A tale of three road tolls: part 3 (liberty on French autoroutes)

Over the Easter holidays, I was lucky enough to enjoy a skiing holiday in the French Alps with my family. Aside from the holiday leading to me finally accepting that my kids are now both better skiers than I (after 2 seasons my 11 year-old is skiing black runs and my 9 year-old is on reds whilst I, on the other hand, lack their low centre of gravity and absence of fear), the road trip there and back gave me a chance to a) test out our new Volvo XC60 on a decent journey (it is very comfortable) and b) follow a friend’s advice to use an electronic tag for convenient passage through French autoroute tolls.

After a successful pilot with the same tag system (but different operator) on the UK’s M6 Toll, I felt ready for the SANEF Liber-T tag, which even has a billing option aimed at UK motorists travelling to France.

I’ve also found I could get a reduced price because I was travelling via Eurotunnel and had a booking reference (a frequent traveller number will do too) – saving the €10 application fee. The offer can be withdrawn at any time but seems to have been going for a couple of years now.  And, when I posted about this on a Volvo Owners Forum, I was told about another scheme that seems to be less expensive.  Definitely worth looking into…

The instructions for mounting the tag were different to my M6 Toll experience and I have to admit I’m not sure I have it quite right (maybe I should try the back of the mirror next time) but some waving of the tag at the readers seemed to kick things into life on the occasions that the barrier didn’t rise on my approach!

Back home in the UK, my tolls were arranged into one bill, and paid monthly (albeit with a currency conversion charge) but the convenience (and the ability to cruise through dedicated toll lanes at the péage) makes it worthwhile. The Liber-T tag works on all toll motorways in France (excluding the Mont Blanc and Fréjus tunnels), regardless of operator.

So, three tales, three tolls, three very different experiences. Now, back to the tech…

A tale of three road tolls: part 2 (the M6 Toll)

Following my experiences with the Dart Charge (see part 1) and in preparation for an upcoming trip to France where I planned to use electronic tolls, I decided to try out a similar system on Britain’s only private Motorway – the M6 Toll in Staffordshire.

So, on the way back from the office one day, I picked up an M6 Toll Tag at Norton Canes service area, which came pre-loaded with £25 of credit (the same as I paid for the tag). Then, by calling up and opening an account, I was given £10 more credit; and by topping up with another £30 of credit, I was given another £5. So, that’s one tag with £70 of credit for £55. Even with a monthly charge of £1 that means I’m up by a few quid (and a corresponding 5% discount on journeys should go towards the monthly charging over time).

After fitting the tag to the back of my rear-view mirror, I drove (with some trepidation it has to be said) towards the barrier, heard a re-assuring “beep”, saw it lift, and then cruised on through the toll booths.

Result! With a tag working through my car’s heated windscreen on UK roads, I was in business – ready for the next adventure, on French Autoroutes!

A tale of three road tolls: part 1 (the Dart Charge)

London’s orbital motorway, the M25, is not a circle (as many people suggest) but has a short section of trunk road joining the ends and crossing the River Thames east of London. That road, the A282 Dartford Crossing, has an associated charge which, until recently, was collected at toll booths.

Originally the tolls were to be removed on 1 April 2003 under the original Private Finance initiative (PFI) scheme contract that was used to finance the Queen Elizabeth II bridge but instead, under the 2000 Transport Act, the A282 Trunk Road (Dartford-Thurrock Crossing charging scheme) Order 2002 allowed the continuation of the crossing fee, which officially became a charge and not a toll.

Since 30 November 2014 the toll booths have been removed and replaced by an electronic charge [update: there are some overnight journeys that are not charged], but that’s not without its issues, as I found when I travelled to Dartford and back a few weeks ago.

Dart charge warning letter and PCNI hadn’t used the route for years, but had heard about the changes (I even contacted the operator to see if my new tag for the French motorways, also operated by SANEF, would work – it won’t!). I also saw the signs advising me to pay by midnight the next day (confusingly using the same symbol as the London Congestion Charge, which is unrelated). Unfortunately, faced with congestion, delays, a stressful day with a difficult customer and an equally stressful journey home (total driving time for the day was 6 hours for around 180 miles – a pathetic average speed considering it was mostly on motorways!) – and I forgot.

It was an honest mistake and, when I realised a few days later, I called the Dart Charge contact centre. Aided by some extremely patient and helpful people, I was told not to worry, to wait for the penalty charge notice and that I would be given a chance to pay (without penalty) on my first infringement. But I’d travelled both ways! In turns out that’s OK too – just pay all outstanding charges on receipt of the first notice.

I was also told how I could sign up for automatic payment in future (a facility I tested on a journey to France a few weeks later) – if only the official government website for the Dart Charge made that clear but it’s one of those sites that’s been so over-“simplified” that it’s no longer clear.  The warning letter is equally confusing: because my PCNs arrived on different days (and I needed to pay before leaving the country on Easter holidays!), I couldn’t see how to pay all outstanding charges in one hit online. Luckily the contact centre for the Dart Charge came to my rescue again!

Gov.UK suggests setting up an account but doesn’t mention the advantage of doing so is to provide a pay-as-you go facility. Indeed the only reference to payment in advance is by post! There’s actually better advice in the Daily Telegraph article about the changes!

So, if you are planning to use the Dartford Crossing (by bridge or tunnel), I recommend signing up for an account and paying as you go by credit or debit card to avoid a lot of stress (and potentially hefty fines). Definitely worth it!