Livingstone predicts 'difficult few days' as congestion charge begins

About 100,000 motorists are today experiencing the greatest ever experiment to ease road congestion as Ken Livingstone, the scheme's chief architect, boldly predicted there was a more than 99 per cent chance of success.

After a weekend surge in registrations from drivers heading for the city centre, the Mayor of London said he was confident that the technology powering 800 cameras and payment systems would work, but he conceded that much would rely on the adaptability of commuters over a "very difficult" few days.

By 6.30am, more than 30,000 people had paid the congestion charge for today and 50,000 had registered to pay by SMS text message.

Derek Turner, TfL managing director of street management, said: "There is likely to be some disruption and teething problems but we will do all we can to ensure that the traffic flows as smoothly as possible.

"We are also expecting that people may face delays at the call centre and would reiterate that it is not the only way to pay the charge."

Yesterday, Mr Livingstone said if the scheme proved to be a success, he planned to extend the congestion charge zone. In an interview with David Frost, he said he would enter into consultation with boroughs such as Tower Hamlets and Kensington and Chelsea to implement an expansion next year.

Mr Livingstone, who came under pressure to delay the toll until London Underground reopens the Central and Waterloo & City lines, said: "If I thought there was even a 1 per cent chance the system would fail, we wouldn't have gone ahead. The question has never been would the technology work, it is will people tolerate it."

With so much at stake, the Government maintained its non-committal stance, although Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, urged Mr Livingstone to be ready to reduce the £5 charge in case of problems. He said: "The Mayor has got the power to make changes to the scheme and it is important that he does do that as and when any problems arise."

Transport for London, the body charged with implementing the Mayor's transport strategy, scored an own goal by fining 45 motorists before the scheme started, forcing Mr Livingstone to apologise yesterday.

One motorist who was fined £120 for non-payment said he was "completely astonished and quite upset" to receive a fine notice the start of the month. Mr Livingstone told BBC1's Breakfast with Frost: "I plead guilty to that. It was a complete mistake. Someone pressed the wrong button on the computer and the forms went out. We have sent letters of apology and I would like to apologise personally to anyone who got a bit annoyed."

Dedicated call centres in Glasgow and Coventry were inundated at the weekend as motorists sought to register their vehicles for a discount, or pay in advance or by text message.

Transport for London said an extra 6,000 motorists had signed up for one-day or "season tickets" over the weekend, bringing the total to 26,000. About 50,000 had registered to pay by text message, compared with about 40,000 when figures were measured on Friday.

TfL estimated that 76 per cent of the 100,000 drivers expected to enter the eight-square-mile charge zone between 7am and 6.30pm today had made arrangements to pay. The remainder have until midnight tonight to register or face fines from £80 to £120.

Today Mr Livingstone will commute from his home in Cricklewood, north London, into the centre by Tube as usual, albeit accompanied by a scrum of reporters. He predicted a "very bad two or three days" on the roads at the start of the week as drivers sought alternative routes. The Automobile Association predicted this would bring heavy congestion in a three-mile-wide ring around the charging zone. The full impact may not be felt until after this week's half-term holidays.

The state of London's roads will be studied by 35 local authorities in Britain that are considering similar schemes, and by European cities such as Copenhagen, Genoa and Helsinki. Derbyshire County Council is considering Britain's first charge on rural roads to ease traffic during the tourist season in the Peak District.

The shadow Transport Secretary, Tim Collins, warned that congestion charges would be imposed elsewhere once they had been tried in London.

People wanting to pay can also visit the website at www.cclondon.com, pay at more than 1,500 retail outlets within the M25 or, if registered, pay the charge by text message.

The £5 charge can be paid any time up until 10pm. The fee then rises to £10.

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