Monday, May 17, 2021

Thames Crossing at M25 Contracts Awarded to Continue Charging Regime

Questions Remain Over Foreign Income Shortfall
Shipping News Feature

UK – Ever since the construction and opening of the original Dartford Tunnel some 58 years ago the crossing point of the River Thames at its lowest point before the open sea has always been a controversial project.

That original £13 million west tunnel development, far from achieving the financial results which caused the authorities to promise that toll charges would soon be lifted, saw a rise in traffic numbers which meant the opening of a second tunnel in 1980 as the M25 boosted congestion to hitherto undreamt of heights.

Eleven years later we had the opening of the £120 million Queen Elizabeth II Bridge offering a total of four lanes in each direction passing over or under the river and designed to handle a maximum throughput of 135,000 vehicles a day, yet still complaints continued as toll charges rose and average journeys exceeded that total by 30,000.

Now, with the Dart Charge system that identifies users using automatic number plate recognition firmly In place, drivers in Essex view with envy their cousins in Wales who have seen the government actually live up to promises with the scrapping of similar tolls on the Severn Bridge in 2018.

There are plans in place to build another Lower Thames crossing even closer to the mouth of the estuary, themselves beset with difficulties, but this week Highways England has awarded the first of its multi-package contracts for its ‘second-generation free-flow charging service’ (that translates to no toll booths) at Dartford. Consisting of three core packages, the first two contracts, worth up to a combined £270 million over ten and a half years mean once again drivers will see the crossing as a cash cow being milked vigorously.

Motorists using the M25 simply have no practical alternative to avoid the tolls as to drive upstream to the tunnels and bridges available simply cannot be justified financially, or indeed by the time taken to detour. Highways England claims that the Dart Charge ‘removed the congestion’ when introduced in 2014. Residents of the area certainly have not always agreed.

Now two of the three new contracts issued have been detailed, but it is the last of these which may raise the hackles of some, both in the UK and overseas. The details are as follows:

  • Road user charging services. This package awarded to Conduent, covers the day to day operation of the free-flow charging service, detecting and matching vehicle and customer records, managing accounts and processing payments.
  • UK enforcement services. Awarded to emovis, this package includes the management of enforcement activities for vehicles registered in the UK, such as issuing and handling penalty charge notices and payment processing.
  • Non-UK enforcement services. This package includes the management of enforcement activities for vehicles registered outside of the UK, such as issuing and handling penalty charge notices and payment processing. Highways England intends to proceed to competition for this package later this year.

This last is again controversial for UK residents as in 2017 the Highways Agency revealed it had failed to collect some £80 million from operators of foreign registered vehicles, something which some other authorities, Transport for London springs to mind, seem to have no such difficulties with.

For those overseas drivers, and particularly for the operators of road haulage vehicles, they will point to the paucity of signage in common European languages, something which has only been addressed by the Highways Agency in the most minor manner of late, and certainly not with regard to the details of the toll collection regime.

Photo: A shot of the crossing taken prior to the introduction of Dart Charge (which is payable on line, by phone or at some retail outlets).