London Taxis Hit Moscow Streets

Where can you find the worlds largest fleet of London taxicabs outside Britain? It sounds like a guessable general-knowledge question Los Angeles? Some Commonwealth capital like Cape Town? How about Moscow?

Third times the charm: 70 black cabs, the hallmark of the British capital, stand parked at Moscows Taxi Depot No. 18, near Nagatinskaya metro, waiting to go on duty. They were assembled last year at the Tushino Machine-Building Plant from parts supplied by Metrocab U.K. of Tamworth, Staffordshire the sole maker of London taxicabs and were meant to be the first stage in a grand plan by Mayor Yury Luzhkov to turn Moscow into the worlds second black cab capital.

"The business plan was for production of 2,000 cabs per year," says Valery Tsvetkov, assistant director of the Moscab company, which was set up in 1997 to assemble the cabs from British parts in a workshop attached to the Tushino plant.

The plan, hatched during a visit to London by Luzhkov in 1996, fell through in 1998. The Moscow government refuses to comment on the reasons. Metrocab marketing manager, Kate Kniveton, is also short on comment, but says the Moscow project is an experiment her company has no desire to repeat. Moscab blames Metrocab for the "unjustifiably high price of the assembly kits," which cost $38,000, along with delivery delays and component defects.

Whatever the truth behind the conflict, 100 assembly kits of Series II London taxicabs were supplied from Britain, and in addition to the 70 now parked at Nagatinskaya, there are a further 30 completed cabs at Tushino awaiting orders from the Moscow government.

Sergei Ignatiev, deputy head of Taxi Depot 18, is ready to put his 70 black cabs to work on Moscows streets at 14 rubles per kilometer just as soon as he gets license plates for them.

The meter switches automatically to time-based charging of 120 rubles per hour whenever the cab is at a standstill no doubt frequently in Moscow traffic. The distance charge is double the rate for the 300 Volga and Moskvich cars also operated by Depot 18. But the hallmark black cabs will give Muscovites the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a key part of the London experience for a fraction of the London price, which is about ?5.80 for a 5-kilometer journey (50 rubles per kilometer), according to William Oddie of the London Taxi Drivers Association.

Ignatiev sees the London cabs winning out in Moscow streets thanks to novelty value and roominess: "Five people is the legal limit for a normal taxi, but the Metrocabs can seat seven," he says.

In addition to a regular street beat, Ignatiev wants the cabs to be on call at Sheremetyevo Airport, rescuing foreign visitors from the clutches of the Sheremetyevo taxi mafia, and also plans to offer them for hire by the hour or by the day to corporate clients.

Sergei Kusikov, chief mechanic at Depot 18, is most impressed by the Metrocabs maneuverability: "It virtually turns on its own axis," he says, tracing dizzying pirouettes.

Other features calculated to win the favor of Russian cabbies are the large fuel tank, which takes cheap diesel gasoline and will run the cab from Moscow to St. Petersburg without a refill.

And, last but not least, the automatic door lock, activated by a touch of the foot brake and guaranteed to thwart fare dodgers.

"Very useful in these troubled times," says Kusikov.