Germany's ill-fated attempt to launch a national distance-based charging system has collapsed.
In an announcement, on 17th February, Berlin announced the ending of the contract with Toll Collect for the provision of the long delayed, satellite-based system of lorry road user charging. The news is a severe blow not only to Toll Collect who have invested heavily in the development of the required technology but to German national pride.
The contract has been dogged by legal challenges, political arguments and challenges to the robustness of the technology concerned. After a string of delays, the German government began imposing a daily fine on the consortium at the beginning of November last year for each day that it failed to begin operations. Toll Collect had been given until the end of January to provide a definitive date for the commencement of the scheme. Just over two weeks after the deadline, following a fresh offer from the consortium proposing a further 28 month delay, the German government moved to cancel the contract.
In his statement, the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said his government had rejected the offer because it would have left the German government carrying the main burden of risk for the project.
"Toll Collect made an offer (which) was unacceptable." said Schroeder. "This did not fail due to politics. It failed because of technology."
The offer from Toll Collect would, according to German government sources, have resulted in lost revenues amounting to €6.5 million over the following 28 months. This was in addition to the €156 million per month loss for the final four months of last year and around €270 million so far this year.
The government appears determined to recoup some of its losses and has threatened to sue the consortium - made up of Deutsche Telekom, DaimlerChrysler and the French motorways operator Cofiroute - for a multi-million Euro figure.
Toll Collect has just two months to present new proposals to deal with the issues of damages and liability claims. Its initial offer of €500 million a year and a requirement that the government drops all damages and liability claims, was immediately dismissed as unacceptable.
Despite the bad-tempered nature of the outcome, the government has made it clear that it fully intends to explore the possibility of another satellite-based system of distance charging for trucks and will, moreover, consider any fresh proposals from Toll Collect but that "without substantial improvements (to their technology) no further talks (were possible)."
"We need a toll on heavy truck transportation on German autobahns," said Transport Minister Manfred Stolpe. In the meantime, he said, Germany would have to resort to the low-tech system of taxation stickers on trucks' windshields.
A spokeswoman for British Customs and Excise, who are in charge of progressing a similar scheme for the UK in 2006 said, "We are aware of the situation in Germany and have been following developments since 2003. We are trying to learn from their mistakes particularly as regards the supply chain and the technology. We expect our own suppliers to be alert to the problems encountered over there and will obvioulsy continue to look at the technologies not only in Germany but in Austria and in Switzerland as well. There are no plans to postpone the launch of the British distance-based scheme at the moment."