British officials will closely monitor the introduction of a new tolling system on the German roads, writes David Crawford

If Germany's delayed lorry road-user charging (LRUC) scheme makes its latest deadline to go live by 1 January, officials from the Department of Transport and, especially, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will be watching closely.

If Germany's delayed lorry road-user charging (LRUC) scheme makes its latest deadline to go live by 1 January, officials from the Department of Transport and, especially, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise will be watching closely.

Customs and Excise, which will soon merge with Inland Revenue, is in the driving seat for the Government's own LRUC project, which is scheduled for introduction in 2007-8. Hence the interest in the German scheme.

The Customs & Excise department is satisfied with the progress of its own scheme. From the point of view of public confidence, though, it would be relieved if the introduction of Germany's LRUC on its 12,000km of motorway goes off well after two postponements.

The German system differs from the congestion charge in London and other UK cities because it uses satellite positioning technology to track and charge lorries for the distance they travel. This is widely seen as the fairest approach to a tolling regime, reflecting the impact of heavy vehicles on the environment and transport infrastructure. The German system will collect fees electronically, and lorries will not need to stop or slow down at toll plazas.

The UK version will probably also use satellite technology, but Customs and Excise will leave its technology options open to bidders that make proposals under its 2004-5 procurement programme. At present, the department collects road fuel duties, which the LRUC will replace to ensure "revenue neutrality" for domestic vehicles. The 3,500 foreign lorries that enter the UK every day will pay the full charge.

The UK's scheme will cover all roads, with different rates for motorways and other routes. Once it becomes operational, the system can then be applied to all vehicles, including cars.

The Department for Transport is already testing satellite technology, and street trials are due to start next year. The way will then be open for a national framework on which local or regional authorities will be able to apply their own schemes.

This could pave the way for universal charging in the UK. An eventual pan-continental system would be a big user of the EU's own forthcoming Galileo satellite constellation, which will replace the US's system. Toll Collect, the German-French consortium responsible for LRUC's autobahn debut, started its testing in late September. It has yet to demonstrate rigorously that the system is fully functional.

Christoph Bellmer, the chief executive of Toll Collect, is confident "the development phase is basically complete", after an independently-monitored pre-test period earlier this year. The test was criticised for not using a big enough sample of cars. Toll Collect, however, claimed its system was 99.6 per cent accurate in collecting data and charges, though there were areas where the system failed to register the presence of lorries.

The test began with 80,000 vehicles fitted with specially developed on-board units (OBUs). Thousands more are being equipped every day, with the owners only paying for installation.

The test phase will last until 30 November this year, after which an official report should enable the German Federal Office for Goods Transport to grant Toll Collect a preliminary licence on 15 December. Once it has been granted, Toll Collect can start collecting fees - 16 months after the original deadline of August.

The German government requires a system that will track vehicles only when they are on autobahns, and not, for example, on parallel toll-free roads. It can be expanded, though, at any time to deter large-scale diversion to toll-free roads.

It also has to reflect environmental policies by taking note of a vehicle's pollution class and the number of axles into account; and have scope for introducing additional charges based on journey times and routes. This will be central to the UK scheme.

Toll Collect has forecast that by 1 January, between 300,000 and 400,000 of about 600,000 eligible vehicles will be ready to use the system. Those that are not will use alternative methods such as the internet or special checkpoints.

For its UK scheme, Customs and Excise has 10 potential system suppliers, including Toll Collect partner DaimlerChrysler Services; Italian operator Autostrade; Capita, which administers the London congestion charge; BT; and IBM.

The shortlist will be announced early next year and the department plans to award the contract by the end of the same year. The following year and most of 2007 have been set aside for development and trials. It hopes to start with larger vehicles in late 2007, and progressively extend this to all lorries weighing over 3.5 tons.

The writer is a contributing editor of 'Intelligent Transport Systems International'

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