NetworkRail seeks Private Sector Investment for Telecomms Network

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Tio Terry

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I've just seen this posted on a Facebook page:-


Network Rail is seeking private sector investment in its trackside fibre optic cable network in a deal that would enable performance, safety and connectivity benefits for passengers.​

It could also save the taxpayer up to £1bn in costs and support the Government’s objectives to improve connectivity across Britain, including in rural areas.

As part of our initiative to create a safer, more modern and digitally-connected rail network, this ambitious 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.

Not the first time it's been tried of course, there was Mercury back in BR days.

Has some good points, especially about reaching some of the more remote parts of the UK.
 
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pdeaves

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Is this solely about selling spare capacity (and getting 'others' to pay for increasing capacity), or is it a further attempt to separate out and sell off the telecom network?
 

mr_jrt

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Mmmm. Privatition always works out so well! Will be endless fun when the new owner has different priorities to NR when a fault occurs :)
 

zwk500

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Is this solely about selling spare capacity (and getting 'others' to pay for increasing capacity), or is it a further attempt to separate out and sell off the telecom network?
I suspect it's motivated by a need for income streams less dependent on the number of passengers travelling by train. If NR isn't going to be using the full capacity, and needs money to fund the renewal of the network, why not explore ways to do it that don't rely on trains running? HM Treasury have many people knocking on their door.
Mmmm. Privatition always works out so well! Will be endless fun when the new owner has different priorities to NR when a fault occurs :)
This isn't privatisation as such- NR aren't selling the network off wholesale. They're selling a stake in the capacity of the lineside fibre-optic network. NR can maintain primacy and control over the network, and gain access to the experience and expertise of a communications company. The devil in this will be in the detail.
It’s not that long ago that NR took most of the telecoms side back in house...
True, although the world has changed yet again. NR's income took a colossal blow last year, it needs to find money from somewhere that isn't government at some point. There's a lot of details yet to come out, and how successful this is will depend heavily on exactly the structure of the deal.

Overall, I feel it's a positive action taken in these extraordinary times to secure rail diverse funding sources. It will be down to the detail of the deal and how the relationship between NR and their new partner is managed to determine how successful it is in the long run.
 

Tio Terry

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NR has quite a lot of spare fibre, it's not that difficult to provide access for other commercial carriers and sell them dark fibre. Think about cross London via Crossrail, HS1, HS2, and many other routes that others would like to have access to.
 

ABB125

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I suspect it's motivated by a need for income streams less dependent on the number of passengers travelling by train.
**Rentable areas under railway viaduct arches? Oh wait...**
If NR isn't going to be using the full capacity, and needs money to fund the renewal of the network, why not explore ways to do it that don't rely on trains running? HM Treasury have many people knocking on their door.

This isn't privatisation as such- NR aren't selling the network off wholesale. They're selling a stake in the capacity of the lineside fibre-optic network. NR can maintain primacy and control over the network, and gain access to the experience and expertise of a communications company. The devil in this will be in the detail.

True, although the world has changed yet again. NR's income took a colossal blow last year, it needs to find money from somewhere that isn't government at some point. There's a lot of details yet to come out, and how successful this is will depend heavily on exactly the structure of the deal.

Overall, I feel it's a positive action taken in these extraordinary times to secure rail diverse funding sources. It will be down to the detail of the deal and how the relationship between NR and their new partner is managed to determine how successful it is in the long run.
I seem to remember Roger Ford writing something about this a few years ago in Modern Railways, but nothing (as far as I'm aware) came of it.
Personally I think it's a good idea, as long as it's the capacity bring sold, with absolute control being retained by Network Rail. It won't do much good if the fibre-optic network itself is sold, then the purchasing company decides it doesn't want Network Rail's custom any more...
 

Hellzapoppin

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Not sure it's actually looking at selling spare capacity as it stands but more inviting investors to help fund the fibre network upgrades and having the option to use the spare capacity??
 

Skie

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Looks like it's a privatised version of what has been done in Liverpool. Merseytravel have installed a large fibre network primarily to feed the "train to shore" basestation network for the class 777s, but have been sensible enough to also include a lot of spare fibre in the runs that they can then lease off to other providers and also use as a city region wide fibre backbone for their own local government use.
 

ABB125

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Looks like it's a privatised version of what has been done in Liverpool. Merseytravel have installed a large fibre network primarily to feed the "train to shore" basestation network for the class 777s, but have been sensible enough to also include a lot of spare fibre in the runs that they can then lease off to other providers and also use as a city region wide fibre backbone for their own local government use.
And that, in my opinion, is a sensible idea. Hopefully that's what Network Rail are envisaging.
 

markymark2000

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A few questions on this whole idea as I am not very experienced on it and I would be interested to know more on it.

Firstly, how does Network Rail have 'spare' fibre? Wouldn't you just install as much as you need rather than installing lots of spare, wires?

Secondly, If more cables are alongside the railway rather than wherever they currently are, would this mean possibly the railway has to be disrupted more often for inspections or to fix wires which are not even related to the operation of the railway? Is that a risk which is being taken? Even the biggest and best systems fail from time to time.

Thirdly, is this basically to help rural connectivity so it saves fibre lines following roads, they can also follow train lines to reach some of these hard to reach areas which could be quite far away from main areas. For example Merseyrail could lease fibre lines to a company so that Hooton, Willaston and Capenhurst can have fibre internet when previously these would have been deemed too far from main towns/cities to be viable?

Fourthly, other than money, is there any benefit to the railway or is it basically an easy way to get money to reduce subsidy and/or balance the books? (nothing too wrong if it is just money, I am just trying to get an understanding)
 

plugwash

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Firstly, how does Network Rail have 'spare' fibre? Wouldn't you just install as much as you need rather than installing lots of spare, wires?
Glass, even very high purity glass used for optical fibers is cheap. A cable with only a few fibers ends up being mostly reinforcement and relatively little actual fiber. When I look at the corning altos cables for example, the nominal outer diameter remains at 8.5mm from 12 fibers all the way up to 72 fibers! Installing cables is expensive, even if the ducts are already in place it still takes time to actually pull the cable in and more time to clear blockages in the ducts. So it rarely makes sense to lay down a cable with just the number of fibers you need right now, much better to lay down a cable containing a bunch of fibers and never have to touch it again.

Or even better, try and find someone to collaborate with you on laying down the cable and split the costs
 

markymark2000

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Glass, even very high purity glass used for optical fibers is cheap. A cable with only a few fibers ends up being mostly reinforcement and relatively little actual fiber. When I look at the corning altos cables for example, the nominal outer diameter remains at 8.5mm from 12 fibers all the way up to 72 fibers! Installing cables is expensive, even if the ducts are already in place it still takes time to actually pull the cable in and more time to clear blockages in the ducts. So it rarely makes sense to lay down a cable with just the number of fibers you need right now, much better to lay down a cable containing a bunch of fibers and never have to touch it again.

Or even better, try and find someone to collaborate with you on laying down the cable and split the costs
Thank you for that explanation. Makes sense then I guess from that perspective.
 

Calderfornian

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The fibre on Merseyrail was installed as part of the IRCC upgrades in the 90s, with lots of redundancy built in - forward thinking!
 

zwk500

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Secondly, If more cables are alongside the railway rather than wherever they currently are, would this mean possibly the railway has to be disrupted more often for inspections or to fix wires which are not even related to the operation of the railway? Is that a risk which is being taken? Even the biggest and best systems fail from time to time.
I'm not 100% sure, but as it's the same cable essentially the railway use 'proves' the cable is working, so any disruption would be unavoidable because it will affect the railway anyway. If the railway's running fine, there's nothing to fix on the commercial side. Also, the network currently exists, so routine maintenance is accounted for.
Thirdly, is this basically to help rural connectivity so it saves fibre lines following roads, they can also follow train lines to reach some of these hard to reach areas which could be quite far away from main areas. For example Merseyrail could lease fibre lines to a company so that Hooton, Willaston and Capenhurst can have fibre internet when previously these would have been deemed too far from main towns/cities to be viable?
That's one of the benefits yes. Saves a lot of digging up roads (or digging trenches right next to them), which is a massive cost of providing rural internet.
Fourthly, other than money, is there any benefit to the railway or is it basically an easy way to get money to reduce subsidy and/or balance the books? (nothing too wrong if it is just money, I am just trying to get an understanding)
Money is the primary driver, but depending on the deal NR could also get access to the expertise and experience of the partner companies. This may be installing and maintaining the network, or it may be on technical equipment and procurement. Strategic development/planning may well also benefit from it.

There's also the benefit that if a broadband company is paying NR to maintain the core network, it can redirect it's own maintenance teams to focus on issues closer to the end user and therefore offer better support or cheaper rates (or possibly both).
 

Annetts key

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Nearly all, modern existing fibre optic cables have far, far more capacity than the railway needs. The same will be true for new cables.

The fibre optic cables themselves are install and forget technology. They don’t have any routine maintenance requirements. About the only ‘maintenance’ is a visual inspection of the cable route. Which has to be done regardless of who or what is actually using the cables.

If a fibre optic cable is damaged (and keep in mind they have no scrap value, so cable theft of them is very, very low) then ALL services carried will be cut while repair work is carried out (most likely by cutting out the bad section and jointing in a new piece of cable).

British Rail, and now Network Rail already have hundreds and hundreds of miles of fibre optic cables already installed across the network. The Network Rail Fixed Telecom Network (FTN) uses these extensively for Network Rail’s own requirements. Both for telephone services, data services and signalling systems.

By having a commercial arrangement, Network Rail could recover some of the costs of the system in the same way that BR did in the past.
 

markymark2000

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Based on what has been said here then, it seems like a very good move by Network Rail with no-minimal down sides.

Thank you to everyone who has helped explain.
 

hooverboy

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Nearly all, modern existing fibre optic cables have far, far more capacity than the railway needs. The same will be true for new cables.
That may be true at the moment, but as with commercial telecom, we have seen the amount of data carried over the networks increase exponentially over the course of 40 years.So much so there have had to be now 5 iterations of hardware upgrades due to network saturation.

It's not just the fibre part that's important.That only carries information point to point.It's the additional hardware such as repeaters,antennas,modems,cabinets and base stations that will also need to be brought up to date.It's that bit which allows the transfer of data and interaction between two "targets" ie a signal section and a moving target such as a passing train.For a safety critical operation,real time data is required.That is vast amounts of information updated thousands of times a second.

As for bring "install and forget", that's not entirely accurate.Depending on the amount of information being carried,there may be a need to increase the frequency(decrease the wavelength) that the optics are running at.When that happens, you would basically have to retest every bit of the network for glitches and reflection points. What might be nicely tuned to 570nm will not necessarily work at 538nm.
 

CN12

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It’s fine if the cable is installed in a proper cable route, not just left lying in the cess!
 

Annetts key

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That may be true at the moment, but as with commercial telecom, we have seen the amount of data carried over the networks increase exponentially over the course of 40 years.So much so there have had to be now 5 iterations of hardware upgrades due to network saturation.

It's not just the fibre part that's important.That only carries information point to point.It's the additional hardware such as repeaters,antennas,modems,cabinets and base stations that will also need to be brought up to date.It's that bit which allows the transfer of data and interaction between two "targets" ie a signal section and a moving target such as a passing train.For a safety critical operation,real time data is required.That is vast amounts of information updated thousands of times a second.

As for bring "install and forget", that's not entirely accurate.Depending on the amount of information being carried,there may be a need to increase the frequency(decrease the wavelength) that the optics are running at.When that happens, you would basically have to retest every bit of the network for glitches and reflection points. What might be nicely tuned to 570nm will not necessarily work at 538nm.
With regards to capacity, well obviously it depends on the requirements depending on whereabouts in the country/network you are. If Network Rail get enough funding, they could always install more cable capacity. Otherwise careful consideration will have to be made to ensure that there is enough spare capacity for future railway requirements.

In my previous post, I was only talking about the cables themselves not the supporting infrastructure. Again, if Network Rail get enough funding, the supporting infrastructure could be upgraded/improved/expanded etc. And as this is normally in lineside equipment cubicles, or buildings, and not right next to the running lines (normally 3 metres or more from the running lines), access is considerably easier for staff or contractors to get to and work at/in.

What is the typical distance between repeaters now with current fibre optic cables? It’s certainly a far greater distance compared to the old repeaters for the old 4 MHz coaxial transmission system.
 

SussexLad

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I just hope it is a proper company that wins the bidding process an not someone that will subcontract it out to someone like Sodexo
 

Ken H

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maybe the railway GSM masts could also carry commercial mobile antennae. Local to me it could fill holes in the mobile network in places like like Mallerstang and Ribblehead.
 

Elecman

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maybe the railway GSM masts could also carry commercial mobile antennae. Local to me it could fill holes in the mobile network in places like like Mallerstang and Ribblehead.
Not allowed under the planning permissions granted for them
 

Tio Terry

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maybe the railway GSM masts could also carry commercial mobile antennae. Local to me it could fill holes in the mobile network in places like like Mallerstang and Ribblehead.
In the past Networkrail has vigorously opposed any commercial GSM masts anywhere near a GSM-R mast because of the chance of interference with what will be safety related use for ERTMS. Given that, I doubt they will be particularly enthusiastic to see their GSM-R infrastructure being utilised by Commercial GSM systems.

The required safety argument and risk analysis would make interesting reading!

However, where the GSM-R system utilises fibre cable connection between Base Station and Base Station Controller there is every chance that there will be spare dark fibres that could be leased to a commercial carrier just so long as access from the railway to the outside world can be arranged. The masts could also be used for microwave transmission systems to interface with public networks.

There is a lot of potential for Networkrail to exploit its existing infrastructure and to develop it further with a suitable partner.
 

etr221

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Back when railways were new, and (electric) telegraphs newer, the railway companies did deals with the telegraph companies - they would provide the route (alongside the railway) for the telegraph companies to put up their wires, in exchange for free (and priority) telegrams. All worked well, until the telegraph compnies were nationalised, into the Post Office - who had powers to run wires along roads - and the railways found they had to set up telegraph departments in a hurry.
 

hooverboy

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In the past Networkrail has vigorously opposed any commercial GSM masts anywhere near a GSM-R mast because of the chance of interference with what will be safety related use for ERTMS. Given that, I doubt they will be particularly enthusiastic to see their GSM-R infrastructure being utilised by Commercial GSM systems.

The required safety argument and risk analysis would make interesting reading!

However, where the GSM-R system utilises fibre cable connection between Base Station and Base Station Controller there is every chance that there will be spare dark fibres that could be leased to a commercial carrier just so long as access from the railway to the outside world can be arranged. The masts could also be used for microwave transmission systems to interface with public networks.

There is a lot of potential for Networkrail to exploit its existing infrastructure and to develop it further with a suitable partner.
I've said on here countless times that GSM is obsolete.
LTE-R is where it's at now.Same fundamental frequency bands in use, but can transmit 1000 times the amount of data,which will be needed in a real-time information situation.

It's tried and tested technolgy as well no.As of 2017 south korea did their train network with it, with hardware being supplied by LG and nokia siemens networks.
 

Tio Terry

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I've said on here countless times that GSM is obsolete.
LTE-R is where it's at now.Same fundamental frequency bands in use, but can transmit 1000 times the amount of data,which will be needed in a real-time information situation.

It's tried and tested technolgy as well no.As of 2017 south korea did their train network with it, with hardware being supplied by LG and nokia siemens networks.
GSM, as in Global Systems Mobile, is with us all for a long, long time as an International Standard, it's not going to be replaced worldwide any time soon.

LTE-R is a 5g based system which still uses much of the GSM architecture but is further advanced and allows on board to ground video as well as audio and data. It's a Huawei promoted system that has been used successfully in China. Not sure how the Western World is going to react to a Huawei system, it's certainly not favoured in commercial systems!

However, in terms of exploiting NR's networks, LTE-R still requires fibre between Base Stations and to the Control equipment so it makes little difference in terms of network exploitation and NR's aims of generating income.
 
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