Are toll motorways all they're cracked up to be?

16 October 2014

motorwayIn our small and crowded land of congested motorways, toll roads have often been held up as an example of how things could be done better. Tales of endless, straight, empty and un pot-holed motorways in France and Germany promise a better future for getting places, without getting a headache in the process. But now French environment minister Ségolène Royal has decided that the toll system isn’t working properly, and has proposed that toll company profits be slashed by reduced costs and becoming toll-free at weekend.

Her issue is that, since the French motorways were privatised eight years ago, they have been making a rather fine profit- €20 for every €100 taken according to her figures. Her plan to tax lorries on environmental grounds has fallen through (as we all know what happens when French lorry drivers get narked) so instead she is turning to the people making most money out of French roads. The problem is that there is now no Governmental money to pay for road maintenance and to finance sustainable transport projects. Someone somewhere clearly didn’t think this through when pocketing the motorway privatisation cash.

Ms Royal wants to hit motorway companies with a triple whammy- reducing motorway tolls by 10%, abolishing them at weekends and taking another 10% of the profit from tolls to “finance infrastructure investment funds”.  She claims the hugely-profitable motorways, who have distributed a teeny €15bn of dividends to shareholders in the last eight years since they were privatised, have reneged on contractual commitments to reduce prices as they built the motorways, she said.

The motorway operators’ contracts allow them to pass tax increases on to road users, but presumably don’t require them to keep the roads in the tip top condition we Brits abroad expect- with this latest news causing them to threaten to abandon €3.6bn of planned works Prime Minister Manuel Valls got them to agree to last year.

So does this mean that the fundamental basis of private toll motorways is flawed? In the UK, we have a number of tolls in various places, largely bridges and tunnels, but the most well-known example of a toll motorway is the M6 Toll near Birmingham. The private/public partnership allowed the M6 Toll company to lease the land from the Government and build and run the motorway for 53 years, after which time the lease will revert to the Government.

The toll road’s latest quarterly figures showed an average of 45,473 vehicles travelling on the road per day, with the current cost of a car at £5.50 for the 27 mile stretch.

However, the M6 Toll was set up on the basis of attracting 74,000 vehicles per day, and while recent roadworks have increased traveller numbers, the new ‘active traffic’ system through the two busiest sections of the M6 (which correspond to the M6 Toll) is likely to ease congestion.  The company has been making a loss for years- only because of huge loan repayments to it's parent company- but it still clearly isn't proving the cash cow its creators imagined. So are toll roads just a rubbish idea?

From the UK Government’s perspective, it’s been a win all round. They have had a new road built, some easing of traffic while they improve the M6, and they get the land (and the road) back in 2053. The original plan, however, was to extend the toll road up towards Manchester, but unsurprisingly, the M6 Toll company has been less than enthusiastic.

So is it the cost? When the toll road first opened the promotional cost per car was around £2, which drivers seemed to find acceptable, but is £5.50 too much? What would be the maximum amount you would pay to go on a toll road like this? Would it make a difference if it was 10% less (i.e. £5 per car) or free at the weekends as proposed by the French? Or do we just not do private motorways.

Interestingly, even the French think the free tolls at the weekend idea is a daft one, notwithstanding the fact that it would save them money. Twitter users have started using a new hashtag, #gratuitleweekend, with a wave of alternative suggestions ranging from free fruit and vegetables to combat obesity to free cigarettes or even cinema tickets, designer handbags and nightclub entry. Zut alors.

TOPICS:   Travel   Motoring

13 comments

  • Mr M.
    Remove all speed limits and operate rules similar to the AutoBahn in Germany.
  • Alex
    At £2 and under I would use the M6 toll. At £3 I would probably use the M6 toll occasionally. At more than £3 that becomes only in special circumstances. I would use it if I knew there was an accident ahead, the M6 was diverted off at a junction or if the M6 went down to 1 lane or 2 lanes during rush hour. However if the sign says congestion I would just plough on down the M6 (unless I had a plane to catch). Yes it is cheap of me, but 9/10 the congestion adds less than 10 minutes on the journey and I don't earn £30+ an hour so paying £5.50 is not going to pay for itself with 10 extra minutes work. I also want this experiment with private companies running the motorway to fail. They have built a road purely for the rich and the people running late. This is not how it should be.
  • Tom F.
    As CEO of the toll road I should wish to just point out and correct a misleading statement in an otherwise very well written piece It was never the intention that the toll road initially was owing to run up to Manchester We bid for the right to build and run the BNRR now known as the M6toll This right gave us a concession to build a 27 mile bypass to Birmingham only Only after the toll road was opened by me and Alistair Darling was it then conceived to look at the prospects of extending this to Manchester, indeed I gave evidence on this several years ago to the Transport Select Committee. This if it had been given the ahead would have resulted in a competitive bid process There was no government support for any extension So I would just point out that these were two separate issues and it was never the original intention to have the toll road running up to Manchester Tom Fanning Chief Executive M6toll
  • AtillaTheHun
    I drive down the A5 that runs parallel to the toll road, each way, every day. The toll would save me maybe 10 mins. It would save quite a bit of fuel, as it's a bit stop start along the length, but there is no way in this world I would pay the best part of £30 a week just to get to work a bit quicker. It would seem that much of the country has the same approach to the toll road as myself, as the Government has just upgraded the m6 so we can use the hard shoulder as a live lane. That's the bit the m6 the toll road was supposed to free up.... When 2053 arrives the toll road will finally be able to do it's job of clearing the traffic from the m6.
  • Alexis
    The problem with the toll is that it's 70mph, it's usually deserted and therefore the police see it as easy pickings because nobody tootles along it. If the limit was a reasonable figure, more people would use it. It's the only road that has to sell itself, and the only way it does that by saying you might avoid congestion (note the signs say "M6 Toll Clear" - not whether the M6 itself is congested or not). It needs a higher limit to give it a USP.
  • David D.
    £5.50 is simply too much. Get them to trial a £2 charge on Wednesdays, say, and compare the taking with the rest of the week. A pretty easy way to test if higher numbers bring in more money even with a lower charge.
  • OldGit
    What is the roads legal status, regarding speed limits - can the company set their own?
  • Blue_Moon_23
    Interesting that the response above by Tom Fanning was only written to correct a minor error by the author. I would expect him to have a least tried to defend the cost of the Toll Road. Like most people I would be likely to use the Toll Road if it was cheaper. I am sure that if the cost was around £2, the Toll Road use would at least triple, especially during peak times. Given the company is forever reporting a loss, what options have been considered to drum up trade. As far as I can see the issue for the Toll Road company is going to get worse as the SMART Motorway is extended further north, reducing (hopefully) congestion even more.
  • Mr M.
    CEO ignores all sensible ideas - company continues loosing money - said person gets paid off to leave - gets another high powered job to continue fucking up. Give the man who gets the jammed coins out of the toll booth the job of CEO, I'm betting things would improve.
  • richard
    @ mr.miagi, i'm 100% certain they wouldn't
  • Peter D.
    I will happily pay the £5.50 to bypass the M6 and it's freaking ridiculous managed motorway signs. Lets all be forced to slow down to 50 when there is NO TRAFFIC for no good reason other than for the government to make money for people who need to get somewhere.
  • Slacker
    I pay enough to use the roads, thanks, Mr Fanning and his ilk can fuck off.
  • Don't a.
    £5.50 to bypass Birmingham, best deal in the world, I'd pay double!

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