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City centre countdown

Congestion charging

Vehicles could be charged to enter central London in just over a year from now.

Damian Arnold reports on how it will work.

The final blueprint of Britain's first ever scheme to charge drivers to enter a city centre is about to be written.

Critics and supporters alike have had their last chance to influence the Greater London Authority (GLA) on the detail of the plan to charge up to 50M vehicles a year to enter the 8km 2central London zone as a way of discouraging motor vehicle use and encouraging people to use public transport instead. The scheme will be complemented by a £110M bus prioritisation initiative.

Transport for London (TfL) is preparing a report for London mayor Ken Livingstone who will make a final decision on whether to push ahead with the £200M scheme in December. It is expected to go live in 2003.

The man charged with delivering the vision - TfL's director of street management and civil engineer Derek Turner - is confident about the January 2003 start date. He talks of a '21st century low tech solution using proven technology' that has worked in Melbourne, Toronto and the City of London. The scheme is expected to raise £160M a year for public transport improvements.

How will it be for you?

Imagine driving along London's Bayswater Road towards the centre of the city. Approaching Oxford Street you see a big sign warning you that it costs £5 to drive your car past Marble Arch.

If this is a regular journey you will have probably paid in advance as part of an annual, monthly, weekly or daily payment made by post, phone, over the internet or at a newsagent. If you do not live within the central zone you will have paid the full whack.

As you drive past Marble Arch, CCTV cameras record an image of your number plate which is transferred automatically via fibre optic cables to TfL's administration centre.

Licence plate numbers are recognised by the Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) computer and checked against a database of pre-payers for that day. The numbers are separated into payers and nonpayers. Footage of payers will be deleted after 24 hours. If you have not paid, your number plate details will be sent automatically to the Driver & Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) to be checked against its database. Your name and address will then be sent back to TfL which can impose fines for non-payment. The DVLA will use its links with its foreign counterparts to trace foreign number plates too.

If you have not paid by midnight on the day you used the zone you will be fined £80, reduced to £40 for prompt payment. Concern about evasion is shrugged off by TfL which has the power to clamp and remove repeat offenders' vehicles.

Smooth running hinges on the effectiveness of CCTV cameras stationed at 180 entry points to the central zone and at 250 sites overall. TfL claims the cameras will identify the number plates of four out of five vehicles. They will be stationed high enough to detect number plates obscured in bumper to bumper traffic and their number plate readings will be more accurate than the naked eye.

Mobile cameras operated by a new retinue of TfL congestion snappers will patrol inside the zone to bring coverage to more than 90%. Congestion snappers will also record drivers that arrive in the zone before the boundary is activated at 7am and leave after the boundary is deactivated at 7pm.

For those who claim ignorance of the congestion charging regime there will be an appeals process overseen by an independent adjudicator, says TfL.

How will the scheme be procured?

TfL has started procuring contracts to set up the congestion charging system. These are expected to become fully operational by the end of this year when a final decision on the scheme is made. Months of work has already been put in by bidders and TfL's internal team. It is hoped this will go a long way to ensuring the January 2003 start date can be met.

The 'core' contract covers the computer system for the scheme. This covers a database, retail outlet connections, a telephone system, links with the internet and getting licence plate numbers on to databases. Two shortlisted bidders have done a 'detailed technical design study'. TfL is expected to go with the winning bidder's design.

'These have been successful in what the market has come out with, ' says Turner.

There are also three other contracts for which TfL is at an advanced stage of negotiations.

These are Image Management, covering number plate readers and storage of all the images; the camera and telecoms system and the communications system that links the cameras' automatic number plate systems via fibre optic cables.

How will a complex system be integrated?

Failure to make the four separately procured systems knit together is cited by experts as a serious threat to a successful scheme - particularly the critical 'core' and 'image management' contracts. Rather than take the advice of many technical experts and appoint an independent programme manager experienced in systems integration, TfL has opted to manage the four contracts in-house.

Critics predict that allowing a public body with little experience in integrating systems to manage the project will lead to technical disaster. Some even say that the chaos will lead to the scheme being scrapped and congestion charging struck off the agenda for 10 years.

TfL staunchly defends its decision to split the contracts and manage the scheme itself, insisting that it has done a lot of work on how best to integrate the contracts. TfL staff with experience in systems integration will work alongside the technical design team. The in-house team will observe contractors' work. 'We want things we can understand, ' said assistant director of street management Michelle Dix.

She adds that TfL will be backed up by a team from Deloitte Consulting attached to TfL to look at systems integration. 'Those people have a track record of successful systems integration, ' she says.

She is confident glitches will be ironed out: 'There will be testing phases to ensure that everything works together and we've spoken to people who were involved in similar schemes in Melbourne and Toronto.'

What will be the effect of the scheme?

TfL traffic models released two weeks ago say the scheme will reduce traffic in central London by 10% to 15% and cut congestion by 25%.

Outside the central zone the modelling predicts a cut in traffic of between 1% and 2% and a decrease in radial traffic from the outskirts to the centre of between 5% and 10%. It also predicts up to 5% increase in orbital traffic, diverting to avoid the central zone.

Concern centres on roads on the perimeter of the congestion charging boundary - such as Tower Bridge, which engineers claim will not bear an increase in traffic (NCE 24 May).

TfL claims it is spending £100M over three years on traffic management measures to ease extra traffic onto orbital roads.

The modelling figures have been dismissed as risible by motoring groups, which claim that TfL has not shown any evidence to back up its figures. The veracity of such traffic modelling exercises is also brought into question.

TfL says it will monitor the traffic closely after the go live date.

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