/ Motoring

Open up the toll gates

Traffic jam

A report that private toll roads aren’t a cost-effective answer to traffic problems confirms what Claire Evans, Which? Car deputy editor, believes – toll gates should be thrown open at times of excessive congestion.

The Campaign for Better Transport found that the UK’s only private toll, on the M6, had not significantly improved journey times since it opened seven years ago.

According to the organisation, most drivers are loathe to pay £5 a car to use the toll road. This means its operator, Midland Expressway, is losing out on more than £25 million a year, discouraging potential investors.

In contrast, the south east’s most prominent toll, the Dartford Crossing, seems to be a big revenue earner. Yet, after I’ve sat in patient frustration for more than two hours queuing in traffic to cross it, I firmly believe that everyone would benefit if toll gates were left open when traffic congestion reached a certain level.

The cost of blocked toll gates

While sitting in the traffic I had time to make a few calculations – there are 12 southbound booths, each letting in one vehicle every nine seconds. That’s 80 cars a minute, or 4,800 cars an hour. There’s often a tailback of an hour or more, which means that they’re holding up at least 4,800 drivers, even if no more joined the queue. That’s a hell of a lot.

Each working car driver (sales rep, engineer, etc.) is losing their employer £25 while sitting unproductively in their car, and each truck could be costing around £75 an hour. Assuming that 40% of the drivers are unpaid commuters, 40% are paid drivers and 20% are trucks, that’s £120,000 an hour lost to business.

And that’s not to mention the detriment to the environment of all those vehicles churning out pollution while they’re going nowhere.

Time to unblock the toll gates

The really annoying thing is that if the government just let the traffic through at the worst times, they would probably make more money from the increase in corporation tax.

And I bet they’d make more from toll fees in the long run too, as more drivers would feel inclined to pay the toll to use the route at less busy times. Surely this is a lesson the M6 toll operator should take a note of?


I think toll gates are wrong considering the amount of taxes we already pay – and the £5 toll fee was always too much. I hazard a guess that if £1 toll had been used – the traffic would be 5 times more on the toll road,

I think that a good approach would be to have for smaller cars, narrow lanes with low headroom so that all smaller vehicles could use all toll roads and bridges in the UK free. That way all the drivers of big american style pickup trucks along with people carriers and chelsea tractors would be stuck queing for ages while watching smaller cars going straight through. It would then probably not be too long before most of these large vehicles got replaced with much smaller ones taking up less space. This would work much better than expensive tax discs, because as well as costing in road tolls which could be increased a lot, it would also add lots of journey time onto trips made by the drivers of these vehicles! Losing time would be something that would deter very rich people with deep pockets from using them. The extra height that is currently used to their advantage for seeing ahead and lane swapping in queing traffic would not work when the queue is made up entirely of larger higher vehicles. This in my opinion would be a very satisfying and enviromently friendly way to deal with traffic congestion.

Robert Stones says:
3 September 2010

As a regular user of the M6 toll we think it would take more traffic from the M6 if the toll was halved.At present traffic is very light on the toll road. The quickest way to pay is by credit card as there is usually only one cash exit open.

Dartford Crossing – well, there’s not really any alternative is there? No matter what the price nor how long the queues.

M6 Toll. Where you merge with the toll road having driven up the standard M6, you look over your shoulder to see three, almost completely empty, lanes. Lanes that could have taken the traffic, and therefore the pollution, away from the standard M6 and the residents of Birmingham – to the obvious benefit of everyone.

And a good thing too in the short term. The M6 Toll was a completely bonkers idea and its failure more-or-less guarantees it won’t be repeated.

Having lived within 10 minutes of the M6 all my adult life, in my opinion it isn’t the cars that cause the congestion, it is two solid lanes of lorries, all driving at 56mph, trying to overtake each other and forcing everyone into the outside lane. They pull out without warning, knowing you have no option but to brake, and hog the middle lane for miles while they gradually overtake the wagon on the inside lane who is travelling at a mile an hour less. How about sending all the lorries down the M6 Toll? Bliss!!

The proposal seems reasonable and customer friendly.
Hopefully users would not find a way of abusing the priviledge.

Stephen Collins says:
5 September 2010

I totally agree and have often thought that the Dartford Crossing must be one of the largest generators of unnecessary pollution in the UK, that is of course fine though because it makes copious amounts of cash.

Also, I do not agree with John H, there are plenty of small cars that pollute more than larger ones, size has very little to do with congestion and as far as pollution is concerned, drivers of more polluting vehicles (be they large or small) are already penalised through road tax and fuel duty!

Scaracat says:
5 September 2010

The Dartford Crossing can’t be compared with the M6 toll as you have no alternative route at Dartford, we are all forced to use the Dartford toll. However the M6 toll is just an alternative to the normal M6, given the choice I would rather take the free route on the M6 instead of paying £5.

Twice last week I travelled on the M6 south where I could have used the toll, I sat in heavily conjected traffic between J10a & J7, although it was frustrating, it only increased my journey time by 10 minutes, it certainly was not worth paying £5 for the sake of 10 minutes. However I have used the toll in the past when there has been severe tailbacks due to an accident, in those cases it is sometimes worth paying the toll.

In general I think the M6 toll is a complete waste of space. I think that it should be free to use and traffic destined for junctions 5 to 10a should be directed to use the old M6 and through traffic destined for the north or south sould use the road known as the M6 toll. This way the traffic would not be forced to use only one motorway which causes standstill traffic on one and empty lanes on the other and would therefore average out between the two and flow nicely.

Do the owners of these roads care how long you sit there?, of course they don’t. Their only reason for being there is to make a profit. We either should stick to our system of paying for a decent road system by general taxation or do it the French way and charge all motorway users a contribution for using them and paying a bit less tax. Either way they all have to be paid for.

peter gormley says:
5 September 2010

I have spent 20 odd years in Australia which have alot of tolls on their Freeways and the system they use there is by way of bying credits once you have paid your credits you are issued with a disc simular to a tax disc which is read by a camera on the ganteries as you enter the Freeway and the charge is desucted from your credits the traffic can flow easily with no holdups. Perhaps that could be an option here also the M6 Toll is too expensive if they reduced the price they would make more money and attract more Investors

Don Horne says:
7 September 2010

There are many arguments for and against toll roads. However, to argue that they should be free when there is congestion on the main route – the most compelling reason to pay – seems irrational.

Another suggestion is to make all main routes toll roads and to install cameras to track vehicle movements like the London cogestion zone system. Thus we could do away with toll boths but would pay for the use of the roads. The charges could vary for the types of routes used but I stress not the time of travel as some people would drive during the night if that was the cheapest option. Tired drivers crash!

It could also be tied into a speed control system in that the tracking information would detect speeding drivers and thus extra fines could be extracted from those peple who do not have the skill to obey speed limits!!!

I use a TomTom Go 730 connected with an RDS-TMC Traffic Receiver (£7 on Ebay!) and IQ routes to detect busy roads and real-time congestion and help me find alternative routes. Very rarely has it let me down and often when I’ve ignored it I’ve ended up in a big jam further down the road after a junction where it had advised me to turn off. Lesson learnt there, me thinks.

I absolutely love maps but this is where I think the right sat nav has a huge advantage.

However, if I was Transport Minister for a day I would:
1. Introduce a tax on all foreign-registered vehicles entering the UK (valid for a year, more for HGVs)
2. Ensure there’s a disaster continuity/contingency plan for every section of motorway in the event of closure, in some cases introduce emergency exits, temporary contra-flow systems or temporary breaches of the central res to allow police-controlled U-turns
3. Introduce more ‘Keep to the left lane’ reminders on electronic sign displays
4. Consider dividing motorways in some urban areas by lanes to segregate through (national) and local traffic
5. Invest more in technology to provide more information to drivers and/or passengers about traffic conditions ahead, including introducing more signs on the roads before motorists get onto gridlocked motorways
6. Ban HGVs on motorways on Sundays
7. Ban HGVs from lane 2 during peak periods to stop ‘elephant racing’
8. Have more flexible use of traffic lights on roundabouts – i.e only switch them on when necessary
9. Introduce compulsory driving tests every 5 years to educate drivers about changing driving conditions and trends. Driving is a privilege, not a right
10. Be realistic about the Utopian dream of an integrated public transport system where everyone will be happy to get on a dirty/slow bus or expensive train, and accept that congestion depends largely on how much people are prepared to put up with it and also accept that the quandary of congestion will never be solved (in other words, the more effort you put into reducing congestion roads, the more attractive you ultimately make them).