With files from Jim Sinclair,
In a few months Hans Markus will be out of a job.
But more than a regular paycheque, the Trail man says he’ll miss the people he’s been driving to and fro throughout the city for the last 11 years.
Summer months are quiet, but during the rest of the year, he can pick up 20 to 25 calls during his 8:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. shift, with most of the requests coming from Trail’s senior citizens.
Markus is one of two Champion Cab drivers still taxiing for the Trail company that has gradually cut back hours of operation in the last few years.
The cab service along with its sister company, Castlegar Taxi, is up for sale.
If there are no takers, then October 12 marks the last day that taxis will be available in Greater Trail and Castlegar.
“I’d say 90 per cent of my fares are elderly ladies,” said the 65 year-old driver. “If nobody wants a cab company in Trail, then I just won’t drive cab. But I’ve enjoyed it and I’ll really miss all the people.”
John Foglia, owner of JF Auto Centre, took over the Trail company 15 years ago, but now he wants to move on and maybe even retire.
“I’ve run it for quite awhile and it’s beyond my time,” he said. “I tried to help the area by taking the company over. I’m not looking for a whole pile of money, just for someone to make me an offer.”
There’s no doubt that losing the taxi service will impact a lot of lives in Greater Trail, because health care facilities, Teck Trail Operations and BC Transit all rely upon the company to transport patients, residents, and employees.
Columbia View Lodge has a person who regularly uses the cab service, says the facility’s Bridges Coordinator, Sandy Garrett.
“She has doctor appointments twice a week,” explained Garrett. “She has no family that lives in town to transport her, and doesn’t know how she’ll get to her appointments if there is no cab.”
Last year, BC Transit provided 279 taxi supplements to its passengers who couldn’t be accommodated by the company’s handyDART service.
“The taxi supplement is a cost effective way to meet demands,” said Meribeth Burton, BC Transit’s spokesperson. “Especially with your hilly terrain, sometimes a taxi is more effective in the snow than the handyDART shuttles.”
She said the operational impacts are going to be quite significant and BC Transit and its partners will look at possibly re-allocating handyDART hours, or finding another service provider.
“This is a significant development so we’re keen to talk with our partners about how to move forward.”
Over time, the taxi service has cut back its 24/7 service by 50 per cent due to a decline in ridership and a lack of sufficient rate increases, explained Foglia.
“When I bought Trail Taxi out in 2000, they were about to go down,” he recalled. “But it’s been frustrating and with no support from the government, this is a hard business to survive.”
Foglia said a complaint he quite often hears is that people can’t get a cab when they need it.
The cab company receives its highest call volume in a short span of time each day, but doesn’t have enough cars or drivers to meet the demand due to cutbacks.
“Those calls help the driver to break even with gas and so on,” he explained. “But people want the cab right away, don’t want to wait, and don’t understand why there isn’t another car available.”
A Tuesday call to Castlegar Taxi was answered by Sharon Goodwin, who has worked for the company for eight years. She said a recent paycheque had included the notice of a layoff effective October 9.
A previous issue threatening the business had been partially resolved in early 2012 with a fare increase approved by the Ministry of Transportation, but no long-term benefits appeared to be part of the deal.
Goodwin said she’s enjoyed her time driving a cab, serving the public, and she believes the feelings are mutual.
“My town loves me,” she said with a laugh. “A lot of people tell me I should make an offer.” But only months away from her 60th birthday she said she feels the workload and responsibility would most likely be beyond her.
All things considered, she feels someone will come along and try to make a go of the local taxi business, and a lot of fares won’t have to be left in the lurch.
On the darker side of the cab business is the problem with some of the night time fares, which is a time of day that Foglia’s drivers aren’t keen to work.
“That’s the worst time for our drivers because they have to pick up someone they don’t want to,” said Foglia.
Even with a new provincial regulation that green-lights cab companies to charge a $75 clean up fee to passengers who upchuck in the taxi, Foglia remains cynical.
“This new $75 charge is a laugh. Bars usually kick out people out when they’ve spent all their money on beer. I ask, ‘Have you ever known someone who’s drunk and willing to give you $75?’”
There’s not a fixed selling price for the two taxi businesses, and Foglia said he’s willing to consider any “reasonable offer.”
“I tried to help the area by taking the companies over, but I need to move on. But I think the taxis going down is another nail in the coffin for the area.”