Monday, 4 April 2016

Belgium's Viapass truck toll is in operation, but problems persist

Belgium has the world's newest national distance based road user charging system, but as I posted on Thursday, it hasn't been without teething problems which are not yet behind it.  Flanders News reported on a "chaotic start".

I summarised the scheme in February, which charges main highways and parallel roads in Flanders and Wallonia, and all roads in Brussels as seen in the maps (with charge rates in Euro) below.
Belgium's charged RUC Network

The problems last week appeared to be a mix of a small number of dysfunctional OBUs, delays in delivering OBUs to users and delays in responding to queries by phone or online.   Viapass claims 135,000 users have been successfully registered and are paying the toll, but the contract with Satellic was to get 700,000 trucks signed up.  Long queues emerged on Friday as foreign trucks, especially from the Netherlands queued up at service centres to obtain OBUs, with much congestion.  OBUs were meant to be available from automatic  dispensing machines, which were quickly exhausted and not resupplied. Another report on Saturday indicated some technical problems with the system.

Metro Belgium reports (Flemish) that the Walloon transport Minister demanded an urgent meeting of the Viapass board. The report notes Viapass saying it did warn not to wait until the last day to get OBUs and that it had embarked on a major campaign of publicity months ago, including writing to 60,000 operators.    Le Soir reports (French) that the Viapass board had the urgent meeting, but said the system had worked well, except for queues at borders and said that Satellic needed to improve performance to meet its contractual obligations.   Some reports indicate that one problem was the efforts by the TLN to get the introduction of the system delayed may have encouraged Dutch operators to not get accounts and OBUs in time.

HLN (Flemish) reports that Viapass (the company set  up jointly by the Flemish, Walloon and Brussels governments to manage the RUC scheme) has told Satellic to improve its performance.  Two roads were blocked in Wallonia out of protest, with particular problems at border crossings with the Netherlands (which are typically free flow since border control was removed many years ago).   Via pass called for quicker response time, for OBU dispensing machines to be constantly replenished and for a maximum two days waiting time for faulty OBU's to be replaced by post, or immediately at service centres.

Meanwhile, Metro Belgium reports that the Flemish Transport Minister does not understand the delay, given there have been "months" for truck operators to get ready, and notes the German system had problems when it started (although I would have thought after 10 years some lessons would have been learned)!

Requests to delay introduction of the system were refused by Flemish and Walloon transport Ministers, but RTL reported (French) on Saturday planned protests against the charge.

I suspect things will settle down in the coming days, as OBUs get delivered and delays ease at service centres, meanwhile it will be interesting to see if stories of what may be seen as "unfair" enforcement emerge.   What the Belgian experience shows is that you may not be able to do too much publicity in advance of such a change, and that the way the publicity is undertaken may need to be improved elsewhere.  Although availability of accounts and OBUs stretches back into late last year, the urgency has not been clear to many operators, particularly foreign ones.  Perhaps financial incentives for early take-up could have been made available (e.g. a discount for a month or two, or credits to accounts based on the deposit).  However, most important is to provide the capacity to cope with last minute rushes at service centres and call centres.   I'm a little surprised at the problems, given how many other systems have been launched, with some of the same issues emerging years ago.  As the next country likely to deploy distance based truck road user charging looks likely to be Slovenia, I hope it can learn from the Belgian experience.

Meanwhile, Satellic has a strong incentive to get things right this week, it is getting paid enough to do so in any case.

Interesting, on Friday Viapass announced that Axxès, a French toll service provider, has been certified as the first new service provider for the system, competing with Satellic.   Viapass has said it passed the certification tests for accuracy and communications. Axxès operates in France, Spain and Portugal, so this is its first venture into deployment of GNSS based distance charging.   Does this mean some of the dissatisfied future users may choose Axxès over Satellic?

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