HS2 has been a talking point for years, but the discussion has mostly surrounded the spiralling costs and the potential community disruption along the planned route.
When it comes to an infrastructure project like HS2, however, there is a mountain of other considerations at play as well, including a vast requirement for cabling.
Cabling might seem like a relatively minor point, but all the railway systems throughout the world operate because of the presence of cables, carrying power and signal information to where it is needed. But there is another side to HS2’s cabling, which is that it is logical to run a fibre trunk alongside the track, adding invaluable bandwidth for areas of the country poorly served by broadband.
In order to work properly, however, both of these networks need to be in place, leading to another major problem to account for: cable theft.
Copper Cables: Making the Trains Run on Time
Despite the age of the technology, copper cables remain at the heart of a major infrastructure project like HS2, as they carry the majority of the power and data that allows the rail network to operate.
Most obviously, heavy power cabling will run the length of the track. These heavy-gauge cables, over 3cm thick, are shielded in PVC to ensure durability and weigh more than a tonne per kilometre of cable.
Less obvious, but incredibly important, are the signalling cables. Again, old but reliable technology, the signalling cables carry the information required to keep the rail network signals functioning, preventing delays and collisions.
There are countless other cables as well, controlling junctions, heaters and monitoring equipment along the line. For a project like HS2, it means thousands of miles of copper cable will be laid alongside the track itself.
Fibre Cable: Britain’s Broadband Backbone
The much more exciting aspect of HS2’s cabling, especially for those who do not regularly commute between London and the North, is the potential for an incredibly high bandwidth fibre optic trunk to be laid alongside the railway, as has been discussed by the HS2 Select Committee.
This notion doesn’t necessarily mean that fibre optic broadband will become available to people living near the HS2 route. Fundamentally, network infrastructure follows a ‘trunk and branches’ layout.
Previously, the ‘trunk’ was narrow enough that the ‘branches’, which then break off and provide home internet connections via Ethernet, would effectively be competing for whatever resources were available.
The fibre cable that would be laid alongside HS2 would provide a substantial speed improvement at the ‘trunk’, giving each ‘branch’ far more to work with, leading to vastly improved home and business broadband speeds.
Theft Prevention: the Dark Side of Cabling Requirements
So, laying the cables is one thing, but keeping them operating is quite another. While there are faults that occur naturally or accidentally, there is also a substantial black market for stolen cabling and the valuable metals it contains. And some people are willing to risk the trains and high voltages to cash in.
To combat this trend, rail networks use armoured cables, usually sheathed in steel and heavy-duty PVC, as well as more subtle means to deter would-be thieves.
Some trains have been painted with messages to cable thieves, informing them that they are being watched. CCTV cameras disguised as posts, rocks, and discarded coke cans have been used to catch thieves at work. In high-risk areas, beer mats with messages to cable thieves have been distributed to local pubs. The rail operators have even run unscheduled ‘ghost trains’ in the early hours of the day to startle or catch cable thieves red-handed.
Cables might not be the most exciting aspect of a project like HS2, or any other for that matter, but they are absolutely integral to the operation of the network and to our communication networks.