Norway holds a lesson to profit Britain: Norwegian tolls exist to raise cash, not to keep cars out, writes Christian Wolmar

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IT MAY seem odd that Norway, with its small population, should be the world leader in the use of tolls on drivers entering towns. However, the problems that led to the creation of toll systems in Bergen, Trondheim and Oslo are the same as those that John MacGregor faces in the UK.

Norway, with 4.3 million people but an area greater than the UK, and many difficult geographical features such as fjords and mountains, cannot afford to build more roads without developing a new system of raising revenue.

The systems in the three towns have therefore been introduced, not as road pricing to deter motorists from entering, but as a way of raising cash to build roads. In the Oslo area, with a population of 700,000, the system was introduced in February 1990 and every driver passing through one of 19 toll booths around the town paid 11 Kroner (about pounds 1).

Even in such a relatively small town the revenue raised is considerable - some pounds 220m per year from the 200,000 drivers who on average use it daily.

The authorities timed the introduction of the toll cleverly. A one-mile tunnel under the harbour which enabled drivers to avoid the town centre was opened two weeks before.

Nevertheless the scheme proved immensely unpopular, as Mr MacGregor accepted it would in Britain, with nearly two-thirds of the population in Norway opposed to it, although now that figure has been reduced to around 55 per cent.

The money is being used to pay about half the costs of 50 road projects including 30 tunnels which are intended to take traffic away from residential areas. Thanks to the toll systems road projects are being brought forward from the 2020s to the late 1990s. In addition a fifth of the toll money goes to improving Oslo's trams and buses.

The toll system has not so far been used as a road pricing mechanism. Although traffic fell initially by between 5 and 10 per cent it was drivers in off- peak hours rather than people going to work in the rush hour who were deterred.

Right from the beginning the city and county authorities who jointly run the scheme realised that electronic technology had to be used in order to avoid enormous queues.

Currently three-quarters of people going through the toll plazas use an electronic tag on the windscreen which allows them to drive through at speed. An antenna on an overhead gantry sends a signal to the tag on the windscreen which identifies the car and enables the user's account to be debited.

People are encouraged with big discounts to buy passes for periods of up to a year or for set numbers of trips. Drivers jumping through the system who have not made a prepayment are fined.

In Hong Kong, a system introduced briefly in the 1980s was scrapped because it enabled drivers to be traced and many were found frequenting the red light district. In Norway, to avoid this Big Brother element, the video camera which records every car going through deletes the photograph immediately if the tag is in order.

In Trondheim, a more sophisticated system allowing higher prices to be charged at peak times makes it more like a road pricing scheme.

The Norwegians realise that to introduce such a system widely will require 'smart cards', like phone cards but rechargeable. Nevertheless, what started out as a simple system to pay for new roads is likely to end up as road pricing.