Remote payment set to ease M25’s worst pinch point

Free flow charging from October this year should make using the Dartford Crossing a more pleasant experience – as long as you remember to pay. By Ty Byrd.

Dartford crossing is currently one of the worst performing parts of the Highways Agency’s principal roads network in terms of congestion and journey time reliability. Regular M25 users dread the journey between junctions 1a and 30, under or over the Thames, where toll collection and weight of traffic can be the cause of considerable delays.

But from October this year, free flow charging will make the crossing much less of a hellish prospect. Dartford’s tollbooths are set to disappear, likewise most of the barriers and traffic will run mainly uninterrupted – given no untoward incidents. Charges for using the crossing will remain but be collected electronically, in a much less disruptive way, without vehicles having to stop.

More troublesome to motorists will be the thought of receiving a PCN (penalty charge notice) if for some reason they fail to pay. PCNs will be issued automatically and then vigorously pursued, even if the vehicle is registered in a far away country. Failure to cough up will lead to drivers facing a bill after 28 days of £105.

“Being a barrier-less system, non compliance becomes an issue,” says HA project director Nigel Gray. People using the crossing as a one off could conceivably forget but it is the deliberate avoiders that Mr Gray has in mind. “It is these drivers who are in for a surprise: there is a formidable array of technology being applied to make sure they comply.”

It is only recently that technology of sufficient sophistication has evolved to cope with the kind of revenue collection challenges that are posed by Dartford and its availability is not a moment too soon. A staggering number of vehicles use the crossing – “a level of 160,000 a day is not uncommon,” says Mr Gray – well above the infrastructure’s capacity of 135,000v/day.

The new free flow charging system is intended to alleviate the tailbacks which currently build at Dartford at peak times. Expressed simply, the system will employ automatic number plate recognition via DSRC (dedicated short range communication) technology to note each vehicle using the crossing. This information then passes to a back office where individual vehicle numbers are cross checked against records of payment.

Drivers will have until midnight the day after having crossed at Dartford to pay the standard charge – with compliance really being the sensible option. Legislation has been passed to make non payment a civil offence. The crossing’s back office computers will be linked to DVLC in Swansea to obtain registration details of those vehicles identified as not having paid, following which a PCN will be sent to owners’ addresses.

The penalty charge is set at £70, reduced to £35 if payment is made in 14 days. Non payment in 28 days will provoke the demand for £105 mentioned above. The owners of foreign vehicles will be pursued by European debt recovery agencies on the continent commissioned to extract the appropriate sums.

Payment methods will include on line, with debit or credit cards; SMS (where the motorist’s card has been preregistered); by telephone or at one of 10,000 retail outlets across the country. For their money, M25 motorists should get a much better experience crossing the Thames. Modelling indicates that the free flow system should improve journey times between junctions 1a and 30 by between two and nine minutes, depending on the time of day, general levels of traffic and an absence of incidents.

A fuller version of this story appears in this month's Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation magazine Transportation Professional. CIHT members can see it at; non members email for a pdf copy.

Illustration copyright Highways Agency