Friday, 26 December 2008

The problem

The real cost of the toll on Swinford bridge in Oxfordshire is far higher than 5p

The B4044 crosses the Thames half a mile outside Eynsham on a bridge built in 1769 at Swinford. A toll bridge. Motorists using it outside peak hours might think this toll-paying quirk of history quaint, but for those of us who have to use the bridge every morning, it's no joke.

Every car using the toll bridge crawls along (if you're lucky) in a slow-moving queue, and then stops to pass a measly 5p coin to the toll collector. Lorries, vans, trucks and buses pay more. Thousands of residents of west Oxfordshire work in Oxford and Abingdon have no choice but to use the toll bridge. According to Oxfordshire County Council, 10,000 vehicles a day use the bridge.

Since vast new estates have been built in nearby Witney the pressure on this route has reached crisis point. In the morning rush hour the queues run right back into Eynsham, a mile away.

If bridge users didn't have to stop pay that nonsensical toll, then the traffic could keep moving over the bridge - which is wide enough for two vehicles to pass. Yes, traffic would still be heavy but no one would actually have to stop. It's the stopping to pay the toll that causes the problems.

This campaign calls for tolls to be scrapped immediately on Swinford bridge. Here's why:

Waste of time
An average motorist using the bridge each working day wastes 6½ hours every month waiting to pay the 5p toll - virtually a whole working day. With 10,000 vehicles using the bridge every day, the time wasted must run into thousands of hours a week.
Collectively the costs of this pointless toll collection are massive. The needless waste of time by commuters must run into tens of thousands of lost hours a week.

If you're a bridge user, work out how many hours a month you spend in the queue. You’ll be horrified.

We pay our road tax. Why should those of us who use the bridge every working day pay an £25 extra a year on average? It is grossly unfair.

Highway robbery
5p per car. It's not a lot, but it all adds up. Now, in the 21st century, why are we bound by 18th century transport laws? How is it that a bridge on a busy route - 10,000 vehicles a day - is still privately owned and creaming in our cash? How is that not ‘highway robbery’? And still, most of us still say 'thank you' to the toll collectors. We must be mad!
A little maths OCC's estimate of 10,000 vehicles a day at 5p each (many vehicles pay more) works out at an average of £500 a day. Multiply that by 365 and you get more than £180,000 a year.

Waste of fuel
The daily traffic queues are not just a pointless traffic jam, they are thousands of idling engines, sometimes revving in low gear, or crawling along, wasting expensive, precious and dwindling fossil fuels. At a time of global economic crisis and with global warming a scientific fact, wasting fuel and money is a crime against the planet as well as sheer madness.

Environmental impact
All those engines idling, crawling slowly along wasting fuel create clouds of poisonous choking emissions. On hot, still summer days you can actually see the fumes as well as smell them. The upper Thames is a glorious natural space right on our doorstep, full of many different species of birds, mammals, fish, insects and plants. Why are we needlessly choking it with fumes just to pay a 5p toll to a private owner?

This beautiful Georgian bridge was built in the 18th century, a time before motor vehicles, when we had a much smaller population, when bridge users were on foot or horse drawn, when central government transport policy didn't exist in the way it does today. Why are we still bound by these antique laws today? Isn't it time to move on? Repeal that silly Act of Parliament which allows a private bridge owner to rake in a living from we held-to-ransom bridge users.

Bridge users have run out of patience. It’s time for Oxfordshire County Council to act now and get that toll scrapped.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Solving the problem

Toll collection at Swinford bridge causes many problems: time-wasting, unacceptable pollution, and an unfair extra local payment. It must be scrapped.

In an idea world, we'd all use the bus or bikes, but thousands cannot for very good reasons: such as they drive commercial vehicles; they carry children, animals or goods in their vehicles; or buses don't go to the place they need to. For all these people Oxfordshire County Council (OCC) must seriously start to consider the ways to solve the problems.

Here are some common sense ideas based on talking to other bridge-users and daily observations of the bridge daily since 1993. I don't mind how OCC choose to do it, just so long as the tolls are scrapped to allow traffic to move steadily and safely.

OCC should compulsorily purchase the bridge. The Act of Parliament (see below) which allows tolls to be collected doesn't mean tolls have to be collected.

However, if the problem is affording to purchase the bridge, tolls could be maintained temporarily. This could be for an agreed fixed period, say one year. The money raised would help pay for the purchase and necessary road improvements. It would effectively then be a temporary tax on those that use the bridge, which seems fair enough. After all if you want something you have to pay for it.

I'm convinced that most bridge users wouldn't mind if the toll was raised temporarily, on the condition that they we were promised that in the long-term tolls would be scrapped.

Steve Howell, Head of Transport at OCC recently said: "the County Council has looked into the proposal of purchasing the bridge and decided not to pursue this." Why not, Steve? Ten thousand bridge-users want to know!

Repeal or amend the Act of Parliament (AoP): “An Act for building a Bridge cross the River Thames, from Swinford, in the County of Berks, to Eynsham, in the County of Oxford”, 7 George III, c. 63. dated 1767 (Ref No HL/PO/PU/1/1767/7G3n22), which allows the bridge owner to collect tolls and makes the building of bridges across the river illegal for three miles either way up or down stream from Swinford.

Repealing or amending an AoP is not impossible. It was amended in 1994 to allow the owner to charge higher tolls, if you remember. Repeal it and the bridge owner can no longer charge tolls.

Easing the flow of traffic
Once the tolls are scrapped a number of things could happen to allow traffic to flow:

Build a short single lane road going east off the B4449 just north of the toll bridge roundabout by the allotments so that staff at the offices and workshops at Siemens/Magnets can get into work without getting tangled up in traffic going towards the bridge. Siemens may like to stump up some cash for this.

Install zero-tolerance speed cameras set to no higher than 20mph or possibly slower and slap in a couple of speed humps at either end of the bridge to ensure traffic crosses the newly toll-free bridge slowly but steadily. Speeding fines will help pay for the purchase of the bridge and necessary road improvements.

Impose width and weight restrictions. Not being a structural engineer I don't know what these should be but I suspect that 21st lorries should not be rattling over a glorious 240-year-old bridge constructed for horse-drawn vehicles.

Widen the internal carriageway by more than a foot - yes, there is room, I have seen it with my own eyes. A bus and a lorry can pass, albeit with caution. The extra width can be found by scrapping the silly and very dangerous pedestrian path from the bridge and then... a narrow bridge immediately next to the existing bridge for cyclists and pedestrians, just like the ones built in the 1990s alongside the bridge by St Frideswide's Church on Botley Road in Oxford. The new cycle/pedestrian bridge would follow exactly the line and contour of the toll bridge and fit sympathetically into its architectural style. Probably built of metal, it would be self supporting and would not interfere with the fabric of the toll bridge in any way.

And there must be lots of other practical, workable, safe ideas that promote steady flow of traffic.

Just don't give us traffic lights. There would be a riot!

Toll collection
And if the bridge is to remain a toll bridge until a 21st century solution can be found, then tolls must be collected more effectively to allow traffic to pass through steadily. As it is at the mo, some days I feel like handing the toll collector a tenner and saying: "Let the next 200 cars through gratis. My treat."

Automatic toll collection machines should be installed or electronic recognition equipment that scans a vehicle and bills the owner later. Or a prepay system that allows users to pay for say 500 crossings in one go, with a discount for bulk perhaps? Perhaps the present owner would consider installing these for us?

Allowing traffic to pass steadily across will reduce the emissions immediately to no more than any other road of comparable use.

Extra traffic
Anyone who says doing something will encourage more people to use the bridge ought to get real. This argument is designed to maintain the status quo and is inherently lazy and could even be perceived as even scare-mongering. The bridge is there to be used, for goodness sakes, and if it does encourage more people to use the bridge then their change of journey will have alleviated congestion elsewhere, won't it?

The bridge owner
OCC should compulsorily buy it from the owner for the greater good of the many bridge-users. A private owner should not be allowed to hold west Oxfordshire to ransom.

I don't know what the purchase price might be to compensate the owner, but I wonder if they'd like to compensate me for the time in my life they have stolen? Say x=95 minutes a week for y=16 years at say z=£25 per hour - you do the maths. Bridge-users: add your own figures for x, y and z.

Who pays?
At the moment we're paying in wasted time, in 5p coins and in the air we breathe. And any changes have to be paid for. Happily there are lots of creative ways of raising funds from central government, grants, trusts, donations, sponsorship, local individual fundraising and, as I have already suggested, temporary tolls. A combination of ways to raise the money should be thoroughly investigated.

The fairest way to raise the cash may be partly from bridge-users themselves using temporary tolls; after all, we're used to paying them. It might not be popular but it is fair, practical, predictable and - most of all - common sense.

Who can make it happen?
Ultimately, OCC's transport department is in charge. They need to understand that we bridge-users can tolerate no more nonsense and we want the toll bridge problem fixed, as part of the wider problem of transport in this area (the ancient Newbridge, the snarled up A40 and lack of river crossings generally). Perhaps they're working on it... If so perhaps they'd like to tell us?

Take action now!

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Take action

This website will not get those pesky tolls scrapped! We need to take action. All of us. In just 3 minutes you can sign this online petition and ask your friends, family and work colleagues to sign it, too.

And in just 15 minutes (the time it takes to queue up and cross the bridge on a good morning) you can write a letter. Write polite emails in your own words, giving your own reasons why you think the toll should be scrapped, to:To make it easier download these letter templates (Microsoft Word docs), add a little text of your own and then either email them or send hard copies. Addresses are included:
Letter to Councillor David Robertson
Letter to Steve Howell
Letter to David Cameron MP
Letter to Dr Evan Harris MP

David Cameron, and Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat (Oxford West and Abingdon) are the MPs whose constituencies lie on each side of the bridge.

Posters and leaflets
Use these posters and leaflets (pdfs) to tell other people about this campaign:
A4 poster - put it in your window or on a noticeboard at work, if you work for a local business
Long thin banner - for the back window of your car
A4 information flyer - read more about this campaign then pass it on to someone else
A6 information flyer - (prints 4 on a sheet of A4) to give out to other people

Write to others
If you want to write to (or cc your letters to) other elected representatives find out who they are here. These people are in office to serve us, remember. Write to parish councillors, district councillors, county councillors, Lords, whoever you can think of who may have influence. Be polite and persuasive.

What else you can do
You can also email me and volunteer a bit of practical help and support for the time when we’ll need to start leafleting cars.

Web banner
scrap the toll at Swinford
Just copy the code in 'properties'.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Media and press

NBC Nightly News movie clip - 8 December 2009:

ZDF German TV news: video - starts 11mins 10secs into the programme 8 December 2009
ARD German TV news: video 5 December 2009
The Times online 4 December 2009
The Independent 4 December 2009
Gulf Daily News, Bahrain 4 December 2009
The Telegraph 3 December 2009
ABC News, Australia 3 December 2009
Sky news, includes video 3 December 2009
BBC video 3 December 2009
BBC TV News 3 December 2009
The Oxford Mail 3 December 2009
AFP with apres-sale reaction 3 December 2009
Daily Mail 3 December 2009
AFP on Google news 2 December 2009
BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme - scroll down to 0851 2 December 2009
from AP newswire, 18 November 2009: The Straits Times, Singapore, Press of Atlantic City, The Times of India and many more if you 'google' it
BBC website video/audio 17 November 2009
BBC website 17 November 2009
The Guardian property 17 November 2009
Sky News 17 November 2009
The Sunday Times website 15 November 2009

Pictured above: page 3 of The Sunday Times, 15 November 2009

The Mail on Sunday website 7 June 2009
The Oxford Times website 15 May 2009
Witney Gazette website 14 May 2009
Oxford Mail website 14 May 2009

Pictured above: page 7 of The Oxford Mail, 14 May 2009
LISTEN >> BBC Radio Oxford news report 13 May 2009
BBC news website 13 May 2009
Filming for BBC TV's 'Country Tracks' programme 30 April 2009

Above: filming for BBC TV's 'Country Tracks'

Oxford Mail 29 May 2006
Witney Gazette 26 April 2006
Oxford Mail 26 April 2006

Being filmed for BBC South Today talking about the problems caused by toll collection, April 2006

Information for journalists
Email me jane(AT SYMBOL) now for comment.

How it all began

I came to hate the tolls on the Swinford bridge in west Oxfordshire after prolonged and repeated aggravation.

For 13 years I used the bridge first as a car driver, then as a bus passenger when in March 2006 roadworks elsewhere in Oxfordshire forced hundreds of road users to divert over the already over-used toll bridge at Swinford heaping more traffic misery onto existing traffic misery. Vehicles were queuing for more than an hour to pay the toll to cross the bridge.

I couldn’t stand it. I moaned a lot to my husband - who works from home. I ranted on my website and then I raged some more. I seemed to be the only one publicly ranting. And I kept ranting because I wanted to rant on behalf of thousands of others.

I realised I'd started a campaign. Then I bought a motorbike.

Facts about the bridge

  • The bridge was opened 1769.
  • Paid for by the Earl of Abingdon, the bridge is made of local stone in the Georgian style to replace a pre-existing ferry.
  • It crosses the Thames between Eynsham and Farmoor on B4044 in west Oxfordshire.
  • Oxfordshire County Council estimates that 10,000 motor vehicles use the bridge every day.
  • The current toll is 5p for cars, 12p for single decker buses, 20p for double decker buses, 10p for vehicles towing caravans or trailers, and 10p an axle for lorries. The tolls were raised in 1994 from 2p for cars.
  • An Act of Parliament, An Act for building a Bridge cross the River Thames, from Swinford, in the County of Berks, to Eynsham, in the County of Oxford, 7 George III, c. 63. dated 1767 (Ref No HL/PO/PU/1/1767/7G3n22) allows the bridge owner to collect a toll. It prevents any other river crossing to be constructed for three miles in either direction.
  • The owners do not pay tax on the revenue they collect from the tolls, a perk granted by King George III in the Act of Parliament.
  • An online poll in 2006 on the Witney Gazette website showed that 87.5% of voters want the toll scrapped.
  • The bridge is in the constituency of David Cameron MP (Conservative), Leader of the Opposition.
  • The last time the bridge came up for sale in 1985 the Oxfordshire County Council failed to buy the bridge by acting too slowly.

Have your say

UPDATE: Since the auction of the bridge to a new private owner on 3 December 2009, this website is no longer accepting comments.

The bridge is not publicly owned by Oxfordshire County Council for the benefit of local users and that's that. To frustrated bridge-users: I did my best, but I can do no more. I strongly suggest you consider getting a small motorcycle. It's cheap and economical, you don't have to pay the toll or queue and above all it's great fun!

Commenting rules
Due to previous incidences of cowardly, anonymous hate mail I reserve the right to moderate all comments. Please use your real name when making comments; people remaining anonymous or hiding behind pseudonyms are not welcome and may be treated with contempt.


'Awww, it's only 5p, what about the tradition?'

When logic, reason and evidence fail to convince, have you ever noticed that people reach for the old tradition argument to defend the indefensible? It's a cop out.

Lots of things that were once traditional have been abandoned because times change, things move on, people think differently and there are new technological innovations.

It was once a fine old tradition to dunk witches in ponds or bait bears. But thankfully we've moved on. More recently Routemaster buses and the supersonic aircraft Concorde were made redundant - two classy pieces of engineering, I'm sure you'll agree, but no long fit for purpose. Our ability to adapt, be flexible, move on and assimilate new ideas is the very thing that makes humanity what it is.

When something is functionally outdated we look for something to replace it and remember the prototype fondly. Tradition has its place and should be respected but that doesn't mean it should get in the way of people getting on with their lives right now in the 21st century. For traffic using the Swinford Bridge times have changed since 1769. And it's now time to get rid of those silly tolls.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Other tolls

As well as modern tolls, such as London's congestion charge and the new M6 toll road, the UK still has a number of ancient tolls.

Oxfordshire is unlucky enough to be blighted with two toll bridges: one which is the subject of this website; and, at the other end of the county, the Whitchurch Bridge. A campaign to resist the proposed toll increases on that bridge has received much press attention. Swinford Bridge users are urged to support their fellow toll-sufferers.


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Scrap the toll campaign needs you. This website is only a start and we've all wasted enough time in those infernal queues. Will you write letters, sign the petition, and ask your friends to sign the petition? Will you actively help in a roadside leafleting of cars? If you can help, please do. This website alone will not make the changes happen we want to see.

Email jane(AT SYMBOL) or leave your comments here.

Information for the media
Email me jane(AT SYMBOL) now for comment and opinion.

What people are saying

In support of scrapping the tolls

Martin Salter MP:
"The Thames toll bridges like the one at Swinford belong in a bygone age. They cause huge traffic delays which generate pollution from exhaust fumes and should be abolished on environmental grounds alone."

Paul Mills
"I live in Witney and commute to Oxford every day. I am sick of paying for the privilege of sitting in a jam every day. Everybody who uses the bridge is of the same opinion - the toll needs to be stopped."

David Cameron MP:
"I can see the case for scrapping the toll. I have made a number of contacts with the County Council and will help in any way I can. It's a difficult and complicated situation. I use the bridge myself and sympathise with people frustrated by the delays."

Councillor Charles Mathew:
"I believe the rush hour situations will only get worse and that OCC needs to grasp the bullet. There are a number of alternatives which require consideration in depth – from a new parallel bridge to season tickets for locals (like oyster cards) or a buy out – to name a few."

For keeping the tolls

Polly I:
"I like the toll bridge. It's part of our heritage and only becomes a problem when large vehicles behave like nobs and won't give way to each other. 5p is not a big deal ... It provides employment for the sort of people who don't easily find jobs elsewhere. My advice to you is to move out of Eynsham. Perhaps you could try living on the Botley Road."

John B:
"As a visitor to Oxfordshire, I came across the Toll Bridge by accident. I took the back roads deliberately to see the countryside and stopping at the little Toll Bridge and paying my 5p added pleasure to the journey. We English are a nation of eccentrics and little things like this must be preserved for posterity. It's what makes living in England so endearing."