A few weeks ago, when Road Transport & Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari launched an electronic toll-collection system on the Delhi-Mumbai highway, television channels reported live from toll plazas showing vehicles with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in dedicated lanes that did not have to stop for paying cash.
But a visit to a few toll plazas on National Highway 8 shows the e-toll is yet to take off.
Kherki Daula, the first toll gate from Delhi on the highway to Mumbai, has separate lanes marked 'FASTag', with the e-toll system installed. But supply of radio frequency identification cards for vehicles has not yet begun, says an executive with Millennium City Expressways, concessionaire for the Delhi-Gurgaon expressway.
"We have completed trials and the software has been installed till Jaipur. But ICICI Bank is yet to start selling tags. We expect the service to begin soon," he adds. Around 60,000 vehicles cross the Kherki Daula toll plaza daily; of these, 14,000 have RFID tags issued by Millennium City Expressways since September. These work as monthly passes.
Another 80 km down, the Shahjahanpur toll plaza in Rajasthan also has dedicated FASTag lanes, but no service. Neither the management nor commuters has information on the e-toll facility and when it will start.
Khaniwade, the first toll point from Mumbai, does not have the system installed. But a new toll gate is being built four km ahead. "Once completed, our system will be like those in the West," says an employee at the new gate. Sensors and cables are being installed and the gate will be ready in three months.
The next toll point, 40 km ahead at Charoti, has a single lane for the e-toll service. All vehicles using it are paying cash. "We are informing passengers about the new system but the response is tepid. Only a few ask us about electronic tolling when they see the board," an employee says. Trucks have started using the RFID tags, as have most vehicles passing at night. "Rather than we creating awareness, banks should inform their customers about the facility," another employee says.
Drivers are mostly ignorant about the new smart toll system. "It would help if electronic toll services are available in Mumbai. We have to spend at least 15 minutes at the toll gates at Vashi and Kalyan during peak hours. This system will be more useful in the city than on highways," says a driver on his way to Ahmedabad.
So far, e-toll gear has been installed at 55 toll plazas. Integration with clearing house operators on the Delhi-Mumbai highway is almost complete.
A pilot project for an interoperable e-toll system on 10 plazas between Mumbai and Ahmedabad has also been tested.
An official from the transport ministry says the system will be available on all national highway toll plazas by December. "The process is on, and the service will soon start at all toll plazas."
A dedicated lane marked FASTag will be available at every toll plaza. These lanes will have a distinct colour. The government plans to make the service available at all 350 toll plazas on national highways by the end of this year.
Electronic gear installed in FASTag lanes will detect RFID tags on vehicles and send the data to a server that will deduct the toll from the tag owner's bank account. The idea is to reduce congestion at toll gates and curb malpractice.
Some highway operators now offer tag lanes, but the tags can only be used at designated points and can only be bought at toll plazas. Former transport minister C P Joshi had inaugurated the first interoperable RFID-based electronic toll-collection system at Charoti in April last year.
Indian Highways Management Company, which has equity participation from the National Highways Authority of India (25 per cent), concessionaires (50 per cent) and financial institutions (25 per cent), has tied up with Axis Bank and ICICI Bank for clearing house services and for selling RFID tags near toll plazas.
The government has also amended the Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989, for installing RFID tags in vehicles.