Network Rail seeks £1 billion for 16,000km fibre upgrade

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The UK's Network Rail is keeping its connectivity targets on track by inviting private sector investment in its fibre optic cable network.

To enable signalling, trackside sensors, CCTV, and internet for trains, railway depots and offices, more than 16,000km of data cables next to the railway are due to be upgraded.

Seeking investment of £1 billion, the aim is to lay new trackside telecoms infrastructure but instead of relying on subsidies from government or passengers, the firm is looking for private sector investment and in return will allow the chosen provider to run its own services off the network.

Network Rail chief executive, Andrew Haines, explained: “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.”

Selling the idea to industry, Network Rail will not need all the capacity for itself and so the successful provider will be able to leverage any additional capacity for its own services – including rural provision – while reaping the benefits of cheaper deployment along the railways.

Network Rail said the project would also bring benefits for passengers, frontline rail workers and those living in rural areas.

Its sales pitch extended to train performance: modern infrastructure will reduce delays and disruption and new fibre optic sensors can be used, for example, to detect landslips near the railway and better monitor the lineside for fallen trees. On safety, the infrastructure would support real-time rail network monitoring, reducing manual inspections.

It also said the project would pave the way for improvements in passenger connectivity, particularly for streaming and browsing. However, "this deal in isolation would not deliver all of the passenger connectivity benefits", instead the fibre would be "an important foundation" to enable better connectivity that could then be delivered through upgrades to lineside telecoms masts and on-board train equipment.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “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.”

Closer to bridging the gaps

The structure of the deal could also see rural connectivity receive a boost, as Network Rail said services run by the investor could be rolled out to local areas – a move it said would help support the Government’s commitment to roll out gigabit-capable connections across the UK.

Initial reactions have drawn praise, however, end-user costs remain an issue.

Michael Armitage, CEO of rural broadband provider Broadway Partners, said: “The investment in Network Rail’s trackside fibre optic network is an encouraging development for people and businesses in rural areas. The impact of the pandemic has meant that demand for high-speed broadband is greater than ever, with many moving out of the cities to more rural locations – given the well-recognised lack of competitive fibre infrastructure in rural areas, Network Rail’s announcement brings us one step closer to bridging the gap between rural and urban coverage.

“Recent figures from Nesta have revealed that one in seven adults in Scotland cannot afford sufficient mobile or broadband to meet their essential needs. The real question is whether Network Rail’s investment will provide affordable connectivity as well as better access to broadband.”

The successful bidder will be named before the end of 2021