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UK toll roads and congestion charges explained

For anyone driving in the UK, it’s important to know the rules of the road, especially when it comes to traffic charging schemes.

In the UK there are two such systems to be aware of: toll roads and congestion charges. While both will ultimately hit you in the pocket financially, it’s important to understand and differentiate between the two.

Here we’ve focused on the basics, so you’ll know what to look out for, covering everything from where you’ll find these roads to how to pay if you need to use them.

Understanding the difference

The concept of toll roads dates back hundreds of years, and it essentially acts as a tax designed to cover the costs of maintaining the road (and building it to start with, in some cases).

Congestion charges meanwhile are meant to deter drivers from entering a particular area, ultimately with an aim of reducing traffic volumes and queues, while providing a boost to the environment.

Two such zones exist in the UK, one in London and another in Durham. To boost air quality, an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) has also been introduced in the capital, which operates every hour of the year apart from on Christmas Day.

In order to drive in the ULEZ, the majority of vehicles must meet emission standards or pay a daily charge – currently, the zone covers central London, but it is expanding from late October 2021 so that the North Circular (A406) and South Circular (A205) will be the boundary.

Charges for vehicles that don’t meet the standards vary from £12.50 for cars and motorcycles up to £100 for larger ones such as lorries, coaches and buses. The government website enables you to check your vehicle to see what charges may apply.

The UK’s toll roads

In the UK there are 19 tolls across the road network, and they’re found on a range of routes, from major motorways to bridges, tunnels and minor roads. However, you won’t find toll roads in Scotland, as they were abolished there in 2008.

Here’s a little bit more information on the main toll roads found in the UK and what you’ll need to pay to use them:

The M6 toll

The two motorway tolls to be aware of are found on the M6 toll near Birmingham – a 27-mile route designed to help drivers avoid congestion on the main stretch of the motorway through the city – and at the Dartford Crossing on the M25.

Costs for the M6 toll vary depending on the size of the vehicle and can be paid using a credit, debit or fuel card, as well as via a pre-paid electronic device known as a M6toll TAG. A failure to pay the toll can result in a fine of up to £70.

m6 toll road signs

The M25 toll

The M25 toll applies to traffic using the tunnel to go northbound or the QE2 Bridge to go southbound between 6 am and 10 pm, with drivers, expected to either pay in advance or by midnight the day after using the crossing.

Automatic number plate recognition cameras track every vehicle, with drivers able to pay via the Dart Charge website, via their phone or by post.

A penalty charge of £70 is applied to those who fail to pay and it must be settled within 28 days, or it increases to £105. However, it can also be decreased to £35 with a swift payment.

What you need to know about other toll routes

Charges for the UK’s other toll roads vary, with costs often depending on the size of the vehicle, while a range of payment methods can be used including contactless cards and systems such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.

Some smaller routes may only accept cash, so it’s wise to check the government’s list of toll routes in advance if you know you’ll be driving close to one.

The London congestion charge zone

Introduced by then-London mayor Ken Livingstone in 2003, the congestion zone covers central London and is clearly signposted by a white ‘C’ on a red circular background.

It costs drivers £15 per day to drive in the zone between the hours of 7 am and 10 pm if they’ve paid in advance or on the day. After that, the figures increase to £17.50, to be paid by midnight on the third day after entering the zone.

The congestion zone is active every day of the year, apart from on Christmas Day when it is not enforced, and the easiest way to pay is via Transport for London’s AutoPay service. This costs £10 to set up initially and sees drivers billed automatically for every time they enter the congestion zone.

Penalty notices are sent to drivers who fail to pay within three days, although there are some exemptions, including for motorcycles and emergency service vehicles.

A failure to pay will hit your finances to the tune of £160, although it can be halved if paid within 14 days. However, if it’s not paid within 28 days, it rises further to £240.

congestion charge sign

Durham’s congestion zone

The Durham City congestion zone is considerably smaller than the one found in the capital and actually predates it by a matter of months.

Found near to both Durham Cathedral and Durham Castle, the zone on the Durham Peninsula costs £2 per day and is active between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm from Monday to Saturday, with automatic number plate recognition used to track vehicles.

The charges can be paid online, or by phone, and must be paid by 6 pm on the day you use the road network in Durham, with fines of £50 for those who don’t pay in time.

If a driver is registered disabled, is exempt from paying road tax, or is a Blue Badge holder, then they can apply for an exemption, while motorcycles and emergency service vehicles are among those who do not need to pay.

Planning your journey

There’s nothing worse than setting off on your journey and coming across an unexpected toll or find yourself in the middle of the congestion zone, so planning ahead is key!

If you’re looking to avoid paying the toll charge, you may need to find an alternative route or use public transport.

It’s often possible to select to avoid toll roads when using navigation systems, this makes it easier to find a different route, even though your journey may take longer. If you’re using an Ordnance Survey map, they will use a black line across the road, accompanied by the word ‘toll’ to help you identify them. 


Date Created: 31/08/2021

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