Stuck in the slow lane

The government should back research into road charging systems to help UK companies grab a share of the global action, says Nigel Wall

A national system of road charging based on the driver’s choice of travel time and route has been under consideration by British governments for several years.

However, there is little popular support for the concept and progress has been slow. Tender opportunities for suppliers have been opened then revoked. Feasibility studies for local road use charging (RUC) systems have taken place in 10 local authorities but with limited enthusiasm and no guarantees that any will result in a pilot. London has been the shining light with the introduction of the congestion charge, but it is the exception.

RUC supporters were frustrated with transport minister Ruth Kelly’s March announcement that the government has abandoned plans for a national system. However, her statement made clear more pilot schemes will be needed to overcome concerns about privacy, fairness and enforcement.

The Conservative Party has suggested the government’s RUC policy is in tatters. How so? In the world of central government politics it is easy to force through ideas that fall down only after implementation and taxpayers’ money has been spent. It is far harder to recognise a flaw, put the brakes on, and deal with the issue before it becomes a problem.

As the UK’s network for location and timing technologies, the KTN watches the market for intelligent traffic and road use charging systems closely. It believes that the March announcement represents a huge opportunity for the government to generate economic growth from RUC. But to do so, it must recognise three critical factors.

First, that RUC’s economic potential lies beyond its ability to implement a system for the UK. While a system at home will help reduce congestion and harmful emissions, more revenue can be generated from companies’ successful involvement in other countries’ systems.

It is likely that other countries will implement satellite-based RUC systems before us and UK companies need to be in a strong position to win a decent share of this business.

The UK boasts world-leading expertise in satellite technologies, research and development, software, hardware and downstream applications. Identifying opportunities to display those capabilities globally will enhance our chances of winning revenue from the market. So it is vital that UK companies are fully involved in the development of any RUC technologies even if the UK is not going to use its own system.

The second critical factor is that, having recognised the challenges of implementing a UK scheme, the government must now support and accelerate investment to help companies overcome the concerns. Considerable development is still required to meet reliability, performance and cost targets.

For example, satellite positioning systems remain highly vulnerable to radio interference, which could jam required signals. Effective augmentation based on alternative technologies (such as e-Loran) will be needed to protect any satellite-based systems.

The accuracy of location information also needs to be developed further. It must be sufficient to calculate the correct price for individual journeys, and specifically if there is to be a different rate charged for high occupancy vehicle lanes, which require the precise lane to be identified, with different toll rates at different periods of the day/night.

Finally, it is critical to continue conducting economic and social research to evaluate the impact that practical RUC systems will have. Will users be willing to change their behaviour in response to such a system? Will a system actually reduce congestion and provide consequential savings for the environment and industry? What are the best charging principles for users and the government? All these questions remain largely unanswered but critical to successful implementation in the UK.

It is highly likely that the use of road transport will continue to increase, even with rising fuel prices and a greater social conscience about its environmental impact. The bottom line is that a national RUC scheme will be required at some stage in the near future. The UK needs to be ready to implement such a scheme when it becomes necessary.

There are interesting challenges ahead but the government’s ability to identify and overcome these shows it is willing and capable of delivering a system based wholeheartedly on stakeholder requirements.

What will determine the ultimate success of a future system is how much backing, financial or otherwise, the government is prepared to put into solving the problems it has been so bold to highlight.

Nigel Wall runs the UK’s Knowledge Transfer Network for location and timing technologies