As previously reported on this blog, Belgium is set to be the tenth country in Europe to implement distance based truck tolls (and the fifth to use a GNSS based measuring technologies) tomorrow (1 April), but it already appears some teething problems are emerging. The system is expected to raise €750 million per annum, but issues appearing include delays in delivering OBUs to operators that have pre-ordered them, claims that some are unreliable and long delays in call centre or email responses from Satellic.
Notwithstanding attempts from the Dutch (TLN) and Flemish (TLV) Associations for Transport and Logistics to legally challenge the charge, it looks like it will be operational tomorrow. TTM reports (Dutch) that it is "chaos" and that TLN claims that call centre delays are around half an hour or more and that emails are not being responded to, and that operators are still waiting on OBUs paid for and ordered "weeks" ago. The response from Satellic is that operators that haven't received them need to go to service points at the Belgian border, which is likely to cause chaos. TTM says that the border points on Wednesday were without sufficient OBUs, although Satellic claims to guarantee everyone who ordered an OBU in advance will have one in time for tomorrow. TLV claims that Satellic isn't ready and wants leniency in enforcement and TLN pledges to support anyone with a legal challenge for enforcement, if they have taken all reasonable steps to comply.
Viapass claims that 350,000 users will be registered by 1 April, but claims that 800,000 OBUs are available now. In parallel to the launch of the system, Belgium will withdraw from the Eurovignette (which charges truck over 12 tonnes GVW) and has cut annual registration fees for trucks down to 3.5 tonnes GVW). It has put out a press release in advance of the system launch where it points out that there are 128 automatic dispensers of OBUs.
HLN.BE reports (Flemish only) that a survey from transport organisation Febetra (the Belgian freight and logistics industry association) indicates 60% of truck operators reported problems with either unreliable OBUs or difficulty accessing Satellic's (the concessionaire operating the system) call centre. It is concerned that operators with OBUs that have failed cannot get them replaced by tomorrow. Yet Flanders Today has reported that Satellic says the defective OBUs only need a software update which is automatic (presumably via mobile data) and there is no need to replace the OBU. Apparently of the 2000 OBUs reported defective (out of 350,000) 90% have been fixed.
I suspect that enforcement over the next month will be sufficiently nuanced to not fine those who appear to have made best efforts to comply. There are ways of designing enforcement procedures for introduction that do not undermine compliance in the medium term, but also give users a fair chance to become compliant. The fine is €1000 which must be paid within 3 hours otherwise a further €1000 must be paid. However, enforcement is done by different entities in each of the three regions that the charge is collected. It is a tax in Flanders and Brussels, but a fee in Wallonia (because its roads are managed by a private concessionaire). So there is a chance that enforcement responses to early issues may vary. The deposit for an OBU is €135.
Gazet Van Antwerpen is reporting (Flemish only) that some critics claim the system will charge for use of parallel roads, to which the CEO of the managing company Viapass says that customers can check this on their invoices and it will be corrected if true. One operator said it will increase the costs of freight transport in Belgium without any countervailing reduction in congestion, although it is not intended to manage congestion.
The problem of not enough OBUs having been installed before introduction is not new. This happened in Slovakia as well, and the issue comes to whether it is a problem of the lack of supply of OBUs or the truck owners/operators simply waiting until the last week or so to get their vehicles equipped. Having incentives for early installation would have helped that, a simple discount for the first month or so for those who are early installers would cost revenue, but would also spread out the logistical nightmare of last minute account set up. Similarly, call centre problems are entirely predictable. When London introduced its congestion charge, it provided vastly larger capacity for its call centre just to ensure that when the charge started, nobody could accuse Transport for London of not being able to "get through". Indeed, a parallel call centre was established in case the main one failed. Of course all this is expensive, but to get through the pain of introduction, it pays off in terms of acceptability.
It's far too early to tell whether this is just a matter of far too many operators responding in the last week, or any mistakes on behalf of Satellic or Viapass, but hopefully nobody will be unfairly penalised for doing their best to comply. Of course if Satellic is seen as giving poor service, it will be a strong incentive for the new competing service providers to offer better service.
Meanwhile, Satellic has produced this advice from its website, reproduced from its front page below to cover what appear to be all eventualities, except perhaps getting to a service point and there being insufficient OBUs or insufficient parking space for those queuing to get one:
You have an OBU
Couple your OBU to a vehicle in the Road User Portal. Install the OBU in your vehicle, switch it on and keep it on whilst driving in Belgium and abroad. If the OBU turns green you are ready to go! If the OBU shows a red light please check our Q&A section.
You don’t have an account - you don’t have an OBU
Go to a Service Point as soon as possible, create a fast-track account and get your OBU. Be sure to bring all the necessary vehicle papers.
You have an account - you have not registered a vehicle - you don’t have an OBU yet
Go to a Service Point as soon as possible to get an OBU. Bring the login and password for your account on the Road User Portal and all necessary vehicle papers. Log in to your existing account, complete your vehicle registration and get your OBU.
You have an account – you registered a vehicle – you don’t have an OBU yet
Go to a Service Point as soon as possible to get an OBU. Bring the login and password for your account on the Road User Portal. Login to your existing account and get an OBU.
You have an account – you registered a vehicle – you ordered an OBU but did not yet receive it
Go to a Service Point as soon as possible to get another OBU. Bring the login and password for your account on the Road User Portal and the necessary vehicle papers. Login to your existing account on the Road User Portal and re-register your vehicle. As a license plate number can only be registered once in one account, you need to register your license plate number in a different manner. For example: if you registered 1ABC123 you can re-register as follows 1-ABC-123 or 1.ABC.123 or 1 ABC 123.