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Overpriced and underused: M6 toll road is going nowhere fast

Britain’s only pay-as-you-go motorway has proved a costly flop. Now critics are calling for radical action
  • @SimonCalder

From suburban South London to the doorstep of Portmeirion in north-west Wales, Britain’s motorists encounter tolls in many unexpected locations. But given a choice, most drivers will seek a free way around the problem.

The UK’s first attempt at a pay-as-you-go motorway, the M6 Toll, is proving such a flop that the local transport chief is demanding a cut in tolls – and possible re-nationalisation.

The M6 is the key artery through the West Midlands, but it also suffers from chronic congestion as part of Britain’s longest and most important motorway. The Birmingham Northern Relief Road, as the M6 Toll was originally known, was supposed to siphon off the through traffic between the South-east and the North-west. Originally, 72,000 vehicles a day were forecast to use the link, but just half that number of motorists take the route today. In contrast, the M6 itself is carrying 125,000 vehicles a day.

Geoff Inskip, chief executive of Centro, the transport authority, told The Independent that nine out of 10 trucks use the original motorway, with congestion costing the West Midlands economy £2 billion a year:

“We believe this is due to the price hauliers and motorists are being asked to pay. It’s important we keep the region moving and one way of doing that is to get HGVs, which are not stopping in Birmingham, off the M6 and onto the toll road.”

The 27-mile private-sector expressway to the north of Birmingham opened a decade ago, at a cost of £900m. The toll is currently £5.50 for private cars and £11 for trucks, with modest discounts for weekend and overnight use. But when traffic is flowing reasonably freely on the original M6, there is no incentive to use it: the toll route is marginally longer than the free motorway, with time also lost with the stop at the toll booth.

Mr Inskip said: “If the M6 Toll cannot be made to work in terms of attracting more vehicles off the M6 then one solution is to take it into public ownership. This would give us the option of setting a level of charge that does encourage through traffic.”

The toll motorway is operated by Midland Expressway Ltd, which has the concession until 2054 – when the road is due to be handed back to the government. Tom Fanning, the chief executive, told The Independent: “Over 40,000 customers choose to use the M6 Toll each day to bypass Birmingham as it provides a reliable alternative to the M6 motorway, one of the UK’s most congested motorways. The M6 Toll was constructed by the private sector at no cost to the taxpayer. Without private investment, the M6 Toll would not otherwise exist and its customers would instead be adding to the existing congestion on the M6 motorway.”

The most recent annual report from the Australian parent company, Macquarie Atlas Roads, said: “Underlying performance continues to be impacted by the continuing weak economic conditions in the United Kingdom”. The firm is renegotiating loans with its creditors.

The M6 Toll is very different from other stretches of fee-charging road in Britain. The majority are bridges, with tolls for cars ranging from 5p to £6.20. The cheapest is Swinford Toll Bridge in Oxfordshire, which carries the old A40 across the Thames. It lies within the Prime Minister’s Witney constituency, and was recently sold for £1m.

The most expensive tolls apply on the two Severn crossings, though these apply westbound only. As a result, many motorists heading from England to Wales are prepared to take a detour via Gloucester to avoid the toll. According to the AA Route Planner, it adds about 25 miles – and 50 minutes – to a London-Cardiff journey.

Toll motorways are the norm in France, Spain and Italy. In France, autoroutes peages typically cost around £1 for every 10 miles – totally about £70 on the 660-mile journey from Calais to Marseille. Websites for British expatriates and holidaymakers are busy with recommendations for avoiding some or all of the tolls on the long drive south.

One recent comment reads: “Off autoroute you can also buy cheap supermarket fuel, and if you’re trying to do it cheaply then it’s a double saving - no tolls and cheap fuel.”

Road sense? Toll tales around the UK

Aldwark Bridge, North Yorkshire

Avoiding this crossing of the River Ure near York requires a detour of 25 miles, costing far more than the current 40p toll. The bridge is reputed to have been damaged by an iceberg in the 19th century and subsequently rebuilt.

Kingsland Bridge, Shrewsbury

Three bridges cross the Severn where it throws a loop around the centre of Shropshire’s county town. The Kingsland Bridge (30p) is easily the most impressive: a listed building, built by the same firm as the Victoria Falls bridge in Southern Africa.

Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol

Brunel’s first engineering masterpiece celebrates its 150th anniversary next year. Currently, the trustees are seeking to double the existing 50p toll. Free guided tours of the bridge over the Avon Gorge are offered at weekends.

Pont Briwet, Gwynedd

If a latter-day Prisoner were to escape from the labyrinthine North Wales folly of Portmeirion, he would need to find 40p to pay the toll on this rickety wooden bridge near the gates, shared with a railway. It is temporarily closed as work begins on a replacement.

College Road, South London

London’s only surviving tollbooth has charged for access since 1789. The Dulwich Estate justifies the charge of £1 (free on Christmas Day) by saying it “helps to control the volume of traffic using this private road”.