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Posts Tagged ‘Dartford crossing’

Two tolled river crossings are in the news this week. On Tuesday the Department for Transport launched a consultation on an additional crossing of the Thames at or close to the existing bridge and tunnel at Dartford.

One of the big question marks, over and beyond the exact location of the new infrastructure, is how it will be funded. The presumption is that it will be through direct charges to users. After all that is what was used to pay for the QEII Bridge built in 1991 to augment the tunnel. The big grumble as regards that project has been, despite what drivers were led to believe, the government’s failure to remove tolls even after though the bridge has long since been built and paid for.

Which leads us on to the Severn Crossings. At first glance the situation is markedly different here.

The first road link between Wales and England was opened in 1966, but as traffic volume increased it became necessary to build a second bridge and that opened in 1996.

Today crossing operations are run by the Severn River Crossing PLC. As it stands this company has the concession to collect charges until it hits a certain amount of revenue, currently in the order of £1 billion, a figure likely to be reached (traffic volume, corporation tax etc. allowing) in around 2018. At the point the bridge reverts to public ownership with an expectation that the regulated tolls (price £6.20 for a car) will be removed.

Except they won’t, certainly not for a couple of years afterwards. Why? Because even though the Severn River Crossing company runs the bridges the government has somehow managed to incur costs of £88m in relation to the links and this money also needs to be recouped through tolls before they are scrapped.

In a letter to David Davies MP, chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee in Parliament, the transport minister Stephen Hammond MP explained how the costs had arisen:

“The concession agreement and Act was structured so that certain risks were borne by Government rather than SRC, for example, costs relating to latent defects on the first Severn Crossing. By bearing these risks the government was able to finance the construction of the second crossing and maintenance of the crossings at a much lower cost. If these risks had been included in the concession arrangement the end date of the concession would have needed to be extended to allow the concessionaire to recover its costs or the tolls would have needed to be set at a higher level. It is also likely that a private company would have required a substantial risk premium in order to take on these risks.”

Of course, there will be the strong suspicion that, against the wishes of road users and public bodies such as the Welsh Affairs Committee, the toll will never be removed, even after the extra £88m has been found, and instead will go up further still. After all, that is what happened at Dartford.

 

 

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Just a personal view, but in my eyes the Dartford Crossing is close on being a national disgrace.

I have high regard for the Highways Agency and those involved in trying to fit a quart of traffic into a pint pot-sezed road network, but this is not the finest advert for the organisation’s work.

This section of the M25 – technically the A282 on this part of the London orbital – is one of the most heavily used parts of web of strategic roads. A staggering 51 million vehicles streamed through the tunnels or over the QEII Bridge last year.

The jams are also near record breaking. Analysis by Inrix shows that the northbound approach is the third worst traffic bottleneck in the UK. Southbound is not much better.

The absurdity is that the congestion is to a great measure self-inflicted. Not by the drivers who have no viable option other than to use the crossings but by those who are trying to get money out of them.

In the 21st Century is stopping traffic with physical barriers and demanding they throw cash at an attendant or a machine the best way of keeping the nation moving or collecting revenue? No it is not. To be fair, the DfT is working on a free-flow alternative to the current sets of booths to be in place by Autumn 2014, but why has it taken so long? And while the work goes on, so does the frustration for motorists, including myself, when I had to endure queues on both Saturday and Sunday.

In so many ways, the Dartford Crossing gives tolling a bad name, not least because money is still being collected from users even though the charges were supposed to be scrapped years ago when the building of the crossing had been paid for, and also because the service you get using the crossing is abysmal.

The RAC Foundation can see good reasons why tolls or road pricing should be implemented to replace the current system of motoring taxation. To end up with something like the Dartford Crossing is not one of them.

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The Dartford-Thurrock crossing must be one of the busiest points on the road network. Drivers stuck in the routine traffic jams on the approaches will testify to that on an anecdotal basis, but their experience is also backed up by the figures.

Last year a staggering 50.8 million vehicles used the tunnel northbound or bridge southbound.

However that is still less than at the peak seen in 2003-4 when the number stood at 54.5 million. The volume hovered around 54 million for a few years before sliding towards the current level, presumably because of the recession.

However it is interesting that while the decrease in traffic on the crossing was of the order of 6-7%, total traffic volume only fell by about half that amount over the same time period.

The reason for this discrepancy is not immediately clear. It is not as if there is an easy diversion route to the crossings which would explain the greater fall. And if any area has withstood the economic downturn it will have been the Southeast.

According to the Highways Agency the reliability of journeys made on the strategic road network is “measured by the percentage of ‘journeys’ that are ‘on time’. A ‘journey’ represents travel between adjacent junctions on the network. An ‘on time journey’ is defined as one which is completed within a set reference time, based on historic data for that particular section of road.”

By that measure, for the year to date about 58% of journeys were ‘reliable’ – which means 42% were not.

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Being based in central London and travelling to work by train (thank God for the Javelin service from Ashford. High Speed Rail – forget the cost to the taxpayer, I love it) means I don’t get behind the wheel as much as I used to. But over the weekend I managed to get a few hundred miles under my belt driving from Kent up to Wrexham, and then back again.

Overall the journey was fair. But it could so easily have been great.

The first problem was the Dartford Crossing. Clearly trying to use the tunnel at about 4pm on a Friday evening is asking for some trouble but is it really acceptable to be stuck in slow-moving traffic for almost an hour just to pay my money to get under the river? Electronic tolling has long been talked about and the sooner the need to stop at a barrier and hand over cash to a man in a booth is removed the better.

For the next hundred miles or so things went smoothly. With the M25 widening works around the north of London now completed this was a busy but free-flowing piece of road. Progress up the M1 was equally smooth.

Because it was getting late-ish I decided not to risk the M6 through Birmingham and the snarl-up which is invariably associated with the point where it meets the M5. Instead I decided to dig deep into my pocket and take the toll road. It was therefore a slight shock to discover that this was being dug up. Given that the volume of traffic was low the delay was actually slight but it did leave a bad taste in the mouth that for my £5.50 I could not get along the expressway unimpeded.

I joined the M54 using the A460 and then made steady progress out past Telford. My mood lightened as I approached Shrewsbury and caught sight of the beautiful undulating territory which is the Welsh marches unfolding ahead.  Having not been to Shropshire’s county town for the best part of twenty years I thought I would drive through it for old time’s sake. What a mistake.

Claremont Bank had not survived amongst my memories of the place but oh boy is it engrained on my mind now, for it took about 30 minutes to travel 400 metres along it. At 8pm in the evening. The problem stemmed initially from the road works taking place at the top of Bridge Street by the river, and the temporary traffic lights associated with them. Understandably this was creating queuing traffic. Unfortunately this meant that other traffic – including us – trying to join from Claremont Street could not do so easily, not least because there were only six seconds (the length of time the lights were green) in which to join a queue of vehicles which had few gaps in it. Six seconds.

Why on earth could the lights not be better co-ordinated?

The only blessing was that the children slept through the hold-up. As it was I wish I could have too. Suffice to say, on the way back we skirted the place.

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