Fast track

2 min read

The Highways Agency (HA) has given the go-ahead for a £490m telecoms infrastructure that will underpin a national network of advanced communications systems for the UK’s motorways.

While the HA currently has a pilot stretch of ‘smart road’ on the M42 in the West Midlands, the new initiative could see intelligent traffic management systems rolled out across the entire motorway network.

The contract for the National Roads Telecoms Services project (NRTS) has been awarded to Genesys Telecommunications, a consortium headed by engineering giant Fluor Corporation.

Early next year the consortium will begin replacing an inflexible communications network with an ultra-fast nationwide digital one, of the kind that is currently being tested on the M42. It is, claimed an HA spokesman, analogous to the move from dial-up internet to broadband.

The HA’s project leader for NRTS, David Raby, explained that the existing system has over 11,000 roadside devices connected to it. But these devices, which include CCTV cameras, variable message signs and wire loops embedded in the road to detect traffic congestion, are spread across 28 separate communication networks.

‘Although we have cables running all over the country these are operating in virtually discrete areas,’ he said. ‘One of the reasons for this is that an analogue CCTV signal can only travel 30km before it degrades too much.’

These disparate networks will be replaced with a single digital Internet Protocol (IP)-based system that will link the nation’s regional control centres. By far the biggest element of the project, claimed Raby, will be installing new digital transmission stations at 20km intervals along the motorway network. The Genesys team will also be installing around 100km of cabling at three sites to form a fibre-optic loop that will sweep, in a figure of eight pattern, across the country.

Raby said that the new network will have a number of advantages. Most obviously, it will enable more data to be sent more quickly and over greater distances. But also, because it is an IP-based network, data will be re-routed even if a cable becomes damaged.

‘Signals will always find the quickest way through the mesh-like structure of the communications network,’ claimed Raby. ‘If a cable is cut, data will automatically find another route.’ He contrasted this with the current ‘hard-wired’ system where messages travel from point-to-point via a single cable.

Perhaps most significantly, the network will enable a nationwide approach to traffic management. ‘If there’s a problem on the M1, a control centre in Birmingham could set warning signs and send people up the M40 rather than the M1. It will help us manage the wider impact of congestion on other roads,’ explained Raby.

Raby claimed that the network’s technological possibilities are almost endless. ‘We are itching to put on the digital versions of what we already have, such as the Motorway Incident Detection Automatic Signalling system, the CCTV and the variable message signs. It will be much more flexible.

‘Further into the future the network will enable HA to introduce a range of future smart road systems. The M42 pilot has its own small digital network, but once we’ve converted the whole network then doing that sort of work on the roadside will be easy,’ he said.