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Lockdown sees Dartford Crossing journeys halved as decline in fines could fuel fall in profits

The number of people using the Dartford Crossing has more than halved since the lockdown came into effect.

Highways England has revealed there were nearly two million fewer journeys made by those travelling between Dartford and Thurrock last month.

The Dartford Crossing has seen a reduction in the number of journeys being made
The Dartford Crossing has seen a reduction in the number of journeys being made

The original Dartford Tunnel opened to traffic nearly 60 years ago and has since been used to make more than 1.5 billion trips, a statistic which is growing every year.

But in April this year the figure dropped to 1,713,824, well below the average of more than four million crossings a month seen in both January and February.

The immediate environmental impact will come as welcome relief for residents of Brent Way, Stone which overlooks the crossing, who say they have been forced to inhale the toxic fumes emitted from excess cars.

In November, disgruntled homeowners reported how they wake every morning to thick layers of dust and dirt gathering on their windows.

They called for a physical barrier to be put in place, to be financed by Highways England which was handed a £75m pot to fund improvements in air quality.

All profits collected from the Dartford Crossing go back to the Department for Transport, which then re-distributes funds to vital transport projects such as improving the local road infrastructure.

This includes £10m worth of improvement works to improve the flow of traffic through the Dartford Tunnel, as well as improving road signs and enforcement cameras at yellow box junctions.

However vital upgrades may now be put on hold as the highways agency suffers a shortfall of cash from the crossing.

Last year it was reported more than a third of the £195.5 million income generated by the Dart Charge scheme came from fines.

But the number of penalty charge notices (PCNs) issued has since shrunk during lockdown from 207,645 in March to 87,325 last month.

The rate at which fines were collected also fell from 72.2% in January to just under 60% in March and 37.8% in April.

The number of fines issued on the Dartford Crossing has decreased in recent months
The number of fines issued on the Dartford Crossing has decreased in recent months

This is compared to a high of 94.8% last year where the number of foreign drivers avoiding payment was nearly one in five (80.8%).

Highways England no longer publishes details of fines issued to overseas drivers as they say it could encourage non-payment.

Last year profits increased by £7.4m with the crossing generating net proceeds of £86.7m, compared to £79.3m the year prior.

The UK’s busiest river crossing has collected more than £700m since it did away with the tolling booths in favour of cameras in November 2014.

French company Emovis has operated the Dart Charge since then and its £367m, seven-year contract expires this year.

But many motorists have called for the charge to be scrapped altogether - in line with an original pledge by the government once the debt for the construction of the bridge was repaid 17 years ago.

Traffic is often at a standstill at the approach to the highly congested crossing Picture: Dan Elliott
Traffic is often at a standstill at the approach to the highly congested crossing Picture: Dan Elliott

Wayne Tillman, from Rainham, works as a crane driver at the London Gateway port in Thurrock.

The 47-year-old key worker uses the crossing every day to get to his work which is deemed crucial to the supply of vital medicines, goods and even blood during the pandemic.

"They said when it was paid for it would be free and then they decided to backtrack and sell it to a French firm so they could carry on milking the British public," he said.

"I'd rather be pumping money into my own country. But there is no way they are going to allow that to go for free."

Mr Tillman has been using his wife's vehicle to get to work as his own transport broke down a few weeks ago.

"The main reason I have a motorbike is so I can avoid most of the traffic around Bluewater," he said.

"The system of camera enforcement does not work - the toll system at least ensured that everyone paid."

He added: "I can't wait for the Lower Thames Crossing, it will relieve all the congestion through the tunnel."

Roger Lawson, campaign director for the Alliance of British Drivers, has long called for the charge to be dropped, not extended.

"This is what we have always campaigned against," he said.

"It shows the whole system is a total waste of time. If you are issuing fines and only 37% is getting paid it is very weak.

"The system of camera enforcement does not work - the toll system at least ensured that everyone paid."

Highways England said the reason for the lower than usual figure was the shorter timespan.

More than one and a half billion journeys have been made across the Dartford Crossing since it opened in 1963
More than one and a half billion journeys have been made across the Dartford Crossing since it opened in 1963

A spokesperson said: "People receiving the PCNs earlier in the year have had longer to comply/settle them, so inevitably the compliance figures will be high.

"If you crossed Dartford end of April, it could take ten days to pay the first stage of the PCN, and obviously there are further stages after that too."

It added that it expected to see a much higher April compliance rate, given more time and these figures did not represent the final compliance rate, which is published each year in January.

“The vast majority of drivers are paying their Dart Charge correctly and on time.

"We always try and strike the right balance between being absolutely clear that drivers using the Dartford Crossing need to pay their Dart Charge and giving drivers maximum opportunity to avoid a penalty.

"The figures in this disclosure are from recent months and will include many cases where representations will ongoing."

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