Moisture, dust and rats – the problems connecting London’s Tubes

We’ve joked before about how desperate Londoners are to avoid conversation, but now there is political clout behind the drive for connecting the London Underground. And it’s more complicated than you would think.

The last couple of months has seen London Mayor Sadiq Khan promise connectivity on the Underground. We all cheered, because avoiding eye contact with other passengers becomes awkward after a while, especially if you know them. Connectivity on the Tube is now a necessity. And because Mayor Khan has promised it, there’s no going back. Whether delivering a 4G network on the Underground by 2019 is achievable is already an iffy question, especially considering how complicated it will turn out to be.

“Connecting the London Underground is a fantastically challenging task, where you have an opportunity to rewrite the rulebook,” said BAI Communications Technical Director Andrew Conway.

This is an area which creates a complicated equation. There are not-spots in the countryside, but when you are on the Tube you can’t just walk up and plant a mast. It’s under a lot of concrete and not exactly the most conducive for connectivity. It’s arguably one of Europe’s largest hotspots, while it has more people per square metre than anywhere else, or at least Highbury and Islington station feels that way at 8.15am. Connected the unconnected is always difficult; if it was easy they would be connected, but this is another beast.

The London Underground is a collection of 270 stations which are connected by 11 different lines, running 402km. The annual ridership is 1.379 billion passengers, 5 million a day, with the first passenger being taken in 1863. At the time of writing, it is one day short of 155 years old, and some of the Victorian tunnels and fixtures are not necessarily the most advantageous when it comes to 21st century infrastructure.

“London’s system is the oldest in the world, and the Victorian assets offer some very unique challenges,” said Conway.

Due to the age of the system, Conway described the conditions as very hostile for a mobile environment. It’s hot, humid and windy. The brakes give off dust, and the tunnels are home to vermin of all kinds. In short, these are not the best conditions to try and install and operate mobile infrastructure.

This is what BAI Communications does. It designs, builds and operates communications networks in transport corridors. This includes traditional train routes, but also the New York Subway and Hong Kong’s Metro, as well as other intracity transport systems. The company acts as a host neutral ‘mediator’ between the three stake holders; government, the transport operator and the telcos. All three have different objectives, safety considerations, planning timetables and operational models. It makes things a bit complicated.

Aside from hardening the electronic equipment so it is suitable for the hostile underground environment, another challenge which London is set to serve up will be the timetable. During yesteryear, there was a very short window of time when the Tube shut down for the night. This was a time maintenance or improvements could be done, however this window has been getting smaller.

2017 saw the introduction of 24 hour tubes on Friday and Saturday nights on certain lines. Due to the popularity, this is likely to be expanded. Shutting down a transport system which moves 5 million people a day is not an option here, so planning and operations will have to be incredibly accurate and, above all else, efficient.

And that is assuming you can actually find the people to perform the work itself. Not only will these workers have to be qualified telecommunications engineers, they will also have to be trained and comfortable with the rules and regulations of operating in a very unique environment. They will also have to be okay with small, dark and damp spaces, where they won’t be more than a couple of feet away from a rat. This promises to be a very short list of people.

That said, for every challenge there is the drive to move forward. Conway highlighted this is no longer just a nice-to-have, it is a politically charged project, which has been very publicly projected, and is a critical component of the digital economy. In today’s world, if you are not connected you are no longer relevant.

However, we just want something to do on the train because talking to other people is 100% definitely not something we do in London.

TfL hopes to remove conversation from London Underground

Without the distraction of smartphones Londoners can get dangerously close to talking to each other on the tube, but social interaction shouldn’t be an issue if TfL has anything to do with it.

After a successful trial delivering a 4G mobile network on the Waterloo & City Line of the London Underground, Transport for London (TfL) has confirmed it will begin tendering for service providers in the New Year to deliver 4G mobile coverage on the Tube from 2019.

“The success of this trial shows that we are on track to unlock one of the UK’s most high profile not-spots and deliver 4G mobile coverage throughout our tunnels and Tube stations,” said Graeme Craig, Director of Commercial Development at TfL.

“This is great news for our customers and will also help us generate vital commercial income to reinvest in modernising and improving transport in London.”

Unlike citizens around the rest of the UK, Londoners are traditionally terrified to interact with strangers. In some circumstances, Londoners have also been known to actively avoid engaging with those they actually know on public transport, to maintain the unwritten rule of ‘no talking, no eye contact’.

Newcomers to London often flout these rules, which can cause almost as much irritation as standing on the right hand side of the escalator when leaving the station. Before too long, the condemning looks from native and naturalized Londoners drowns the social enthusiasm out of the newcomers, dragging them down to the silent misery of the traditional commute.

Should TfL be able to introduce connectivity onto the underground transport network, it would mark a significant milestone for the despondent and depressing Londoner, who wants nothing more than to stare with discontent at emails or discover the latest faddy coffee shop, craft ale pub, patronising art exhibition or restaurant which delivers food in the latest unimaginable method. If everyone else is staring down at a smartphone the London newcomer will have no choice but to bow to social convention; the naturalization to London ways can be accelerated.

“The demand for ubiquitous, fast mobile connectivity is unquestionable,” said Derek McManus, Chief Operating Officer of O2.

“People expect to have connectivity wherever and whenever they are and, by increasing connectivity on the Tube, people will be able to get more out of their journey time. Trials such as these are vital in laying the foundations for customers, especially commuters, to have seamless connectivity on the go.”

The trials on the Waterloo & City Line allowed TfL to practice laying new fibre cables within stations and tunnels, while also testing data calls from one station to another without dropping mobile reception. All four major mobile network operators participated in the design of the trial, while only Vodafone and O2 carried out testing within the tunnels, which took place outside customer hours.

Should the tender go to plan a service partner to be brought on-board by summer 2018 and the first stations will be connected from 2019. Those talkative foreigners won’t have a chance before too long.