£1bn Network Rail fibre upgrade could also help boost UK rural broadband

(Image credit: Pixabay)

Network Rail is inviting bids from telecoms infrastructure builders for the right to upgrade its trackside telecoms network and use the excess capacity to support commercial deployments of full fibre broadband.

There are 16,000km worth of cables running alongside the British railway network, supporting a wide range of applications that are essential for keeping trains running across the country.

These include signalling systems, trackside sensors, CCTV, and communications for trains, depots and offices. Network Rail, which maintains the railways on behalf of train operators, wants to modernise these cables to support new applications and enable more efficient management.

Network Rail fibre 

For example, a modern communications network would allow network rail to locate faults in real time and detect obstructions more effectively, reducing the need for manual inspections and enabling a more targeted approach to engineering. This would reduce delays and disruption and enhance safety.

However, Network Rail says it only needs a fraction of the capacity that modern fibre cables provide and believes there is a significant opportunity for third party investment. It believes the nationwide scope of the rail network combined with easy access will lower the cost of deployment when compared to other methods of fibre deployment.

The company has been considering its options for some time, with a potential sale or joint-venture touted in the past. Now Network Rail says a deal, worth up to £1 billion, would provide it with the upgrades it needs without the need for government and passenger subsidy, while at the same time aiding the rollout of fixed and mobile broadband infrastructure in underserved areas.

“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,” said Andrew Haines, Network Rail chief executive.

“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.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.