Moving Congestion Charge Technologies Proves No Easy Exercise

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Inanimate objects have a mind of their own and they are out to get you. You can guarantee that as soon the estate agent puts up his “For Sale” board in your garden that light bulbs will go pop, taps will leak and hitherto dormant heating pipes will clang and clank like a demented prisoner boarded up under your floor boards.

Never mention the words “trade in for a new model” in front of your car (or for that matter your partner) as it/they will immediately sulk – tyres will go soft, fan belts slip, toast will be unbuttered and coffee unsugared. In fact most systems to ensure your comfort and well being will cease to function at the turn of a key/ snap of your fingers. I know this because in a moment of weakness I just happened to e-mail JB, at the end of December, telling him that I was upgrading my computer for a new all whistles and bells model and transferring all my
files across – hence the prolonged silence that has followed.

Unfortunately it appears that its not just the transfer of laptop systems that can cause problems. TfL have been going through a similar situation, transferring data from the old to the new Congestion Charge Management Systems.

In October 2009 TfL transferred data on the London Congestion Charge from Capita systems to their new contractor IBM. IBM’s takeover of the operation of the congestion charging scheme included an upgrade of the computer systems, which will save TfL £200m over the life of the current business plan.

At first sight the transfer went well but it soon became apparent that some registered users were unable to pay their charges. A TfL spokeswoman said at the time that:

The problem was sorted out by the afternoon. “Nobody [in the group affected] will be penalised. Another reason it is not a big issue is that charges can be paid the day after. We apologise for the problems that some customers may have experienced in accessing the Congestion Charge online payment accounts. These were resolved and all of the new IBM systems are up and running as they should be.

Currently, however, there do still appear to be problems. Gareth Roberts writing in Fleet News reports that:

Transport for London (TfL) has confirmed that fleets with vehicles registered for the London congestion charge discount scheme have been experiencing major problems with a new computer system since November. It could not confirm how many fleets have been affected, although a Fleet News poll revealed that 85% of fleet managers who responded said they had experienced problems with the new system introduced by IBM after it took over running the congestion charge from Capita.

Fleets have been plagued by issues ranging from overcharging to having vehicles taken off the system by mistake.

TfL has apologised. “We are very sorry. We have had some initial teething problems,” conceded Paul Cowperthwaite, head of contracted services, congestion charging and traffic enforcement. “However, they are all now virtually resolved.”

The 5,400 fleets who have over 21,000 vehicles registered under the scheme pay £7 – rather than the usual £8 – a day congestion charge per vehicle.

Fleet News had reported last December that fleet users were facing increased administrative burdens as a result of the new system. But now more serious problems have come to light.

Iain Packman, fleet administration officer for Carleton Furniture Group, said: “The direct debit is not collected, vehicles are charged twice on same day and vehicles are not renewed.”

TfL said some issues were expected as this one of the largest IT projects in the country last year.

“With a project of that scale there were some teething issues, they have now been worked through and are being resolved,” said Cowperthwaite.

One of the most serious issues is vehicles being taken off the system without fleet managers’ knowledge leading to fines being issued for non-payment.

One fleet manager told us: “The system expired an active vehicle then fined us for 22 days entry in to zone!”

TfL concede that some penalty charge notices (PCNs) were sent by mistake and is now promising that these will be cancelled.

“We have had some issue with data that was migrated across from Capita – there was a field that wasn’t populated so those vehicles came off their accounts,” said Cowperthwaite.

“We have been able to identify those accounts and anybody who has received a PCN incorrectly – that PCN is now being cancelled.”

Some fleet managers also fear their companies may have been overcharged by the new system.

“We have had hundreds of pounds of charges come through for my regular cars. I have had to contact them several times to get the charges removed, and my vehicles added back onto my fleet listing as the new system put some of my vehicles as expired,” one fleet manager said.

However TfL said no fleets have been overcharged, blaming a software error for the confusion.
“When the systems were put together the statements did not show the date of travel, but rather a processing date, so it would appear that vehicles were being overcharged. Now fleets will see the date of travel. This was an error and we apologise for this.”

But the problems go on: Yvonne Hannan, fleet managers at T&P Fire Ltd said:

“I was sent a fine for not paying the congestion charge, but when I checked the date on the company’s credit card statement, a payment had been made.

How many people have charged with fines when they should not have been not realised and paid it?”

Another fleet manager bemoaned the lengthy process of registering vehicles, especially hire and lease vehicles.

TfL blames “overzealous” new staff for demanding paper trail evidence before registering fleet vehicles.

“We haven’t introduced extra checks – the processes have always been there,” said Cowperthwaite. “But some of the new staff interpreted some instructions too literally.”

This resulted in some fleets being told that they had to send in all paperwork for their vehicles – including lease agreements.

“That is not happening now – definitely not. Extra training of staff has resolved this.” However, checks will still be carried out, he stressed.

“The terms and conditions for fleet accounts require that a vehicle is used solely for the business and we validate that through a check back to the DVLA,” Mr Cowperthwaite said, “If those vehicles come through as registered to a rental company then they have a pending status and we will then do an additional check. But generally we do not require lease or hire agreement
documents. It is treated on a case-by-case basis.”

Ann Dukanovic fleet manager Kaba Door Systems said there are other administrative burdens created by the new system: “Invoicing has been atrocious. Missed a month, plus you still cannot download the statement! So to run month-end accounts you have to laboriously type in every line off the invoice.”

There are also issues with the system failing to export the accounts in a format that fleet managers can use.

David Carter, fleet controller at Saint Gobain Building Distribution said he is unable to download a workable spreadsheet. “It’s all in a pdf file – we need a .csv or .xlsl file to reconcile our account and recharge internally. This is definitely a step backwards.”

Leigh Stiff, fleet manager at Hannaford said: “I have noticed that some of our vehicle registration numbers have been uploaded or input incorrectly. For a system that is supposed to make things easier, I still cannot access any statements after the 10/10/2009, which is quite frustrating.”

TfL assured users that these accounting and administrative issues were now being resolved, with the final piece in the jigsaw – the ability to export a .csv file – to be available for fleets within weeks. “This is one of the areas where we will soon have a new file for users to download; it will be available very shortly – by the end of January.”

Written by Mwmbwls