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London gets technical. 4/3/04
Transport for London is to be begin trials of new technology designed to replace the existing system of congestion charging.

Three different tracking technologies are to be researched; they include satellite-based systems using an on-board unit, an in-vehicle tag triggered by wireless communication with roadside equipment and cellular telephone technology. The trials are intended to inform the development of the existing scheme in so far as it is necessary to move from a paper-based system of payment to a fully automatic system.

Concerns about the ability of tracking systems to work in the urban environment, coupled with a recognition of the government's long-term interest in a national road-user charging system are also known to be driving the current programme.

"I know outside the urban environment," said Michele Dix, Director of London's congestion charging scheme, "people are very confident that technology is not the constraint but we have to understand if technology is the constraint in a built-up urban environment."

A small number of vehicles are currently being fitted with the three types of tracking technology and will be used to test the systems in inner and outer London areas. Whatever system is finally chosen, Dix made it clear that it would need to be highly accurate, reliable and environmentally friendly.

"We can't have overhead gantries that would be unacceptable," she said.

The trials are expected to be conducted in three stages with the first stage ending in the spring of this year. At the same time TfL is also testing digital camera technology with a view to it replacing the existing analogue devices.

In a separate development, TfL has advertised for a contingency replacement for Capita, the company currently responsible for the provision of the enforcement services of the congestion scheme. Any replacement of the company would take over some, but not all, of Capita's present functions. Relations between Capita and TfL have not always been good. In the months following the launch of the scheme in February 2003, the Mayor was known to be actively considering removing the company from its responsibilities on the grounds of alleged under-performance. A few months later, an amendment to the original contract substantially increased the amount of money going to Capita along with the caveat that the payment was to be performance related. The earliest a new provider could be appointed would be in the spring of 2005.

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