The relaxed mood at a braai with family and friends can quickly change when e-tolls come up in conversation. At least if you’re Jamie Surkont, CEO of Electronic Toll Collection (ETC), the company contracted by the South African Roads Agency (Sanral) to operate the controversial Gauteng e-toll system.
Surkont, a financial guy with post-graduate qualifications from Rhodes University, joined TMT Services, the local partner in ETC, about eight years ago and played a leading role in putting the consortium together and preparing the bid for the Gauteng e-toll project.
Being dependent on government’s eNatis basis, which is fraught with inaccuracies, is one of the top challenges facing ETC. More than 2 000 deceased people are supposedly using Gauteng highways and more than 50 000 vehicle owners cannot be identified by searching their vehicle number plate in the eNatis database.
Communication infrastructure from other service providers sometimes leads to slow access to data with the result that road users have to wait in queues for a long time. “We apologise,” he says, “but no system in the world is designed to work at 100% capacity all the time.” He says load is also an issue. South Africans have a tendency to wait until the last minute and ETC had to cope with 90 000 e-tag registrations in one day.
Then there’s the hostile environment towards e-tolls.
Surkont is “slightly dismayed” at the ferocity of resistance to e-tolls and admits it affects staff even at a very senior level. ETC has a high staff turnover and as a result has had to train almost double the number of people that they need. That cost is shared between Sanral and the contractor. He tells the anecdote of staff at one of the customer care centres who were presented with a cake by an elderly lady who thanked them for their kind service and berated others in the queue for complaining. When she left, they threw the cake away, too scared that it might be poisoned, to eat it.
The e-toll system has been under constant attack of hackers for the past six months, he says. “I would have expected someone who picks up an issue to contact us, but that does not happen.” It is reported to the media instead. Nevertheless, the system held up well, he says.
Despite the challenges, Surkont’s proud of the e-toll system that currently handles 60 to 65 million transactions per month and performs well. “We have had to adjust less than 0.1% of transactions”, he says. There is no truth in the statement by the Opposition to Urban tolling Alliance (Outa) that the system will collapse unless 85% of road users are compliant, Surkont says. “It will be more efficient if people comply.”
He is however also quick to recognise and apologise for frustrations that road users experience. During “the next 12 months we will focus on improving our customer services.” He says Sanral has plans to work with the Department of Transport to improve the quality of data in eNatis.
He says the trends are positive: 30 000 to 45 000 road users register e-tags per week and as they do, more pay within the grace period of seven days. ETC is working to improve their customer experience, “but together with that, the environment has to change.”
ETC will tone down the aggressive SMSes sent to violators, but Surkont appeals to road users to rather pay their e-toll bills earlier to limit the cost. He says ETC is still about 90 days away from handing over transgressors to the justice system. “The idea is to give people the benefit of the doubt and get them to pay. The reality is that it becomes unaffordable.
“If you wait months and months and months and it reaches a stage where justice takes over, it becomes a different kind of thing. [For] the majority of citizens out there – I’m not sure whether they understand that. He says if they don’t, they must just carefully consider that they don’t get caught in a situation where they have to make huge sacrifices to pay their increased e-toll bills.
It is a challenge that road users do not always realise that the violation processing account is separate from the e-toll account. If they pay into the wrong one, the debt on the other remains. Sanral and ETC are reexamining the navigation between these two accounts.
Surkont warns against switching e-tags between vehicles. The wrong e-tag in the wrong vehicle will show up as a discrepancy in the system.
He would not comment on allegations that sending invoices only after the seven-day grace period is a transgression of the Consumer Protection Act. ETC only sends invoices after the grace period and is only required to do it within about a month. It is only responsible to print and post it to the address on the eNatis database and cannot take responsibility for postal delays, but the road user knows he has incurred the cost and can find out what he owes through the various channels, Surkont says. “We are trying to make a pro forma invoice with detailed transactions available for non-registered users at customer care centres,” he says.
Company proxies listed in eNatis are also the contact for e-tolls. When ETC becomes aware of one person being a proxy for many others it reconfigures its system to prevent that person getting hundreds of SMSes.
Another recent improvement is the service to fleet owners. Sanral has specific relationships with key account holders like fleet banks and expected entities with over 20 vehicles to manage their e-toll accounts through these key account holders. Instead, many pitched up at Sanral customer care centres with complex complaints beyond the scope of the frontline staff. This bogged down the customer care centres and frustrated people who had to wait in line for long periods.
ETC has now appointed and trained 58 new staff members to deal with fleet owners. They will take down details and report back to the customer later, eliminating the need to wait in line.
ETC employs 1 500 people, virtually all South Africans and it sub-contracts another 500. It is currently the biggest postal client and probably among the top three printing clients in the country.