Mind the Gap – the Underground’s about to get connected

London is soon to follow in the footsteps of several other major cities. TfL has announced its plan to provide commuters with WiFi connectivity on the London Underground from 2019.

It’s great news for commuters but making the business case work for contractors is going to be a little harder. Various attempts have been made over the years to connect commuters but this success only currently extends to 79 over-ground and 260 underground station platforms. Getting Wifi operational in the tunnels and on moving trains to date has not been achieved. For whoever decides to take it on, it is going to be a complicated process.

Underground challenges

Many of London’s underground tunnels are deep and narrow which makes access for installation and maintenance difficult. Additionally due to increased commuter demand, many of the lines are operating 24/7 which leaves little down time. In an ideal world, TfL is looking for a system that can be quickly installed and requires little maintenance. Whether that’s even possible is another question.

While WiFi can operate fair distances in an open environment, signals cannot bend around or get through heavy concrete structures such as those characteristic of the London Underground. Because of this the network will require connecting a great number of signal devices along the routes.

Many of the tunnels are very narrow and there is concern that the system will increase the heat generated in the tunnels to a level that no longer complies with safety standards.  The devices will also need to be able to withstand exposure to steel dust generated from the train braking systems. Electronic equipment is notoriously sensitive to fine dust and the brake dust is also conductive and could possibly interfere with signals

Contractor opportunities

The bidding for the project has been opened. While opportunities exist, serious thought will need to be given on ways to monetize Underground customer connectivity in order to make the project financially viable.

Some of the ideas being put forward include sharing the network with emergency services which will help reduce implementation costs but then adds the complication of requiring different operating frequencies.

Transport for London has communicated that they hope to appoint contractors and start rolling out the network by 2019.  This is a tight timeframe for a very complex project that is likely to come at a major price tag. Contractors will have their work cut out for them.