Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Toll Crossing Increases Unwarranted Say Freight Transport and Road Haulage Lobby

Numerous e Petitions Raised as HGV costs Spiral Upward
Shipping News Feature

UK – Following the news that public pressure had caused the Government to revise their increase in tolls at the Dartford Crossing, the proposed increases were deferred until April at the earliest some days ago following a three month consultation, the road haulage lobby, in particular the Freight Transport Association (FTA) is now targeting what have been called unwarranted increases in the charges for HGV’s using the Severn crossing.

The Severn River Crossing PLC intend to raise the cost of a heavy goods vehicle passing from England into Wales to £18.10, a rise of over 5% from the current £17.20 at a time when hauliers are facing increased fuel and maintenance bills whilst incomes often remain precarious. Ian Gallagher, FTA’s Policy Manager for Wales, commented:

“This nightmare of successive, above-inflation annual price hikes will end in 2017 when the bridge is back in public hands. But what this situation highlights is the need for private sector infrastructure projects in the future to more carefully consider the contractual terms so that those affected are not held to ransom with unreasonable demands.

“It would seem that under the current contract the users of the Severn crossings are at the mercy of cynical charges to use, what is for the haulage industry, an essential piece of infrastructure. Severn tolls already cost companies many thousands of pounds a month; this latest price hike will make life a lot tougher for hauliers who cross from England into south Wales and comes at time when companies are already struggling in the face of higher costs. In an industry with notoriously tight profit margins, road freight operators often have no choice but to pass their costs on to the customer, which stokes inflation and is certainly not good news in a faltering economy.”

Mr Gallagher may in fact be optimistic in his view that the crossing will pass into public hands on schedule. He called for an amendment to the Severn Bridges Act but, as we have seen over decades at Dartford, changes to infrastructure and rising costs have meant the ‘Zero Toll’ policy of previous governments has always failed to materialise. This vital M25 link is currently subject to several e petitions calling for a rethink and the whole matter was covered in detail in numerous past stories here.

The latest to object to the continuation of charges across the Thames is the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) which, whilst praising the latest stay of execution regarding price hikes has campaigned long and hard against increases in charges whilst maintaining a pragmatic approach. Roger House, chairman of the FSB in Kent and Medway supported the temporary suspension but called for the Government to review the tolls’ long-term future.

The FSB were respondents to the Government’s three month long consultation and today supplied us with the details of their survey of members in full. The FSB survey is based on 590 responses between 16th August and 9th September and was comprised of members based in Kent, Essex and London. A précis of the answers given make their point quite nicely.

‘86% of respondents disagreed with the increased tolls principally because they felt crossing costs had already been recovered. The Government promise to remove the toll charges when the cost of the Crossing construction had been recovered and a fund established to cover the cost of on-going and future maintenance was broken in 2003. For an additional period of 5 years, road user tolls continued to be collected before an increase of 50% was substituted as a day time congestion charge in 2008.

‘The congestion charge has clearly failed as it is reported that the crossing remains above capacity for 257 days each year. Significant additional funding has therefore already been generated without a reduction to congestion or increase in capacity. With profits from the Crossing exceeding £40 million per annum, or in excess of £320 million since the Crossing covered its costs in 2003, the FSB believe there should already be sufficient funds to make improvements without further increases in toll charges.

‘It is reported that tolls are required to control the flow into the tunnels. The FSB does not understand this as there are other tunnels such as the Blackwall Tunnel where this criterion does not apply. Appropriate signage directing vehicles into the correct lanes and flashing speed monitors should adequately control flows.’

The principal reason Transport Minister Mike Penning cited for increasing the tolls was to reduce congestion – a conclusion widely criticised at the time, a standpoint firmly supported by the FSB which responded vehemently:

‘The Parsons and Brinckerhoff report to the DfT January 2008 states “a typical four lane section of UK motorway could support a maximum flow at or above 7,000 vehicles per hour while experiencing little variation in average speeds” The Crossing with four lanes in each direction does not offer this level of service; “as journey times show a great deal of variability and delay when flows exceed just 4,000 vehicles per hour”. A free flowing system has the potential to significantly increase the capacity of the Crossing; removal of the tolls would achieve this objective.’

The FSB response goes on to reiterate the points made in our earlier articles stating that ‘Automatic Number Plate Recognition system (ANPR) would be a means by which vehicle flows may be increased and congestion reduced’ and further asks why, as this system is already in place on average speed cameras on the QE2 (southbound crossing) since 2009, nothing has been done to implement the system in the tunnels (northbound) to ensure they can be introduced well before the proposed date of 2013.

With North Lincolnshire Council reputedly offering the Government £100 million to clear their £322 million outstanding debt on the Humber Bridge so they can offer reduced charges of £1.50 and Scotland abolishing every road and crossing toll in the country Neville Gaunt, FSB North Kent Branch Chairman commented:

“Here we have the ‘tale of two cities’ conundrum. North Lincolnshire is looking to have its debt written off, at a time of fiscal austerity, and reduce the tolls at the same time. Whilst on the other hand we have the Dartford Crossing, a debt that has been paid off in full, likely to face extra toll charges. The maths does not add up. Surely the logical thing to do is for the Government to scrap the Dartford Charge altogether and demonstrate that if you make a profit you should be rewarded and not penalised.”

Anyone objecting to the Dartford toll charges can still sign up on the e petition which sets out the case for abolition HERE.