Providing rail companies with telecommunications services is both complex and controversial. Historically, telecoms engineers were the junior partners in a combined S&T Engineering department. Investment in telecommunications systems rode on the back of signalling, electrification and station modernisation schemes, with the more enlightened telecoms engineers arranging for these piecemeal projects to be joined together into regional or national networks. Only in the 1970s, primarily with the advent of data systems, did telecommunications projects gain an independent ascendency as BR and many other European Railways created new telecoms opportunities which revolutionised train operation and the general rail business. The resultant equipment asset base was the envy of many other organisations which were constrained by the monopolistic powers of the public telecoms operators.

All this changed when these monopolies were deregulated, privatised or broken up, with the rail telecoms networks being seen as ready for commercial exploitation. Two schools of thought emerged, either that telecommunications was a commodity just like gas and electricity and all rail needs could be sourced from the likes of BT, or that telecoms was an integral part of railway operations and that problems would soon occur if the railway lost control of its networks.

Which was right?


In the UK, and some other countries, an independent rail infrastructure owner and several new train companies were formed, all of whom initially relied on the erstwhile railway networks for their telecoms facilities. Charging mechanisms were needed to provide such services on a commercial basis, but these were crude as metering had not been a requirement of the previous rail organisation.

Very soon, other telecoms companies sought to enter the fray and were able to offer more competitive rates for some of the telecoms requirements, causing a downwards spiral for the business aspirations of the rail telecommunications departments. What was to be done? In the UK, a new company – British Rail Telecoms – was formed with a twofold objective: firstly, to reorganise itself to be much more commercial in supplying the rail businesses with telecommunications, and secondly, to be sold off to a telecommunications company that could exploit the assets by selling capacity and services to a wider customer base.

Despite delays, BRT was eventually sold in 1994 to Racal Electronics. The sale consisted primarily of the voice, transmission and data networks but not the operational telecoms systems associated with the direct operation of trains, e.g. SPTs, signalbox communications etc, which remained with Railtrack, the infrastructure owner. With hindsight, Racal did not properly understand what they had bought or the responsibilities that went with it.

Eventually, the business was split up and sold again in 2000, the trunk cable, transmission and voice networks going to Global Crossing (acquired by Level 3 in 2011) and the rest, including most of the staff, to Thomson CSF, a French company now renamed Thales. Racal made a substantial profit from this sell off (perhaps questioning their original motivation) and the rail industry was left wondering just how robust the provision of telecoms services would be. Network Rail, having replaced Railtrack, made the decision to replace the sold off transmission systems with a new, nationwide fibre network (the FTN – Fixed Telecommunications Network) in readiness for the provision of GSM-R, the future track-to-train radio system that would replace the old BR radio networks. The investment has been considerable, around £1.5 billion, and these assets must be efficiently utilised to justify this expenditure.

Network Rail’s position

Time never stands still and Network Rail itself is reorganising to become more responsive to the needs of its train company customer. Gone is the centralistic approach, with Territories being created responsible for all work within their area except for the most major projects. This is sensible for most activities but does not fit well for telecoms, where the need for reliable nationwide networking makes a centralised control element rather important. By 2009, Network Rail had regained most of the technicians under a TUPE transfer from Thales. The company is thus resourced to achieve self sufficiency in design, installation and maintenance. What is needed is leadership.

Enter Andy Hudson, the new Network Rail telecoms supremo brought in from Interoute, a European ‘cloud services’ platform company, to work out a vision and strategy for where the business should be going. He has had previous involvement with Hermes Europe Railtel (a pan-European telecoms business engineered around railway fibre networks) and Telfort (the BT joint venture with Dutch Railways that took over the railway telecoms network to form a new national telecommunications service provider and mobile operator), so the railway scene is not entirely new to him.

Network Rail Telecoms

In a discussion with the rail engineer, Andy revealed that he has quickly grasped what is required and first fruits have resulted in the creation of a new company – Network Rail Telecoms (NRT). It is clear that this is a very different company to BRT with its main focus being to emerge as a first class telecommunications provider to the rail industry.

As a priority, the FTN has to be completed and made robust. Designed to be resilient, it nonetheless has elements of its installation in the more rural areas below the standard one would normally expect. Andy is keen to ensure that the assets of Network Rail are fit for purpose and future proof, so some reinstallation might become necessary. Designed as a series of resilient rings with traffic being rerouted if a ring is cut or develops a fault, this can lead to a situation where the staff treat the problem as non-urgent until a second fault occurs, which then causes a major crisis.

Therefore the reliability and availability of the total network must be guaranteed to be as close to 100% as possible. To achieve this means having carrier-class network management centres that operate around the clock to monitor all events and use remote diagnostics and reconfiguration should things begin to go wrong. When physical work has to be done onsite, then staff must be mobilised immediately under the control and guidance of the NOC (National Operations Centre). Waiting until the next morning because the mission critical traffic has been re-routed will not allow for industry service levels and availability to be met.

The ongoing menace of cable theft is a particular problem – even if fibre-optic cables are near worthless to the thieves; the damage can and does occur at any time. NRT and British Transport Police have set up a working group to combat and reduce such incidents, thus relying less on the network protection switching.

Providing the wider Network Rail organisation with telecoms facilities will be the testing ground. Much of it already happens, but the satisfaction of the ‘internal’ customer is crucial. Forming and aligning the telecoms teams into a structured NRT organisation has commenced, the aim being that everyone shares the same vision of accountability and success. The FTN has been designed to be a carrier network for GSM-R, which will also facilitate the distribution of data for the control of remote signalling interlockings and electrification SCADA systems. These are safety-related applications, and failure of the distributing network will result in train service disruption. As such, the FTN has had to pass a safety case, an important step in gaining confidence for usage by other engineering groups within Network Rail.

A charging regime has to exist for even the internal customer and, at present, there is little option other than to do this on an asset-based register. The NRT vision extends, however, to re-engaging with the TOCs, FOCs and other business / engineering companies wholly associated with the railway. To prise these groups away from public telecommunications operator provision and back to NRT will require more sophisticated means of measuring usage and service level. This will require investment in ‘metering’ systems but these may become easier to provide since, with modern replacement equipment, metering comes as part of the Operating and Business Support Systems (OSS and BSS) .

Operational telecoms

Andy Hudson shows pragmatism on the question of how to manage and maintain the myriad of lineside SPTs, level crossing phones and other telecoms equipment scattered around the railway. For NRT to take on this portfolio would require many more technicians, all of whom would need to be safety certified for trackside work. The majority of operational telecoms responsibility will therefore remain with the new Network Rail Territory Managers who will continue to use signal technicians for first line maintenance of trackside phones thus achieving economies of scale.

The vision, however, does not end there. The emergence of GSM-R and the increasing sophistication and integration of telecommunications for the new Network Rail Signalling Centres should logically lead to NRT being the design authority and equipment provider for such systems. All of this will require close co-operation and trust between NRT and the Territory Managers and Andy is already forging the necessary links. Having demanding but realistic service level agreements (SLAs) in place will be key, and these are now being negotiated. Included within the SLAs will be Territory based maintenance services to support the FTN infrastructure, requiring maintenance staff to have the skills, tools and techniques commensurate with the technologies and customer / industry expectations.

The provision of customer information systems, indicators, public address, clocks and the data that drives them, has traditionally been a telecoms responsibility and NRT will assume this role for the Network Rail managed stations. NRT however does not have responsibility for Station Information Support Services (SISS) across the wider railway but would like to offer its services to the TOCs, perhaps also including other value-added telecoms products. The Regulator is intent on making the management of SISS a TOC responsibility upon franchise renewal and NRT’s positioning in this will require careful thought.

Future challenges

The general-purpose railway telephone network, ETD (Extension Trunk Dialling), including the important 999 emergency and 17x electrification control access services, remains the contractual responsibility of Level 3 to provide. There is no immediate need to change this arrangement, but NRT will be exploring the long term needs of this service and considering whether anything more modern will be required for voice strategy and network capabilities to gain efficiency and reduce operational cost.

The FTN was designed to use SDH (Synchronous Digital Hierarchy) as the transmission medium. This remains a valid technology but is already declining in favour of IP (Internet Protocol) networking (see the rail engineer issue 59, September 2009). The Scottish Territory of Network Rail is perhaps paving the way by providing an IP network to support the Paisley LLPA (Long Line Public Address) system which is now being expanded to the whole of Scotland with a whole host of other usages (see the rail engineer issue 72, October 2010). NRT is well aware of this initiative and may well use it as the beginning of a nationwide strategy for an IP based DWDM (Dense Wave Division Multiplexing) MPLS (Multi Protocol Label Switching) network to give unified connectivity capability allowing a ‘plug and play’ delivery model.

The growing demand for improved communication for passenger usage on stations and trains, both broadband and voice, will indeed be something in which NRT would wish to be involved. In conjunction with the ORR and DfT, NRT is currently looking at technology and partnerships to ensure that both asset utilisation and services are aligned with regulation. Providing WiFi and WiMAX access on stations is a logical expansion of service, and product development is underway in line with access technology and customer demand. The need to provide better communications to trackside staff is recognised. In parallel with the ORBIS (Offering Rail Better Information Service) initiative, the delivery programme for the Asset Information Service (AIS) is aimed at giving improved “on demand” asset data and stimulating an improved culture in the use and update of asset records.

Exploiting the network will always be a consideration as NRT matures and develops its capabilities as a customer-focussed service provider. Whilst bandwidth is now cheap, there are market sectors that can make good use of any NRT bandwidth / capacity in a commercial arrangement. Since FTN was effectively funded from the public purse and is routed to many of the remoter parts of the UK, the opportunity to provide broadband services to such places is being investigated as a joint initiative with the government-led Broadband UK scheme.

Above all, NRT is there to focus on the railway. No-one should remain with the illusion that telecommunications is a bolt on extra. It is fundamental to the operation of trains in all the guises embraced by that. NRT looks set fair to be the company of choice for all rail telecommunications requirements.