railway lines

Network Rail seeks private-sector telecoms investment

Image credit: Network Rail

Network Rail is looking for private-sector companies to invest up to £1bn in upgrading its lineside communications network in return for being able to use spare capacity for commercial services.

Over 16,000km of data cables – carrying information essential to running the railway, such as signalling for trains, trackside sensors, CCTV, and internet for trains, railway depots and offices – are due to be upgraded in order to improve safety and performance as well as give passengers better connectivity on the move. This scheme is intended to raise money for the work.

Network Rail, which owns Britain’s railway tracks and buildings, said the plan “aims to secure the funding necessary to upgrade telecoms infrastructure along the rail network in an innovative way without relying on subsidies from government or passengers.”

Such a scheme would additionally “support the Government’s objectives to improve connectivity across Britain, including in rural areas”.

As Network Rail will not need the full capacity of new cutting-edge fibre optics, there will be enough surplus for a third party to run its own telecoms services. The private operator would be able to take advantage of the geographical reach of the national rail network to meet demand for improved fibre connectivity across Britain, as well as the lower cost of fibre deployment along the railway compared with other options.

For the railway, the telecoms upgrade will make different parts of the infrastructure – such as trains, signalling and level crossings – more connected than before, ultimately reducing delays and disruption. For example, new fibre-optic sensors can detect landslips near the railway and better monitor the lineside for fallen trees. The ability to monitor the condition of assets more effectively means that faults can be identified and located in real time. This reduces the number of manual inspections that frontline workers have to carry out, thus also improving safety.

The deployment of new fibre-optic cable along all major rail routes would also see Network Rail playing a part in enabling improved connectivity for train passengers, who increasingly want to stream videos and browse online using their mobile phones. While this deal in isolation would not deliver all those benefits, laying the fibre would be an important foundation.

For people and businesses in rural areas, services run by the investor could also help to support the government’s commitment to roll out gigabit-capable connections across the UK, with £5bn allocated to supporting deployment to hard-to-reach areas.

A secondary benefit of replacing existing copper cable with fibre would be to reduce the incidence of cable theft, which can cause disruption and cost out of all proportion to any gain made by the criminals.

Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, said: “Our telecoms infrastructure requires an upgrade if we are to meet the growing connectivity needs of passengers and the railway itself – particularly to make sure our fibre capacity can handle more data, at greater speed, more reliably.

“This proposal makes good business sense for all parties. We get a cutting-edge, future-proof telecoms infrastructure; the investor gets a great business opportunity; train passengers in Britain get an improved service for years to come, and the taxpayer saves a significant amount of money.”

Network Rail aims to finalise the transaction with a preferred bidder by the end of 2021.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles