ILLEGAL cab drivers are stalking Newcastle CBD taxi ranks, undercutting licensed drivers and raking in as much as $500 a night.
The unauthorised and unaccredited drivers approach late-night revellers as they wait outside licensed premises with offers of lifts in their private vehicles for cash.
The Newcastle Herald understands that several drivers have even quit their regular jobs, preferring instead to run the risk of large fines for a piece of the lucrative Newcastle taxi market.
The Herald spoke to one illegal driver who travels around the Newcastle CBD, Hamilton and Merewether from 6pm to 6am Wednesdays to Saturdays – clearing as much as $500 a night.
The offence, while difficult to prove, carries a maximum penalty of $110,000 for running an unlicensed taxi service and $11,000 for anyone caught driving an unlicensed taxi.
Licensed taxi drivers have warned there could be problems with insurance and passenger safety.
‘‘They think they’re being clever and they think we don’t know what they’re doing but we do,’’ one driver said.
‘‘We see the same vehicles around the ranks all the time.’’
One illegal taxi driver who approached a group of people waiting in a taxi line outside MJ Finnegans Hotel in Darby Street on a Saturday night last month offered to take two women and a man to King Street for $10.
A Roads and Maritime Services spokeswoman said they had received six complaints of illegal taxis operating in Newcastle in the past 12 months.
‘‘The subject of one of the complaints received an infringement notice,’’ the spokeswoman said.
‘‘RMS ordered the removal of internet advertising for another operator and issued a written warning.
‘‘The other four were given written warnings that if they were found to be operating an illegal taxi service they would be penalised.’’
The spokeswoman said licensed taxis were equipped with cameras and GPS, which provided a safer environment for both passenger and driver.
‘‘In addition, authorised taxi drivers are required to undergo medical and criminal history checks.’’
Australian Taxi Drivers Association president Michael Jools said the illegal practice raised the issue of a taxi shortage in the Hunter.
‘‘Illegal drivers are rare in Sydney because of the surplus of cabs but more common in the Hunter because of the amount of work they get and the large geographical area they have to cover,’’ he said.
Newcastle Taxis general manager John Woods said the organisation ‘‘strongly condemned’’ the practice and appealed to the RMS to do more to put a stop to it.
He rubbished claims illegal drivers were the result of a taxi shortage and put it down to a ‘‘rogue element out to supplement their income’’.