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Transport and logistics

600 premium taxis could be on Hong Kong streets in 18 months, industry body says

Proposal on the table for cars with more luxurious interiors and better service, but idea met with scorn by city’s cabbies

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 April, 2017, 7:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 April, 2017, 6:39pm

Opposition to a government plan to introduce premium taxi services to Hong Kong continued to heat up on Monday after two industry bodies proposed rolling out 600 cars with more luxurious interiors and better service.

The latest proposal comes just days after another industry group offered to clamp down on unscrupulous drivers by implementing a new regulatory framework in a bid to stifle potential premium competitors, which they fear would eat away at their incomes.

Some 18,163 taxis currently roam the streets of Hong Kong, with that number fixed under a licensing system.

Under the new proposal, 600 of those cars owned by 400 licensees would be converted into premium taxis, with car specifications, driver training and complaint channels modelled on the government’s premium scheme.

Sonia Cheng Man-yee, vice-chairwoman of the Taxi Dealers and Owners Association, one of two bodies behind the plan, said the cars could be rolled out in 18 months once they got the green light from authorities.

“Actually, that time could be much faster. The hold-up is mainly due to the time needed for the new fleet to pass inspections,” she said.

“Currently only three slots are available each day for taxis at government inspection centres. If the number of slots were increased we could roll out the service earlier.”

Fares for premium taxis would be higher than those for ordinary ones, Cheng said, subject to discussions with the government.

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The owners of taxis set to become premium cars have agreed to cover all expenses incurred in upgrading their vehicles, which would be around HK$300,000 per car if the improvements were similar to those for an existing premium scheme.

Called SynCab, Hong Kong’s existing fleet of 130 premium vehicles, including 74 with wheelchair ramps, was introduced in 2015 to cater to the disabled and those with bulky luggage.

Fares for SynCab cars however are the same as those for regular taxis if they are hailed on the street. A fee of HK$40 applies for advance bookings.

A government spokesman said a two-pronged approach was needed to improve taxi services, namely the introduction of a premium taxi scheme and cracking down on malpractice in the current trade.

“Under current licensing restrictions, there is no motivation for taxi drivers to maintain their service performance … The high threshold for prosecution restricts the effectiveness of law enforcement efforts,” the spokesman said.

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Concrete details of the premium taxi franchise scheme would be announced in June, after consolidating opinions from various sectors.

The taxi trade has come under fire in recent years amid a rising number of complaints about overcharging and a perceived poor attitude among some drivers.

The trend has given rise to the popularity of car-hailing apps such as Uber, which remains illegal in Hong Kong.

The government hopes to fill the gap by introducing 600 franchised taxis with better services, but the plan has been met with scorn by the taxi industry, which fears ordinary cabbies will be portrayed as inferior.

Taxi owners, who pay as much as HK$7 million for a licence, have argued the premium plan is unfair as the winning bidders might get their licences for free, besides the investment needed up front.