Is The ‘Failure’ Of The M6 Toll Road A Sign Of Things To Come?
TRANSPORT CHIEF URGES NATIONALISATION
Oh Dear! The flagship’s flag seems to be flying a bit lower than it should be when it comes to pay-as-you-go roads. The M6 Toll Road that runs through the West Midlands and was planned to relieve congestion on the M6 around Birmingham has seen traffic drop by 40% in just 7 years.
When the Toll Road was completed a decade ago at a cost of £900million, the whole idea was that the 27 mile stretch of motorway would carry 74,000 motorists a day away from the traffic congestion around the UK’s second city, giving them some relief.
But the golden egg seems to have become a little tarnished with currently around little more than half that figure - 34,360 to be precise – actually using it; leading to continued or increased traffic congestion in the West Midlands costing the British economy around £2 billion a year.
Originally considered an ideal alternative to traffic jams, when the existing M6 is clear (or seems to be) then drivers still use that to avoid the longer Toll Road journey and, of course, the toll itself.
And it all seems to have become that bad around Birmingham when it comes to congestion that the Highways Agency has already started work on converting the hard shoulder of the original M6 into a new lane so that the additional traffic can be dealt with.
Currently in private hands, and held up as a shining example of what can be achieved with independent and private investment; it is most definitely an embarrassment to the government who are believed to be planning more of these pay-as-you-drive roads around the country to pay for motorway repairs. And those red faces are added to when you take into consideration the thoughts of Geoff Inskip, chief executive of Centro, the West Midlands transport authority, published in The Independent newspaper.
“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.”
It is quite expensive to use the road. For a car costs start at £5.50 one-way, and for HGVs it is double that – with the HGV cost sending 9 out of 10 lorries back to the original motorway, according to Mr Inskip. “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,” he said.
This, as you would expect, is not the view of the company that owns and operates the M6 toll road. Midland Expressway – a subsidiary of Macquarie Bank – has laid the blame firmly and squarely on the economic downturn for the fall in traffic on the road.
But it may be a good time to point out that when the road opened in December 2003, a car could travel for just £2 (there have been 8 price rises since!) and a HGV £10 (although it fell to £6 in 2005 before starting to rise again a year later).
But then Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, points out the blindingly obvious fact that toll roads may seem to be there for motorists but are actually there to make money for their owners. “The problem is not private sector involvement but that ministers never insisted on regulated tolls. In a way, who can blame the operator? If they can maximise their income by having fewer cars paying more then why wouldn’t they? There’s less wear and tear on the road, and you need fewer staff and toll booths. Unfortunately what is good news for the company running the road is bad news for most drivers.”
The relative ‘failure’ of the M6 toll is a hammer blow to what it was rumoured are government plans to finance new road building in Britain, with plans to do so on existing roads and a general privatisation of the motorway network having been ruled out (Or so they say. I would add in the caveate ‘For now’.)
Any future investors in Britain’s roads would do well to heed the news that Macquarie are facing the problem of a £1billion debt burden that they took on following a 2006 refinancing, and are ‘currently in talks with its creditors’ to restructure the debt.
In the meantime, plans to increase tyrefall (or whatever the vehicle equivalent of ‘footfall’ is) are in operation. This July, Midland Expressway is making the toll road free to use for all haulage vehicles and they hope that this will attract more hauliers to use it – and hopefully see the benefits of the road enough to allow their vehicles to use it once the price goes back up!
But nationalisation? It’s not really on as the toll is due to stay cuddled by the private hands until 2054 and the Department for Transport said that there were no plans to nationalise the road before this date.
Toll roads are de rigeur in France (where it works out to around £1 for every 10 miles – making Calais to Marseille cost around £70), Spain and Italy, and are also noticeable on the Severn Bridge when travelling into Wales from England (but it’s free to get out!) and other bridges that are a lot cheaper like Aldwark Bridge nr York, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and Pont Briwet, nr Gwynedd, amongst others.