Around the UK, Network Rail has installed and maintains a complete network of telecommunications cables that run alongside the tracks. Largely fibre-optic, these cables are used for a variety of purposes, from traditional telecommunications to signalling information, CCTV camera feeds, internet connections and even public address announcements.
Now, over 16,000km of these data cables are due to be upgraded. As Network Rail will not require the full capacity of new cutting-edge fibre optics, there will be sufficient capacity for a third-party to run its own telecoms services – making use of the significant geographical reach of the national rail network to meet demand for improved fibre connectivity across Britain and taking advantage of the lower cost of fibre deployment along the railway when compared with other deployment methods.
Network Rail is therefore seeking private sector investment in its trackside fibre optic cable network in a deal that would enable performance, safety and connectivity benefits for passengers, save the taxpayer up to £1 billion in costs and support the government’s objectives to improve connectivity across Britain, including in rural areas.
Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive, commented: “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.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps added: “Upgrading the fibre optic cable network beside our railways has the potential to create a more digitally-connected railway and could lay the foundations towards eradicating the blackspots and phone signal outages which infuriate passengers.
“Unlocking the skills and expertise of the private sector will benefit passengers and help create a modern railway that connects the country.”
This is not the first time that railway cables have been used by third parties. In the days of British Rail, a deal was struck with Mercury Communications to host a fibre-optic network alongside British Rail Telecommunications’ own. However, to make sure maintenance engineers were safe when accessing the live railway, BRT was largely responsible for both maintaining the network and restoring services if failures occurred, due to cable theft or other problems.
This wasn’t always carried out in a timely manner, and BRT incurred a substantial number of financial penalties due to agreed deadlines not being met.
When asked how this situation would be managed today, a Network Rail spokesman said: “We have learnt from years of granting access and working with partners in this space. One of the main reasons for using a single high-count cable rather than multiple cables is to have Network Rail’s and the investor services using the cable, which means, if there is a cut or disruption to the services, we will automatically prioritise access to restore services.”
Network Rail is working with its advisor Lazard to find a suitable partner. It will review all expressions of interest and aims to finalise the transaction with a preferred bidder by the end of 2021.