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Dartford Crossing
Dartford Crossing - - 1194694.jpg
Aerial view of the crossing looking northwards. The toll booths were replaced by electronic charging barriers in 2014.
General information
Type 2 tunnels
1 cable-stayed bridge
Location Dartford, Kent
Thurrock, Essex
Coordinates 51°27′53″N 0°15′31″E / 51.46472°N 0.25861°E / 51.46472; 0.25861
Opened November 1963 (western tunnel)
May 1980 (eastern tunnel)
October 1991 (bridge)
Height 61 metres (200 ft) (bridge deck)
137 metres (449 ft) (bridge tower)

The Dartford-Thurrock River Crossing, commonly known as the Dartford Crossing and until 1991 the Dartford Tunnel, is a major road crossing of the River Thames in England, carrying the A282 road between Dartford in Kent in the south and Thurrock in Essex in the north. It consists of two bored tunnels and the cable-stayed Queen Elizabeth II Bridge. The only fixed road crossing of the Thames east of Greater London, it is the busiest estuarial crossing in the United Kingdom, with an average daily use of over 130,000 vehicles. It opened in stages: the west tunnel in 1963, the east tunnel in 1980 and the bridge in 1991. The crossing, although not officially designated a motorway, is considered part of the M25 motorway's route, using the tunnels northbound and bridge southbound. Described as one of the most important road crossings in Britain, it suffers from heavy traffic and congestion.

The crossing's development started in the late 1930s, but was interrupted due to the Second World War and resumed in the 1950s. The original tunnel catered for a single lane of traffic in each direction, but rising traffic levels required the second tunnel to be built. The M25 connected to the tunnels at both ends when completed in 1986, and this increased traffic put pressure on the tunnels' capacity. A Private Finance Initiative scheme was started in 1988 to build the bridge. The combined crossing now handles four lanes of traffic in each direction.

The crossing has always been tolled, and though the cost of construction has since been paid back, the toll was retained, and rebranded as a congestion pricing scheme from 1 April 2003. Since 2008 it has been free from 10 pm to 6 am. An automatic number plate recognition charging scheme named the "Dart Charge" began in November 2014. As a result, the booths on the Kent side were removed and the charge is now only payable online, by post, or in certain participating retail outlets. A residents' scheme is available, offering discounts for people living near the crossing.


The crossing spans the River Thames between Dartford, Kent, to the south and Thurrock, Essex, to the north. It is about 20 miles (32 km) east of the centre of London, outside the Greater London boundary. The two tunnels are 1,430 metres (4,690 ft) long, while the cable-stayed bridge is 137 metres (449 ft) high with a main span of 450 metres (1,480 ft). A 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) speed limit is in place in both directions. The high-speed rail line High Speed 1 from St Pancras International Station to Ebbsfleet International Station passes under the crossing approach roads on the north side of the river, at a near right angle.

The design capacity is 135,000 vehicles per day, but in practice the crossing carries around 160,000. It has been described by the Highways Agency as "a vital transport link for the national and South East economies", by the former Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, as "a crucial part of the country’s strategic road network", and by the local Thurrock Council as "one of Europe's most heavily used crossings and complex traffic management systems". It is signed as a major destination on London's orbital route, the M25, though the crossing and its approach road are an all-purpose road (the A282), allowing traffic prohibited from motorways to use it. Southbound traffic crosses the four-lane bridge, while northbound traffic uses both of the two-lane road tunnels. The bridge can be closed due to high winds or maintenance. On these occasions, traffic uses the tunnels in both directions.

Alternative routes

The next nearest vehicle crossings to the west of Dartford are the Woolwich Ferry and the Blackwall Tunnel, both well within East London. There is no official diversion route through London for high vehicles. When the bridge is closed, vehicles over 5.03 metres (16.5 ft) are diverted around the M25 in the opposite direction.

A number of new crossings have been proposed as relief for the Dartford Crossing. The proposed Thames Gateway Bridge to the west was given planning permission by Transport for London (TfL) in December 2004, but was cancelled in November 2008 when Boris Johnson became Mayor of London. Johnson subsequently proposed the Gallions Reach Ferry, a ferry crossing in the same location, as an alternative. The Lower Thames Crossing is a proposed tunnel to the east. Thurrock Council suggest that this crossing will be essential for managing congestion. In July 2014, the government announced it would develop further plans for an alternative route. Option A is an additional crossing at the current location, while option C is a new crossing east of Gravesend. A public consultation on the schemes ended in March 2016, with a decision by Highways England expected later in the year, though they do not expect to start construction before 2026.


Dartford Crossing Tolls - - 169071
Overhead view of the crossing looking northbound. The toll booths were replaced by electronic charging barriers in 2014.

A free-flow electronic charging system called Dart Charge began in November 2014 based on automatic number plate recognition. The charge can be paid online or phone in advance or by midnight the day after crossing, but can no longer be paid in cash since the old toll booths have been removed. Reminder signs on approaches to the crossing say "Dart charge; find us online. Pay by midnight tomorrow." Charges run between 6 am and 10 pm and this is indicated on overhead-gantry signs. The charges for the crossing as of November 2014 are as follows:

Vehicle class Day charges – Pay-as-you-go Day charges – Pre-paid accounts
Motorcycles Free Free
Cars £2.50 £1.67
2 axle goods £3.00 £2.63
Multi axle goods £6.00 £5.19

Various categories of vehicles are exempt from the charge, including emergency services vehicles, military vehicles and those exempt from Vehicle Excise Duty on the grounds of disability.

The charges vary according to the type of vehicle. Motorcycles are free but there are standard charges for cars, two-axle goods vehicles and larger vehicles with more than two axles. Drivers who fail to pay the charge are issued with a penalty charge notice. There are no signs warning of penalty charges.

Since 2008, a local residents' scheme gives 50 free crossings to car drivers resident in the Dartford and Thurrock council areas for an annual registration fee of £10, with additional crossings at 20p each. On 1 March 2014, this scheme was extended to include privately owned two-axle goods vehicles. A further option was introduced giving unlimited free crossings for £20 annually. Around 44,000 drivers take advantage of this scheme each year.


Western tunnel

Dartford crossing approach
Northbound vehicles approaching the entrance to the western tunnel, with the bridge in the background

The idea of a tunnel crossing was first proposed by the Ministry of Transport in 1924. Initial reports at the start of the year suggested a crossing between Tilbury and Gravesend, replacing a ferry service, but this had been rejected by July in favour of a route further upstream, near Dartford. By 1929, the total cost of building the tunnel had been estimated at £3 million (now £131 million). The tunnel was planned to be part of a general orbital route around London and was provisionally known as part of the "South Orbital Road".

The first engineering work to take place was a compressed air driven pilot tunnel, which was drilled between 1936 and 1938. Work on the tunnel was delayed due to World War II, and resumed in 1959, using a Greathead Shield, similar to the work on the Blackwall Tunnel some 60 years earlier. The delay in work due to the war allowed the tunnel's design to be improved, which included a better ventilation system. After negotiations with the Ministry of Transport, Kent and Essex County Councils successfully levied a toll on the tunnel before it opened in 1960. The two-lane bore tunnel opened to traffic on 18 November 1963; the total project cost was £13 million (now £196 million) and it initially served approximately 12,000 vehicles per day.

The toll was originally two shillings and sixpence, equivalent to 12.5p post-decimalisation, and approximately equivalent in purchasing power to £2.00 in 2021. The Dartford Tunnel Act 1967 gave Kent and Essex County Councils authority to change the tolls, and in December 1977, the toll was raised from 25p to 35p for cars, 40p to 55p for 2 axle goods vehicles, and 60p to 85p for HGVs. By 1984, the toll for cars had risen to 60p.

Eastern tunnel

Dartford Tunnel Ventilation Shaft - - 4416
A ventilation shaft to the north of the east tunnel

The first tunnel was expected to carry two million vehicles a year but by 1970 was carrying over eight million. That year, Michael Heseltine, then a junior transport minister, announced that a second tunnel would be built in conjunction with the North Orbital Road, later to become the M25.

Construction was approved in April 1971, with an initial expected opening date in 1976. Work was delayed due to a lack of funds, which was resolved by EEC funding granted in 1974. The second tunnel opened in May 1980, allowing each tunnel to handle one direction of traffic, by which time the joint capacity of the two tunnels had increased to 65,000 vehicles per day. Connection of the crossing to the M25 was completed on the northerly Essex side in September 1982 (Junction 31), and to the southerly Kent side in September 1986 (Junction 1a). Following the completion of the M25 in 1986, the daily demand had grown to 79,000 vehicles.

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge

Queen Elizabeth II Bridge - - 122668
Each tower on the Queen Elizabeth II bridge is 137 metres (449 ft) high.

During the early 1980s, it was anticipated that traffic through the tunnel would rise on the completion of the M25 in 1986. At the time, the expectation was that other routes in London would be improved instead, diverting 15% of traffic away from the tunnel. In 1985, the Transport Minister, Lynda Chalker, announced that the number of toll booths would be increased to 12 each way, but concern grew that two tunnels would not be able to cope with the full demands of a completed M25.

Between September 1985 and December 1986, proposals for improvements to the Dartford Crossing underwent several changes, and in 1986, a Trafalgar House consortium won a bid to build a new bridge at Dartford crossing, valued at £86 million (now £182 million). At the time there were several other privately financed projects planned or under construction in the UK, including the Second Severn Crossing. From 1981 until the establishment of the Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) in the late 1980s, private investment projects were governed by the Ryrie Rules which dictated that "any privately-financed solution must be shown to be more cost-effective than a publicly-financed alternative, and that privately-financed expenditure by nationalised industries could not be additional to public expenditure provision, which would be reduced by the amount of private financed borrowed."

On 31 July 1988, a Private Finance Initiative concession was enabled under the Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Act 1988, which transferred control of the crossing from Kent and Essex county councils to Dartford River Crossing Limited, a private company managed by Rodney Jones. The company would also bear the debt of the bridge, then under construction, "financed 100% by debt, with no equity contribution". The private company was at risk of not recuperating their costs, but ultimately the Dartford scheme demonstrated that the Ryrie Rules were no longer a barrier to the private financing of public infrastructure projects. The concession was scheduled for 20 years from the transfer date, with a stipulation that it could end when debts had been paid off, which was agreed to have been achieved on 31 March 2002. According to the International Handbook on Public-Private Partnership, the chief financing for the project came from a "20-year subordinated loan stock, 16-year loan stock and £85 million [now £164 million] as a term loan from banks".

Construction of bridge started immediately after the creation of the PFI in 1988. It was designed by German civil engineer Hellmut Homberg [de], and the two main caissons supporting the bridge piers were constructed in the Netherlands. Each caisson was designed to withstand a bridge strike of a ship weighing up to 65,000 tonnes and travelling up to 18.5 kilometres per hour (11.5 mph) The bridge deck is about 61 metres (200 ft) high, and it took a team of around 56 to assemble its structure. During construction of the approach road, a World War II bomb was found in its path, which required closure of the entire crossing.

The bridge was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 30 October 1991. The total cost of construction was £120 million (£197 million as of 2021), including £30 million (now £46 million) for the approach roads. The proposed name had been simply the Dartford Bridge, but Thurrock residents objected and suggested the Tilbury Bridge, leading to a compromise. At the time of opening, it had the longest cable-stayed span of any bridge in Europe. It is the only bridge across the Thames downstream of Central London to be opened since Tower Bridge in 1894.

The Queen Elizabeth II Bridge as viewed from Greenhithe, 2.5 km east of the bridge in Kent

Charging scheme

In 2000, the European Union issued a directive that value-added tax should be charged on all road tolls, including the Dartford Crossing. The Government opposed the directive and said it would bear the additional cost. It was anticipated that the tolls would be removed on 1 April 2003 under the original PFI scheme contract. However, the Highways Agency decided that the tolls would become a "charge", under legislation introduced by the Transport Act 2000 to introduce charging schemes on any trunk road bridge or tunnel at least 600 metres (2,000 ft) in length.

Under the 2000 Transport Act, the A282 Trunk Road (Dartford-Thurrock Crossing charging scheme) Order 2002 allowed the continuation of the crossing fee, which officially became a charge and not a toll on 1 April 2003. Management of the crossing was contracted to Le Crossing Company Limited on behalf of the Highways Agency. In September 2009 the Highways Agency made a new contract with Connect Plus (M25) Limited. As well as maintaining the crossing, the contract required the company to widen around 40 miles of the M25 and to refurbish a tunnel on the A1(M) at Hatfield. In October 2009, the Government announced its intention to sell the crossing as part of a public sector deficit reduction strategy. The announcement was unpopular with local residents, who encouraged drivers to sound their horns in protest when using the crossing. After the change of government following the 2010 Election, the new prime minister David Cameron announced that the crossing might still be sold, despite local opposition, particularly from Gareth Johnson, member of parliament for Dartford. Subsequently, the chancellor George Osborne announced that charges would be increased instead to cover the budget deficit. Pre-pay accounts for the crossing were introduced around this time; drivers held an electronic device called a DART-Tag in the vehicle that automatically deducted the charge at payment booths. This was abolished when the Dart Charge was introduced in 2014.

Under the 2008 Charging Order introduced on 15 November 2008, charges between 10 pm and 6 am were discontinued, but standard daytime rates increased, starting at £1.50 for cars. On 7 October 2012 the charges increased to £2 for cars, £2.50 for 2 axle goods vehicles and £5 for multi-axle goods vehicles. By 2012, local businesses were complaining that the crossing's charge booths were impeding local growth. The government announced that a new electronic charging system would be introduced in 2014. Drivers would be able to pay by phone, text, online or in shops. The charge was proposed to increase to £2.50 for cars, £3 for two-axle goods vehicles and £6 for multi-axle vehicles. A later report stated that drivers evading the charge could be fined as much as £105.

Preparation work on the free-flow scheme started in April 2014. Concerns were raised about reliability, with a Highways Agency report predicting that it could lose up to £6m of unpaid charges per year. In September, the Highways Agency announced that the new scheme would start to operate at the end of November, though related works to remove barriers would continue until April 2015. Subsequently, the date for removal of the booths was confirmed as 30 November.

The Dart Charge scheme was considered a success by the project management, who claimed it has reduced peak-time round trips over the crossing by 15 minutes. The Automobile Association said the scheme had faults, while a BBC report showed 1.8 million drivers had been fined for failure to pay in the year since the charge was set up.

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