The room is eerily quieter than it was some hours earlier during the day; the chatter, both business and harmless banter, has nearly faded away. The light dipping lower. The graveyard shift is always punctuated by the more occasional , but still insistent , call of the telephone lines. Always the telephone lines, blipping red on the display, demanding attention. An explosion of chatter on the squawk box radio cuts sharply through the general murmur, without invitation or acceptance; always on. A television blares for entertainment in the background; not enough people to banter with in between calls, not enough people doing business to object at this hour. This is our silence; as close to real silence as it gets anyway.
A voice from over there somewhere, louder, clearer and in the same room. A polite answerphone greeting first, then: “Yes, that’ll be four pounds mate. OK then, hear back from you shortly”. Now, silence again, or what passes for it.
The computer screen glares brighter. The extra effort now required to concentrate on the digits dancing on the screen is taking its toll after a long shift. Technology is all around: the phones, the radios, the televisions, the computers. Somewhere down below on another floor, through a revolving door, more machines hum and click as they serve our customers around the clock. Any interruption in the service will prove costly.
The voice again: “OK, that’ll be four pounds mate …. yes …. bye-bye for now. Have a good one”. The distinctive patter of fingers on a keyboard; the transaction being booked quickly into the computer system, ensuring that the necessary resources will move somewhere down the line. Click. The radio initiated from our room this time; the complexity of conversation still easier than a system entry read somewhere else : “You there mate?” Another mate. Static, then blaring: “Yes, what’s up?” “Just to let you know, booked one at four pounds, through in five minutes. Knocking off shortly.” Pause. Static, then blaring: “OK then, thanks for that, have a good one”. Most important to ‘have a good one’.
Turning, I glance at the clocks. Only twenty minutes to go; better think about going home. I pick up the phone for the final time of the day: “Taxi in twenty minutes time …… Burden …… on account? Yes …….. UBS Investment Bank …. Liverpool Street …….. thanks”. Click.
Imagine my surprise some five to seven years later when , sitting on the other side of this final telephone conversation, I observe that for the most part it is identical. OK, so there aren’t as many office seats and bodies, the casually mentioned four pounds really is a four pound fare and not four million pounds, and there might be a lesser quantity of technology. But pretty much everything else holds the same.
Before I started to work on TEXXI, I am not sure how I thought a decent thirty car taxi firm would be run, or what level and reliability of technology it would require. One thing is true though, I didn’t find it quite how I expected. Pushing through to four hundred cars or so , it gets even more impressive.
To be clear, when I say there is a lesser quantity of technology, I mean precisely that. There is just less of it. What exists, is not necessarily less useful for purpose or less advanced. A good taxi firm these days tends to run 24/7 and any downtime is money lost. One manager described how, in terms of phone lines, his systems had been ‘down’ severely only one time in six years, as he proudly showed me an array of PLC* units ticking away in a basement area. Astonishing levels of hardware! On the occasion of the problem, he had sent people out on to the street with mobile phones to call in the trips on behalf of the customers. Elsewhere, DOS** booking systems were still in use. Advanced Windows*** systems had been offered, tried and rejected on the grounds that they caused too many problems. Another firm owner had his line number routed via a mobile phone while his despatch office moved locations. This is a 24/7 operation on a shoestring, but not in a bad way. Servers, despatch systems, phones (voice-recognition and normal) , portable driver GPS units and applications are all there. There is the same lack of luxury to have any downtime, just without the support desks full of endless bodies. Redundant systems certainly, but not too much budget for endless, worthless ‘redundancy’. No taxpayer support for dysfunctional operations. No internal empires. What works is used.
When a customer calls for a car, the despatcher makes a price, admittedly off a guide sheet, and with slightly less flexibility than a trader might do, but the process looks much the same. A system shows the position of the drivers. In a small firm this functions much the same as a risk control; the despatcher might move drivers around in order to pick up the most trips, managing his or her position with care. I sat out on the ‘exotics’ desk for a while. That is, overseeing more complex instruments, in this case the grouping of passengers for trips.
Every hour a coffee run ensues. A round-robin system works well unless someone is busy. No formal clerks here. It is friendly and relaxed. For a bigger firm the organisation varies a little bit as you would expect: each person to a role.
Fewer sociopaths in this line of work , more time to experiment with implied verbs and subjects, no need to call a taxi to get home ….
[Next in this series: Tales From A Night Out With The Promotions Team]
(Note on spelling. “The words despatch and dispatch have the same meaning. The spelling is reflective of the origin of the text containing the word.” http://www.reference.com/motif/Reference/despatch-vs-dispatch I have opted for the ‘British’ English version on this occasion.)
* PLC http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Programmable_logic_controller “A programmable logic controller (PLC) or programmable controller is a digital computerused for automation of electromechanical processes”
** DOS http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DOS “DOS, short for “Disk Operating System”"
*** Windows http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windows “Microsoft Windows is a series of software operating systems and graphical user interfaces produced by Microsoft.”