Railway telecoms – what goes around comes around…

Many of my readers will be aware that I have a regular column in Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the media and entertainment sector of Prospect. The aim of the column is to reflect on issues in the communications industry – broadband, smartphones, mobile coverage, etc. – and their relationship with the policy-making process. Rightly, you have to be a member of the union to read the columns as they appear but the text does appear at some later date on this website: you can read them directly on a separate page on this site by following the direct link to the left (or, otherwise, here).

Production lead times being what they are for a professionally edited and produced print magazine, I wrote the column for the March issue at the start of February. The text of that will appear here (too) in due course, but I had a couple of choices of issues to cover this time around, and this post broadly follows one of the themes that (just) missed out.

The spark for some further research was provided by an item in a telecom news feed just before Christmas which referred to Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, deciding to open up its 18,000 km fibre-optic communications network to telecoms companies seeking a core network over which to deliver consumer services. In a subsequent conversation with the sharp members of the union’s organising team, we wondered whether there was a similar system applying across the UK’s rail network and, if so, whether this might face demands to be opened up in a similar way as a means of developing the UK’s communications fibre infrastructure.

Network Rail does indeed have a communications infrastructure – it’s actually an operational necessity in terms of running the signalling on which safe rail travel depends and which, in an emergency, provides secure and complete trackside communications for workers in the industry.

But there is a history here, too, which speaks more broadly of the failures of public policy over the past forty years based on privatisation, the desire to make money by selling off assets developed in the public sector and an over-reliance on ‘market’ solutions and competition, not least when it comes to infrastructure provision. A summary of the details of this ‘somewhat traumatic’ history has been provided (as of 2015) by Clive Kessell, a career-long inhabitant of railway telecoms, and it’s well worth a read (and see others at the same site (Rail Engineer) under the ‘signalling and telecoms’ news section, some of which have been linked in this post).

The story in short is that the railway telecoms network in the UK had been developed piecemeal between 1972 and 1993 under public ownership in pursuit of various signalling and electrification projects. Consisting by then of some 17,000 km of fibre optic and copper cable, it was the largest private telecoms network in the country. The network was parcelled up in the 1990s as part of the privatisation of British Rail and then, later, sold off firstly to Racal Electronics (in 1995, for £140m) before being split up with the main network being sold on (in 1999, for £1bn) to Global Crossing (which ultimately, and after bankruptcy recovery, was taken over by Level 3 in 2011. Level 3, a US company, has also since been bought by CenturyLink, another US operator). We ought, by the way, also to wonder at the valuations of assets which lay behind those prices.

Essentially, therefore, the privatisation of rail telecoms – as with the wider railway – was a botched process in which, as Kessell comments in a key section:

None of these private companies really understood what they were buying… At the same time, the privatised train companies were tempted to acquire telecom services from order-hungry sales people in a myriad of companies intent on cherry-picking the easy bits and ignoring the more important operational comms. The result was communication chaos with ignorance as to who was responsible for what and with serious doubts as to the integrity of the services being supplied.

Network Rail – by then back in public ownership following the failure of Railtrack – therefore took the decision in 2004 to recreate what had been destroyed by private hands in the mid-1990s by agreeing a £1.2bn investment plan for a fibre-based nationwide transmission network, based on GSM-R, a radio-based system whose use was being harmonised across the EU under legislation on interoperability. After securing agreement from the Treasury in 2006, this was instituted between 2007 and 2015 with the outcome that Network Rail – once again – now has access to a UK-wide communications structure. Subsequent investment has resulted in the development of an optical network to support the usage of IP-enabled devices, and will need to continue at a high level as GSM-R comes to the end of its natural life in the next ten years or so and as the industry’s need for bandwidth continues to expand.

The lesson – that there is no valid reason to privatise a core public asset which the private sector does not understand and will not see as intrinsically valuable other than in a commercialised way – ought to be clear.

It’s just possible that we might be making the mistakes again, however. Network Rail Telecom – which currently has some 600 staff – was formed in 2011 to own and manage the new asset on behalf of the whole industry. NRT’s asset base is sizable and encompasses some 18,000 km and 22,000 km respectively of fibre and copper backbones with an architecture based on hundreds of interconnecting rings to obtain a large amount of resilience, as well as 2,500 GSM-R base stations and 3,500 data nodes. The decision has been taken to merge operational and business telecoms, with many systems being used for both – a cross-over which external telecoms providers may not understand. This may provide some element of a ‘poison pill’ against the threat of outsourcing-based private rapacity, as indeed might railway congestion and the need to have trains running at speed and closer together – a solution in which reliable and comprehensive, not to say absolutely dedicated, communications networks have a key role to play.

Nevertheless, as indeed in Germany, the questions have already arisen about the use of the network ‘to benefit wider society’ – to whit, looking at it hungrily from the perspective of the government’s (2017) Digital Strategy for the UK, which (re-)raised the question of publicly-owned and funded networks being opened up to increase the fibre connectivity of homes and businesses. Various trials are underway, and envisaged within NRT’s Strategic Plan, and, while it is clear at least to existing senior industry personnel that the operational needs of the railway are paramount, this may not be at all clear to a Conservative government recently elected with a thumping majority, acting in a populist fashion (£) and allied to a complete lack of moral compass and a ‘year zero’ approach to public policy in the post-Brexit era. Back in 2016, Network Rail had considered a(nother) sale of its telecoms company, as part of plans to raise £1.8bn towards the Railway Upgrade Plan and under government pressure to reduce debt, but then ruled out a sale – though not, critically, any sale of access to spare infrastructure capacity.

But, even if it is good that wider counsels have prevailed (this time), who has the handle on deciding what is ‘spare’, alongside the level of priority to be enjoyed by digital rail where infrastructure is shared and in the context of the expansion of the industry’s own bandwidth requirements, is clearly the key question that will remain outstanding as policy develops.

Ultimately, it seems that this fiendish play – of national assets being sold off (under a Tory goverment) to a private sector which engages in a wanton destruction of value, only for the owner (back under a Labour government) to have to re-build that utility and then facing pressure to sell off that utility again after a change of government – may have a season or two to run yet.

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