepared for any cab to arrive at least 20 minutes late. So, when I called the operator at the control room to find out why my cab, which was booked the previous night was late by half an hour, I was given the driver’s number and asked to wait for his call at home. Suresh, “my chauffeur” for the morning, was extremely contrite at being late and apologized profusely. “Madame, my heart was beating fast when I saw your second call,” he told me. But since he had to tackle the Adchini crossing en route, which resembles a mini lake during the monsoon, there was nothing much I could say. The cab was clean but smelt unpleasant. Rain again, I was told. A smart newspaper holder was attached to one of the front seats and Suresh promised that soon newspapers would be stacked in it. A box of tissues was kept thoughtfully on the back seat and Suresh himself was neatly turned out in a grey uniform. While we did argue about the best way to reach Connaught Place, I reached my destination within 20 minutes, thanks to his skilful driving. The electronic fare display meter worked, as did the receipt printer.
“Instead of calling the driver on a cellphone, we flash all information regarding a driver’s duty schedule on a screen in the cab via a text message. This way, there is no confusion about where to go and who to contact because all details, including the client’s name, address and phone number are there for the driver to see. We even have a facility for the passenger to make a credit card payment,” says Kumar. However, neither operator nor driver made me aware of this possible mode of payment.
Cab route: Entire Delhi, and NCR (commercial vehicle tax extra in Uttar Pradesh)
Started service: In 2001
Cab model: Maruti Esteem
How many cabs?25 cabs in New Delhi. “We do have a licence to induct another 250 cabs but are finding it hard to get drivers with a commercial licence and a badge which allows them to operate as taxi drivers,” says Adarsh Jain, director, Dial-a-Cab India Pvt. Ltd.
Test drive:A slightly ramshackle Esteem without the usual trimmings of a radio taxi—no telephone number or name of the service on the sides of the cab; no “radio taxi” sign on the roof—awaited me. The cab arrived on time and the driver waited patiently for me to get ready (I was expecting at least a 20-minute delay based on previous experience). The cab did have a radio dispatch system but the electronic fare meter did not function. The driver made me take note of the distance run on the odometer and then set off without small talk. The cab was clean but smelt musty. The driver knew the route and opted for the shortest one. At the end of the journey, I was given a handwritten receipt.
A few good men
Baljinder Singh Grewal, country head, Hubert Ebner, on what distinguishes an ordinary taxi driver from a trained chauffeur
1.) A chauffeur greets every customer in a professional manner.
2.) He takes care of the belongings of the customer, but never touches or picks up any personal items, like a handbag or wallet, a cellphone or keys, unless asked to.
3.) He does not indulge in unwanted discussion, especially personal ones. At the same time, a good chauffeur is a good listener.
4.) A chauffeur never gets into arguments with a customer. He knows how to handle customer complaints.
5.) A good chauffeur plans ahead and is clear about routes, customer likes and dislikes.
6.) While on the road, a professional driver knows and obeys traffic rules.
7.) He maintains lane discipline, and does not drive in a zigzag manner.
8.) He selects a speed that is appropriate to the traffic, road and weather conditions.
9.) He keeps a distance from the vehicle in front, and does not tailgate.
10.) He knows when to switch on the indicator and lets other drivers on the road know his intentions in advance.
11.) A good driver gives right of way.
12.) He makes use of safety features like the seatbelt, and also requests passengers to do so.
13.) A chauffeur never sleeps in his vehicle, and never drives if he is feeling sleepy.
14.) A chauffeur is always smartly dressed, has a smiling face and keeps his cab clean and well maintained.
15.) He makes passengers feel safe, secure and comfortable.
(Hubert Ebner (India) Pvt. Ltd is an Indo-Austrian joint venture which specializes in driver training systems and is training some of the radio taxi drivers across Delhi and Mumbai.)
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