Massive blackout meant toll-free Thames crossing

Motorists were allowed a toll-free ride over a key river crossing today after a major power cut affected thousands of homes and businesses.

Charges were temporarily suspended on the Dartford Crossing after criminals caused fire damage to high-voltage electricity cables.

The Highways Agency decided to lift the barriers on the crossing this morning to keep traffic flowing smoothly and to reduce the risks of accidents in queuing traffic.

Collection of charges resumed tonight using an alternative power supply - but tens of thousands of homes in north Kent and south-east London were still without electricity.

It follows a fire in the Dartford area yesterday lunchtime which cut power to properties in Crayford, Bexleyheath, Erith and Orpington. Four major electricity circuits were badly damaged, as well as a cable bridge over Dartford Creek.

EDF Energy Networks said at its peak 100,000 customers were without power, but its engineers restored supplies to around 31,000 people and temporary supplies to more customers through rota connections.

Through the rota connections, EDF Energy Networks said it has restored power temporarily to customers in Crayford, Erith and Bexleyheath for three hours at a time before switching supply to another area.

Generators have also been deployed to the most vulnerable people and the Red Cross have visited a number of people to offer advice and support, EDF Energy Networks said in a statement.

Extra call centre staff have also been drafted into provide information and advice, the French-owned company added.

EDF Energy Networks said: "Our priority is restoring power to all our customers as quickly as is safely possible, and we continue to work on a full restoration of power supplies.

"Because of the complexity of the repairs, it is hard to be completely accurate but EDF Energy Networks hopes that power will be restored to remaining customers, not already back on supply either permanently or temporarily, during the course of tomorrow evening."

Kent Police said tonight that it has launched an investigation into the cause of the fire but it is unclear whether it was criminal damage or an attempted theft of high voltage cables.

Chief Inspector Peter Ayling said: "We are working closely with Kent Fire and Rescue Service fire investigators and other partners to minimise the risk and disruption to the community.

"However, extensive fire damage has been caused to a cable tower which in turn has impacted heavily on both local businesses and residents.

"We have committed significant resources to investigate the cause of the incident and inquiries are ongoing. It unclear at this stage whether this was criminal damage to or attempted theft of high voltage cable.

"Along with our partners, we are working to reassure the local community and provide assistance to those who are vulnerable."

A Dartford Borough Council spokesman said: "We have put in place measures to ensure that the more vulnerable members of the community have been cared for throughout."

A Kent Primary Care Trust spokesman said people with concerns about their health should contact their local health services as normal.

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