25 January 2015

Freeflow

Yes.

At last.

Freeflow is in place.

We did, however, as a consequence of the change, lose the running of the local Dartford Crossing scheme from the offices in Dartford, to a contracted company in Leeds.

We lost lots of jobs in Dartford - from those who handled the administration here in Dartford, and those that took your money as you crossed the Thames.

But, hey, that’s progress? Right?

It’s something that has been done, we can’t change it - it’s a shame that no provision was made to help keep it local, and keep those that have worked hard on the crossings stay in their jobs.

But…that’s water under the bridge (£2.50 to you, sir)

Renewal time

As previously blogged, I was on holiday for the last part of 2014. I knew my local residents scheme account ended sometime in December, but that’s OK. I wasn’t planning to use the crossing immediately after coming back.

Imagine the joy I had when I received the mail from Dart Charge telling me to renew online:

DartCharge renewal

But with the lack of documents I was unable to renew it online, so far away from home.

That’s ok, I’ll deal with it when I got home, cos, it should be a simple job shouldn’t it? A new online service, all modern, run under the gov.uk umbrella.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

Everything.

My renewal experience

Great. I’m back. It’s cold. I have 3 suitcases full of clothes that need to hit the laundry. Which I made a start on.

Then DartCharge…there’s a chance I’ll need to cross the river soon, so, online renewal time.

I thought it’d be an exciting experience, usually it’s a letter in the post, that I need to send copies of my docs back in an envelope, and then gets actioned.

But! AN ONLINE SERVICE - surely this is the future?

Alas, not.

Communication one - online renewal

“Please pay the annual registration fee at www.gov.uk/dart-charge”

“Remember that every two years you will also need to supply us with…”

Great. I can do it online. And requiring paperwork every two years means less work for the Dart Charge team - and will ease the transition and renewal for local residents - what a clever decision.

I’m excited.

This will be easy.

So I signed in and expected the renewal options to be staring me straight in the face.

Alas, not

This:

DartCharge renewal options 1

or this:

DartCharge renewal options 2

I clicked all the links, I couldn’t find a way to renew.

That’s ok, twitter, twitter will work.

The twitter account that closes at 4pm.

And still closes at 4pm after their ‘review’ Twitter conversation

So I put a message through to the twitter account for the correct link. I guess it’s hidden somewhere?

It wasn’t, the advice was to call the call centre

Really? the new, updated, modern service, that asks me to go online to renew, wants me to call?

Fine. But that’s hardly what the email said

Communication three - Hi, I’m Phil…

I called them up…and said I wanted to renew my Local account.

Them: “Have you sent us your documents to show you’re a local resident?”

Me: “No, the email said that I don’t have to if I have sent it in the last two years” (which I had, obviously)

Them: “Oh no sir, that only applies if you sent it to Dart Charge, we’re a different company”

Cue disbelief by me, so that line in the email was pointless, if there was no way of transferring verified data from one company to the other, what was the point of telling me I don’t need to send documentation? For the next year at least, EVERYONE has to send documentation.

But..that’s ok - I can either send it by post (like the old system!) or email them attachments of scans/images.

He did rather helpfully tell me my smartphone can take photos (not realising, that is the primary use most people have for their smartphones for these days). And gave me an email address to send it to.

I pointed out that in Dec 2013 after a business trip, and not filing my paperwork on time, the previous company extended my local account by 2 weeks, on condition I send my paperwork in immediately. Which they put in place, and I sent paperwork the next day.

This was no longer possible, but I could ask that this be considered when I send my paperwork in.

Another step backwards.

Communication four - email

So I took photos of my paperwork.

And sent it in.

And the email bounced because 4 images on my iPhone (council tax bill, V5C, driving license paper+card) came in at over 10MB

BUT they recommended it that way, didn’t they?

So what do you do if you encounter this? I guess you split up the emails, or reduce the quality of the images.

Either way takes some technical nous.

I threw one image into photoshop to bring it to just under 10MB.

Perfect, it didn’t bounce…maybe I can get to try out the much lauded freeflow system for 20p.

Communication five - the phone call

They left a message on my phone to call back to arrange payment (it was a busy day, as always, for me)

I called them back. The call that took ten minutes…

First question: what is your account number?

Me: I don’t have that to hand

Cue a barrage of questions to verify me, ending with ‘and what is your account number?’

By then I’d pulled that out of gmail and managed to confirm it - I held back my disbelief that we went round the houses to verify me, then was asked the original question that I couldn’t answer - surely he could have waited for me to access it?

That’s fine, here comes the helpful bit…

Them: You have just over £8.50 on your account, you can put that towards the £10

Me: Excellent! yes, I’d like that - I doubt I’ll use the 50 journeys this year, didn’t last year, at least the credit will be put to good use

They took £1.50 payment to cover the £10.

Awesome, freeflow here I come. Can’t wait! Got into work at 8am that day, and wanted to pop over to Costco in the evening, perfect timing.

Them: Sorry sir, something urgent has come up and I need to speak to my manager

Oh no, did he receive a text on his phone about some urgent personal? Was there a fire? OK, fine, put me on hold, things happen…

Them (after 2 mins): I’m sorry, we took £1.50, but can’t apply it to the local residents account, since the £8.50 was in another pot. So we need to take ANOTHER £10, to cover the local residents charge, and then we’ll refund you £10

What?

Seriously?

Are you having a laugh?

But…given the comedy of communication channels to get here, I let it pass, fine, do what you have to do. Another £10 for me doesn’t affect my credit card much whilst the refund processes itself.

10 minutes into the call, I was finally set up.

All the communications…

Let’s compare…

The old system:

  • Receive a letter
  • Send a letter back

The new system:

  • Receive an email
  • Click the link. Click all the other links on the site. Don’t find what the email referred to
  • Tweet them. Get told to phone them
  • Phone them. Get told to scan and email documents
  • Receive a call. Pay multiple times

Collectively I’ve spent more time with the new system for one renewal than I’ve ever had with the old one.

Whose wise idea was it to subcontract this essential service for Dartford and Thurrock residents to a company that clearly is fumbling in the dark?

I can’t even imagine what the service was like in the 2 months before I encountered it.

Alpha site

But, it’s ok, standard govt website disclaimer for a service used by a lot of people, daily:

DartCharge alpha

Not just me…

In despair I tweeted my thoughts on this experience and within an hour 2 local followers told me that they had experienced other problems.

So what do we have? A service that is worse than before.

Granted, free flow is what we should have had for ages, and puts us on par with other parts of the world where tagged/number plate recognition allows for not needing toll gates and barriers. It was a no-brainer given the available tech, and it works well (I did a return trip later that evening).

Maybe it’s not over

To write this post I logged into my account to find this:

DartCharge account

Let’s see how that turns out…

Is it just me?

Probably not, if you’ve been affected by this or other DartCharge account issues, comment below - or tweet me @philmonkey



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Related links


Southeastern Railway Action Group
Dartford Rail Travellers' Association
Dartford Rail Travellers Association (Facebook)
Dartford Rail Travellers Association (Twitter)