Tyne Tunnel drivers may end up paying the penalty if new technology designed to speed up journeys is not made failsafe, road experts fear.
The AA, Britain’s biggest motoring organisation, says the use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) technology and no barriers can result in a huge number of motorists being fined and urged tunnel bosses to heed lessons learned from the Dartford Crossing, near London.
A free-flow ANPR system was introduced three years ago and the AA says almost half its £204.7million income in 2017 came from penalty charge notices.
Last week, the Tyne Tunnel introduced plate recognition technology in a bid to speed up journey times between South Tyneside and North Tyneside, with the barriers still in place for the foreseeable future.
Management are now examining the potential to introduce an ANPR-supported ‘free flow’ system which would see pay booths removed and all payments made online, either before or after passage.
Jack Cousens, head of roads policy at the AA, warned: “By removing the toll booths, travelling through the Tyne Tunnel should be a smooth journey.
“For those who have an online account or tag there will be little to no change, but for those who do not use the tunnel frequently the lack of booths could confuse them. We hope it will be made clear to drivers how to pay for one-off trips.”
He added: “There should be adequate signs that explain how drivers can pay for the toll, be it online or by making cash payments in local shops.
“Almost half of the income for the Dartford Crossing were for people not paying the toll. We hope the Tyne Tunnel will learn from their mistakes and ensure drivers know exactly how to pay.”
Phil Smith, chief executive of TT2 Limited, which manages the tunnel, hit back, saying the AA’s analysis included a great deal of speculation and insisted no decision has yet been made about how tolling will work at the Tyne Tunnel in the future.
He said: “Dartford is a very different type of crossing to the Tyne Tunnel, as it has a very low number of regular users and ten times the number of foreign vehicles than we have.
“It would be entirely misleading to try and claim that the economics at the two locations would be in any way comparable.
“If we adopt a completely free-flow route, we would take on board all the lessons learned since 2015, when Dartford removed its barriers. We continually listen to our customers’ feedback and they tell us that they want to see an end to stopping at the plaza, paying with cash, or using physical permits.”
“We will keep the customers’ best interests at heart when proposing any new technologies.”
Last year, 2.7 million penalty notices were issued to drivers who failed to pay the Dartford Crossing’s Dart Charge, resulting in £92m in fines. Around 55,000 people a day use the Tyne Tunnel and all can pay by cash at booths on the north side of the river
All drivers must still stop at pay booths, but tunnel bosses say ANPR is more efficient and works quicker than permits - which are being phased out - and cash.