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Neos and Virgin Media to Bid on British Rail’s Trackside Cables

Tuesday, May 10th, 2022 (11:04 am) - Score 2,448
trains and railways uk

Two investment groups – one including Neos Networks (bidding alongside Cellnex) and the other Virgin Media (bidding alongside Nokia and Jacobs) – have reportedly been approved to bid on the £1bn auction of 10,000 miles worth of Network Rail‘s trackside cable network. The winner could use this to improve gigabit broadband and 5G cover.

The privatisation plan, which will most likely see the winning bidder being expected to upgrade the trackside infrastructure and build 250 new mobile masts to help tackle 5G “notspots” for commuters, was first revealed by Network Rail a year ago (here). The sale itself reflects their older trackside cable network (much of this still runs off legacy copper lines and is in need of an upgrade).

NOTE: Network Rail is due to be absorbed into the new Great British Railways organisation, which will own the rail infrastructure, receive fare revenues, run and plan the network and set most fares and timetables. GBR will also absorb many of the functions from the Rail Delivery Group, which brings together train operators.

At present the operator’s trackside data infrastructure (a mix of copper and some fibre optic cables) carries all sorts of transport, video (CCTV etc.), signalling and other communications. Over the past decade we’ve seen Network Rail repeatedly try to make better use of this ageing infrastructure (e.g. offering greater access via wholesale), not least in order to help them cut their massive debt pile.

However, Network Rail, which has struggled to find an alternative solution for the aforementioned trackside cables and associated infrastructure, ended up putting it up for auction – although the organisation will no doubt retain some access (essential for maintaining their services). According to The Telegraph‘s (paywall) sources, the two rival investment groups proceeding to bid will be supported by Neos Networks and Virgin Media (VMO2).

Is it worth £1bn?

The big question mark over all this is whether the infrastructure, considering the need for costly upgrades, is worth the forecasted asking price. The rail network tends to follow a very specific path and largely passes through areas that are already well served by a variety of other broadband and communications providers. Certainly, there will be opportunities to be found, but are they big enough to equate to £1bn? Time will tell.

Nevertheless, such a sale could help to support the Government’s £5bn Project Gigabit broadband rollout (nationwide gigabit coverage by around 2030) and the wider industry-led £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) project, which aims to extend UK geographic 4G mobile coverage to 95% by the end of 2025. Not to mention the commercial rollout of 5G networks.

Lest we forget that, back in December 2017, the UK Government pledged 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. But achieving that on time – without significant upgrades along the route – would be very difficult. It’s perhaps no surprise that we haven’t heard the Government talking about this target for a very.. long time (here).

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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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12 Responses
  1. Barry Forde says:

    I’ve made many attempts to use trackside infrastructure over the years but never succeeded. The two problems were always network rail’s inflated view of the value of their ducts and their H&S approach. It will be interesting to see if any bidders can agree a price and how to access the trackside infrastructure for installation and maintenance. It would be great to see this asset brought into play but I’m not holding my breath!

  2. yeehaa says:

    “British Rail’s trackside cables” – I assume the title should say Network Rail?

    1. Mark Jackson says:

      No because we seem to be stuck in a transition phase between Network Rail and Great British Railways, thus saying British Rail was intended to be a bit tongue in cheek 🙂

    2. yeehaa says:

      Surely “Great British Network Railways” would have been a better compromise then?

    3. Mark Jackson says:

      Titles need to be kept to a strict character limit, where possible, so I have to keep them short.

    4. 5G_Infinity says:

      It’s actually Network Rail Telecom

  3. 125us says:

    I think the problem is that the network goes places already pretty well served with core infrastructure and the access issues make it more expensive in terms of installation and maintenance than leasing dark fibre or someone else’s ducts. NR and its predecessors have often talked about wanting to monetise the assets while also being reluctant to actually let anyone at them – going all the way back to the days of Mercury Communications. Getting roadworks permission for a live fault is a walk in the park compared to needing to get into a tunnel or on or under a bridge.

  4. Gigabit says:

    Presumably any new sites would still be subject to useless planning permission?

  5. Frank Butcher says:

    I can’t understand how this can be worth £10k per mile? Perhaps I’m missing something but surely building your own network from scratch would be cheaper, or just leasing existing fibre.

  6. Phil says:

    I thought Vodafones long lost parent owned all that

  7. Mark says:

    Feels a bit more fiction than fact in this article to be honest.

  8. Network Nemesis says:

    There’s two infrastructures here. British Rail Telecom BRT, was sold to Racal in the early 90’s, Was bought by Global Crossing, who became Century Link and now Lumen.

    Network Rail/rail track etc, had their own fibre cables for signalling and telemetry, probably in the same concrete trough as the Lumen cables, that’s what we’re talking about here.

    The problem with cables on the rail infrastructure is that your operatives need a whole new set of safety qualifications to work on them but they are good for Core Network links and less likely to be damaged.

    I don’t know how old this infrastructure will be, but I’m sure the cables will be perfectly serviceable.

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