Criticism of Tyne Tunnel’s cashless payment system is ‘disproportionate’, review claims
Criticism of the new cashless toll payments at the Tyne Tunnel has been “disproportionate”, according to a new report.
An evaluation of the controversial barrier-free system, which has been in place at the busy crossing since last year, for tunnel owners concludes that its main objectives “have all been successfully achieved”. And this despite the fact that the switchover has proven seriously unpopular with many drivers – with problems over new payment methods, warning signs and the “threatening” enforcement of fines for unpaid tolls having prompted the outrage and saw the changes described as “absolute disaster” earlier this year.
A review by Transport North East (TNE), which manages the TT2 tunnel operator’s contract on behalf of the North East Joint Transport Committee, found that the ‘Tyne Pass’ scheme had reduced carbon emissions and cut times journey on the A19. The report, which will be presented to councilors at a meeting on Thursday, is separate from a review of Tyne Tunnel complaints by watchdog Transport Focus, which is also due to be completed this month.
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Since last November, motorists no longer have the possibility of paying at traditional tolls and must now do so either online, with a prepaid account, or by telephone, or in stores equipped with PayPoint meters. Those unable to pay by midnight the following day face a penalty of £60, reduced to £30 if paid within 14 days or increased to £100 if not paid within 28 days.
The TNE report says only 3.55% of drivers passing through the tunnel in July received fines, down from more than 5% at the end of last year – although that’s still over 56,000 fines in a month, as a record number of vehicles passed through the tunnel. The number of incidents of automatic number plate recognition cameras misinterpreting number plates, leading to the erroneous imposition of fines on people across the UK, has also fallen from 400 per months when Tyne Pass launched at 120.
While campaigners called for the level of fines to be reduced, TNE said the minimum of £30 was an “appropriate” rate and claimed the fact that it does not increase each year with inflation means that will be “less valuable” in real terms. in 2023. The review recommends some improvements to TT2’s systems, including making road works “easier for drivers to understand” and not causing significant delays, regular improvements to its telephone payline and changes to prepaid accounts that mean drivers must add funds when setting up one.
The Credit Services Association recently criticized language that “could be considered misleading and threatening” in letters sent by debt collection agencies to people who have not paid their tolls on time. TNE said it had now instructed TT2 to undertake regular audits of third-party agencies CDER and Marston Holdings to “ensure that even in the unpopular area of toll enforcement they deliver a quality customer experience, fair and consistent”.
The review admits that some aspects of Tyne Pass “would have been done differently had the system been replanned” and that there was “undoubtedly a learning curve for TT2 and for customers”.
But he says the project has “achieved its original goals of reducing carbon emissions, modernizing the payment system, creating local jobs and improving travel times.” It also says there has been a “strong improvement” in driver sentiment, judging by online research.
He adds: “However, some user dissatisfaction is recognized and it is disappointing that one customer had a negative experience within the first few months of the Tyne Pass program. TT2 recognizes that some systems and processes during the first months of the new system were not as efficient as they could have been and these areas have benefited from improved processes.
“TNE has taken action with TT2 to resolve the issues raised and make improvements in all areas to address feedback. TNE is aware that as the system has matured almost all of the negative feedback relates to enforcement, which has resulted in a disproportionate focus on unpaid toll notices when in fact the system has achieved its goals for the region and is serving customers well.
Philip Smith, CEO of TT2, said there had been “hiccups in the way” but bosses had “constantly listened to customers and issues raised, and responded quickly where we could”. He added: “Assessment inevitably highlights problems encountered early on, ranging from human error, signaling issues, to problems with new software and technology.
“Customer feedback is important to us and has helped the team quickly resolve any negative experiences, while allowing us to adjust our systems and processes. Our continuous improvements have resolved many of the early issues raised by customers.
“There has been genuine concern and confusion amongst a minority of customers regarding the enforcement of the Unpaid Toll Charge Notices (UTCN) that have been issued. We made some adjustments to our processes and promoted our appeals process. As a result, UTCN only represented 3.55% of users in July, falling back to 3.50% in August.
“I am delighted to say that the majority of Tyne Tunnel users now fully understand the system and that in August 96.50% of customers paid their tolls on time. As the program evolves and matures, we will continue to listen to our customers with partners like Transport North East and oversight bodies like Transport Focus.