Police radio system disables black taxis

Gareth Edwards
A new police radio system is leaving hundreds of city taxi drivers stranded – by stalling their engines.

The multi-billion pound Airwave system, which is being rolled out nationwide, is being blamed for interfering with engine immobilisers on certain black cabs.

Masts at the police headquarters at Fettes and outside a cab office on Murrayburn Road are said to be blocking the signals which switch off the immobiliser.

Drivers who park in these areas, which include a taxi rank near Fettes, are unable to start their engines again because of the interference.

The only way to solve the problem is to tow the vehicles away from the masts so the driver can again turn off the immobiliser.

The problem affects TX1 taxis, which make up almost half of the city’s 1200-strong black cab fleet.

Private cars have been affected by the problem elsewhere in the country but so far only taxis appear to have been stranded in Edinburgh.

Now a taxi lobby group has expressed concern that the problem could escalate when the radio masts are erected across the city.

Keith Bell, chairman of taxi trade lobby group CABforce, said: “This is a serious problem for drivers and if these masts are put up across the city it could create huge no-go areas for some drivers.

“If they keep the engine running to avoid the problem they could face a £30 fine from environmental wardens, but if they stop and can’t move, it could cost them even more to tow the vehicle.”

Murray Fleming, vice-chairman of Central Radio Taxis, admitted the problem could seriously disrupt its service if more masts were erected across the city.

“One of the drivers reported that his engine wouldn’t start and we had to assign a new vehicle to the job and tow his vehicle away,” he said.

“As soon as it was a decent distance away it started no problem. The council should be concerned about this, as if these masts are put up across Edinburgh we will have to tell our drivers to keep their engines running in taxi ranks, even though that could now lead to fine.”

The new £2.9 billion digital radio service for the police is being introduced nationwide to replace the current analogue system. The digital system, Terrestrial Trunked Radio (Tetra), will allow a much greater level of communication between individual officers and control room staff, as well as making it more difficult to intercept police communications.

The service provides combined radio, mobile phone and data devices to replace outdated radios, and 35 forces are already using the technology, with the remaining 16 UK forces due to adopt the system by the end of 2005.

A similar problem with immobilisers was reported by hundreds of people in Normanton, near Wakefield.

And in the town of Dursley, Gloucestershire, residents have complained to the police that the masts have created a critical public health situation.

It was claimed that people were being woken up ten or 12 times a night with migraines which only went away when they left the town, while other people had complained of virulent skin rashes and even hallucinations since the masts were switched on.

A spokesman for operator mmO2 said that as long as it was operating within its licence it would be up to the taxi companies to change their equipment in order to solve the problem.

“There have been issues arising in several parts of the country, and the problem is that we use a signal that is very similar to the signal which passes between a key fob and a car’s automatic locking and immobiliser systems,” he said.

“The older equipment cannot distinguish between the key fob signal and the signal being emitted by our mast.

“Most modern equipment is sensitive enough to distinguish between the two types, and it is up to the taxi provider to ensure their equipment is not affected.”

The company has previously insisted that its masts pose no health risks.

A police spokeswoman said that while the masts were sited on police property and were part of the new police communications system, they were owned by mmO2 and therefore the police could not answer any queries about problems resulting from them.

The issue is being investigated by London Taxis International, the manufacturers of Edinburgh’s black cabs.

A spokesman for the firm said the problem was the transmission frequency of the mast, 362mHz, which effectively blocked the immobiliser signal going to the engine.

He said the problem affected all TX1 taxis built before the Y registration was introduced, as well as Vauxhalls and Range Rovers.

“Our vehicles are all licensed to use this frequency, so there is no simple solution at present.

“We will continue to look at the problem and see what options are open to us,” he said.

• Has your car been immobilised by a phone mast? Contact the Evening News on 0131-620 8743.