Expressways: taking a toll

Expressways have drastically speeded up road travel in India, cutting journey times by hours. Prior to 2004, road journeys in India were long drawn-out affairs, with bottlenecks when the National Highways passed through cities and towns. By-pass roads built to avoid such traffic snarls stopped making a difference when the density of traffic increased.

Expressways changed all that, with vehicles whizzing past the countryside at unimaginable speeds. Combined with modern high-performance vehicles, the Indian traveller was all set for a brand new international-style highway experience. It was truly a dramatic change. Passengers and goods could now move across the country in an efficient manner, saving fuel and time. It was unimaginable to think that by-pass roads and ring roads were the epitome of time-saving ideas in India prior to the building of these new high-speed corridors.

But this fairytale has a very difficult, frustrating beginning and end - the congested toll plazas. The build-operate-transfer (BOT) option and design-fund-build-operate-transfer (DFBOT) were envisioned to be an efficient means of getting the job done without too much of a burden on the national exchequer. It seemed to be the best pathway for a smooth ride ahead.

But collecting toll to fuel the project has proved to be the biggest speed-breaker. Long lines of vehicles waiting at toll booths have become a common sight, sometimes up to a kilometre long. Holiday seasons, like at the year-end, are the worst.

Drivers and passengers fume with impatience as they have to wait for long periods, sometimes over an hour, before vehicles crawl forward, be manually ticketed and allowed to pass. Outside many major cities, entries in the evenings take much longer, with outstation travellers mingling with daily mofussil commuters. Tempers flare, and the joy of cruising effortlessly goes up in angry smoke.

One would think that a country with access to cutting-edge technology would have solved the issue with automated toll collection systems. The first ones were opened in 2013 between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, and many highways now have lanes which allow vehicles to whizz through. At least, that was the idea. Nearly five years should have been enough to make the system hassle-free and state-of-the-art, with many brilliant international models to learn from.

Instead, the hi-tech automatic toll-collection system is stuttering forward in fits and starts.

The electronic readers placed high above the reserved lanes sometimes do not work. When that happens, a manual electronic handheld reader, available as back-up at many toll plazas, is brought close to the vehicle's windscreen - they, too, sometimes work, and sometimes don't. Meanwhile, queues on the 'express automatic lane' get longer, as other hi-tech chip-embedded vehicles wait impatiently. Most of the time, the staff at the toll booths are flummoxed.

The permutations and combinations of this automated system failing are varied: sometimes, the money is shown electronically deducted from the commuter and displayed on the smartphone, but the boom barrier refuses to swing open. There are other variations of the technical glitches which need not delay us further.

Multiple complexities

Supervising the reserved lanes for automatic toll collection is another addition to these technical headaches. Lanes reserved for automatic toll collections are usually emptier, tempting drivers without electronic tags to swing into them.

Penalising such vehicles is close to impossible. Yes, there are large signs that prohibit non-tag holders from entering this hi-tech lane, and the penalty is two-and-a-half times the actual rate. But personnel on the spot are seldom able to enforce it. The flouter pleads ignorance, apologises or claims to be illiterate. Heated arguments follow. The line grows longer. Tempers grow shorter. Rather than risk further delays, the offender is let off with a warning and the normal fare collected.

There is a proposal planned by the central government to increase speeds on highways and expressways up to 120 kmph. It will mean nothing if the current chaotic toll collection system continues. The regular increase in tolls, sometimes by up to 18%, is another irritant for road-users. The period from the commencement of a project to the final transfer is planned across decades, and so also the collection of toll over this period (36 years of toll collection on the Yamuna Expressway, which will also see townships coming up as part of the plan), which the public is not made aware of.

The 2017-end holiday rush exposed the chaotic state of affairs at hundreds of toll plazas across the nation. The only way forward is installing automated toll booths and compulsorily fitting e-chips on vehicles on a war footing. A bare minimum of manned points could exist until vehicles have them fitted. Many automobile manufacturers are already having these chips factory installed for high-end products. They should be compulsorily factory-fitted on all automobiles and two-wheelers.

Until fully automated toll-collecting systems are in place, calling these roads 'expressways' is a joke. And the Indian dream of a smooth, effortless whizz-through experience remains a frustrating mirage.

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