Given the Czech Republic's location in the heart of Europe, it has always been a major transit point for business. Naturally, the volume of traffic going through the Czech Republic has also increased exponentially since it joined the EU a few years ago. So much so that there are those who feel the country's transport infrastructure is creaking at the seams.
Tomas Hauptmann is a freight manager for the Maurice Ward haulage company:
"Everyone knows there's this [huge] number of trucks in transit. In Prague, in particular, you can see lines of trucks. It makes the traffic terrible. I guess that all the trucks have moved from the borders - where they used to wait for customs clearance - to Prague, where they are now just waiting to pass through the city. I think the system is overburdened."
This is one of the reasons why the Czech Ministry of Transport has now followed the lead of Germany and Austria by introducing a new electronic tolling system built by the Austrian firm Kapsch to tax trucks and buses on Czech roads more efficiently. Now any heavy vehicle travelling in the Czech Republic must be fitted with an electronic signal box, which can be read by special gates placed on Czech motorways. These calculate exactly how many kilometres a truck or bus has travelled and charge them an appropriate road toll. It replaces the old motorway sticker system, which charged drivers a flat charge for using Czech roads regardless of how many kilometres they travelled.
Karel Hanzelka - a spokesman from the Ministry of Transport - says it was necessary to introduce a new system like this in order to handle the sheer volume of freight traffic now passing through the Czech Republic:
"Naturally, we need to realise that the Czech Republic really lies in the heart of Europe and we simply can't avoid being a transit country. We are on the route between east and west as well as between north and south. As a result we have to react somehow to this growth in the number of trucks, particularly since the Czech Republic's accession to the EU. We are the third country of the 27 countries in the EU who have introduced an electronic tolling system and the first one of the accession countries to do so. I think the system we have in place has been set up well."
Nevertheless, although the system has only been operating for a couple of weeks, it has already attracted much controversy. Some hauliers complain that the new tolls will make their operations prohibitively expensive while others have said fitting their trucks with the new equipment has been a laborious and costly process.
Tomas Hauptmann, however, says his firm has not experienced any major problems with the new system:
"It was actually quite easy because there was enough information in advance on the Internet as well as in the Czech media. You can get all the equipment in garages or in special places. There are even two types of payment. You can get credit for a particular journey or you can conclude a contract with the [Kapsch] company. They will simply send you invoices for the distances you have travelled and you don't have to be worrying about checking kilometres or whatever. Our company bought all the equipment in advance so now we can use the highways without any problems."
Hauptmann also says the new tolls won't make his company's operations more expensive as they will simply pass any extra charges on to their customers, in much the same way as they pass on other duties like VAT.
Nevertheless, in a business as competitive as freight transport, there are bound to be some who will attempt to keep their prices down by trying to avoid paying the tolls. One way of doing this is to get their drivers to use secondary and local roads, as the toll gates have only been placed on the Czech Republic's motorways.
This has given rise to concerns that a sudden upsurge in the number of trucks on secondary routes could cause major damage to these smaller roads and seriously disrupt life in the little towns and villages they pass through.
Although Karel Hanzelka acknowledges these concerns, he feels the situation will not be as bad as some have predicted:
"It's true that a small percentage of drivers have tried to evade the tolls by taking detours from the main roads. But the experience of Austria shows that they too had drivers who attempted to evade tolls in this way, but they eventually discovered that it wasn't worth their while. This is because nowadays the speed at which you can deliver goods is of the utmost importance. This means that if a driver takes local roads, it's going to slow him down and he'll be late with his deliveries. It's also tough on the trucks, because they'll often have to drive along hilly terrain with lots of bends, which will have an impact on their running costs."
Tomas Hauptmann also agrees that sending trucks down secondary roads to avoid road tolls would simply be a false economy:
"Our company doesn't do that as it doesn't save you much money, because it's not so fast. You end up travelling more kilometres. Also if a lot of companies made a decision like this, there could be a lot more accidents on the small roads. I have heard in the Czech media that some companies are sending their drivers down other roads besides highways so we shall see how things turn out. Our company specialises in just-in-time deliveries. So it doesn't make sense for us to save a little money on secondary roads, but to deliver the goods too late."
Another criticism, which has surfaced in the press and on numerous websites is that the signal boxes can be covered in foil, which means they can't be read by the toll gates. Karel Hanzelka says claims that it would be this simple to avoid paying the tolls are completely unfounded:
"According to the information that we have from Kapsch, it is not actually possible to block the signal to these boxes. Also our road-toll gates have cameras to check drivers and they can immediately detect someone who is travelling without a signal box. It's a system with extensive apparatus to expose drivers like this. The customs authorities have 25 mobile radars available to them, which are constantly monitoring Czech motorways. Sooner or later a driver who is evading the road tolls is going to be caught and hit with a huge fine of half a million crowns."
With an estimated 8 lorries passing through one of Kapsch's toll gates every second, the revenues generated by the new road tolls are quite substantial and should amount to around 10 billion crowns or 470 million US dollars annually, a tenfold increase on the state's previous road toll income. Although most of these funds are currently being used to pay Kapsch back for building the system, they will eventually be channelled into improving the Czech Republic's road infrastructure.
The Ministry of Transport also hopes that the tolls will ultimately encourage some hauliers to transport goods by rail in the Czech Republic. This should be both better for the environment and should ease the strain on the country's still incomplete motorway system.
Although it's not without its critics and a full audit of the efficiency of the new tolling system has yet to be completed, Tomas Hauptmann is optimistic that it will eventually bring long-term benefits:
"I think it's a good thing because if it helps our road system
will be good for everyone. We would have smooth roads. Everyone would
drive safely and not have to worry about car accidents because the roads
are so damaged, especially in the rains because the trucks are too heavy
and making potholes."