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Government Scraps 5G Mobile Trial on Trans Pennine Rail Route

Thursday, January 31st, 2019 (11:15 am) - Score 2,421
trains network rail engineers

The UK Government has abandoned part of their £35m trial of 5G based mobile broadband and fibre optic technology on the Trans Pennine rail (train) route between Manchester and York, which is a joint effort between Network Rail, the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) and 5G Testbeds & Trials (5GTT) projects.

The Trans Pennine Initiative (TPI) was seen as supporting the Government’s wider proposals to make “uninterruptedWiFi and Mobile (5G) broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps (Gigabits per second) available on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025.

As part of the TPI Network Rail said they were also rolling out a high capacity (433 fibre) spine along the route between Manchester and York via the LFFN programme, which would help to provide capacity for the new masts. Unused fibres could also be used to provide fixed network connectivity between other locations and ISPs along the rail corridor.

The optical fibre was being built as a new overlay to any existing fibre that may exist alongside the rail route, and therefore is isolated from any mission critical systems operated by NR.

Main Components of the TPI

1. An LFFN-focused element, deploying high capacity fibre along the Trans Pennine route from Manchester to York, to provide backhaul capacity for open access points along the route, and test a commercial model for fibre deployment on the railways. It also provides a high capacity inter-connection between the Manchester and Leeds Internet Exchanges, thereby strengthening critical internet infrastructure within the Northern Powerhouse.

2. An upgrade to the existing Network Rail test track (the Rail Innovation and Development Centre, RIDC) at Melton Mowbray, to enable it to trial new technologies including 5G.

3. Passive infrastructure including masts along the Trans Pennine route, to enable radio trials of high quality passenger connectivity on trains.

Under this plan the Government had hoped to select the winning bidders by the end of 2018 and to then begin the work from March 2019. Unfortunately an update posted yesterday included a “Notification of Discontinuation of Radio Infrastructure Delivery,” which noted that 1 and 2 were still on-going but the key elements from point 3 had been scrapped due to cost.

DCMS Statement

The Call for Input sought feedback on, and interest in, testing passive infrastructure, including masts, along the Trans Pennine route, to enable radio trials of high quality passenger connectivity on trains.

Although there was interest in the concept of the trial, the market was not prepared to participate on the basis of the available funding (covering equipment provision only) and that following the trial a supplier could be required to remove their equipment.

In parallel, it has become clear, following the completion of a detailed site survey and planning work by Network Rail along the route, that the construction costs and complexity of the radio infrastructure required along the Trans Pennine route are significantly greater than expected.

The timetable for delivery of the radio trial would also be significantly impacted by these factors. Having assessed alternative options, DCMS has concluded that there are no credible means to deliver the planned passenger trials to a suitable standard within the available budget and within a reasonable timeframe to inform wider policy development.

As a result of these factors and the results of the CFI, DCMS has taken the decision not to pursue the planned build of radio infrastructure along the Trans Pennine route.

Apparently the costs for this specific aspect were more than double (around £25m) what had actually been allocated and the deployment would have taken up to four years to complete. Suffice to say there was a legitimate concern that this effort might not deliver value for money.

On the upside NR’s fibre cable deployment along the Manchester to York route has started, and is “on track” to complete in May 2019 as planned. Over 50% of the fibre is already laid (65km of 116km). Splicing has also started, and planning requests for connections to internet exchanges in Leeds and Manchester are nearly complete.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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