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Getting the message

IT Signage

Most motorists will at some time have wondered what the point of motorway message signs really is.

Mark Hansford finds out.

The road is clear, the sky is blue. So why have you just passed a motorway message sign urging you to cut your speed- Or warning you of fog! Really?

Most motorists will at some time have found themselves asking how difficult it would be to get a sign that provides accurate, useful, motorway information.

The UK Highways Agency is setting out to answer that question through a £490M ($870M), 10 year upgrade of its existing roadside telecommunication systems.

This will provide a national digital system linking more than 14,000 message signs, emergency telephones, CCTV cameras and traffic monitoring systems to the Highway Agency's network of traffic control centres.

As a result, Agency staff in any of its seven regional control centres will be able to look at the situation on any part of the trunk road network using one of their 1,000 CCTV cameras and relay timely information to drivers via message signs. The upgrade will also enable the Agency to develop new initiatives, such as providing motorists access to real-time CCTV pictures of traffic conditions via the internet.

'This is a technological revolution, ' states Highways Agency contract manager David Raby.

The National Roads Telecommunications Services public private partnership deal was awarded to a Fluor/HSBC PFI consortium in September last year (see box). It involves undertaking a complete overhaul of the outdated system of optical fibre and copper cables, which transmits voice and data signals from many thousands of roadside devices to the 32 police control offices serving the nation's motorways.

'The network was set up 25 years ago around police constabulary boundaries, ' explains Raby. 'The data is analogue and it can't go very far as it degrades as it goes along the cables. So in effect we had 32 networks. What we have done now is to let a contract that will pull all those analogue networks into one digital one, allowing data to be transmitted from anywhere to everywhere.'

Using digital communications with fibre optic cables provides far greater information carrying capacity and flexibility, and also wipes out the degradation problem, he adds. 'CCTV takes up by far the most capacity and everybody wants it. But the Agency can't envisage needing any more capacity than you can get in a fibre optic cable. One disadvantage in the past was that you needed one fibre for each camera. Now you can send hundreds of pictures down a single fibre.

'The digital network doesn't differentiate between data you are putting across the network - all it sees is 1s and 0s. So you can be far more flexible about what the network is able to carry.'

After 25 years in the ground, the existing communications infrastructure is showing its age. It is expensive to fix and much is in need of replacement.

It was put together piecemeal - generally as part of Agency widening schemes, Raby adds.

'We had all this old bespoke technology that was mainly manufactured only for us, making it expensive to replace and maintain. But there's a whole market for the new digital stuff, so it makes it cheap to replace.'

The digital system will also provide a guarantee of continuity which the analogue system cannot match. 'The old system is hardwired with a single cable route from the roadside to the police control centre. If someone breaks that you are stuffed. That has serious safety implications.'

With the new system, 'we are using internet protocol so that the data stream finds the quickest route available.

If there is a problem one way it finds another'. Data heading from London to the South West could be routed via Manchester and nobody would know the difference, Raby explains (see diagram).

The rst phase of the project will test the system, with installation of new cables on parts of the M4, M3 and M62. It will also see the replacement and upgrade of electronics in more than 150 roadside transmission stations, some of which will need to be expanded to accommodate the new equipment.

'The crunch date is 16 September 2007. In that time there is a lot of work to do, ' says Raby, adding that £100M will have been spent by then.

'After two years it gets easier and is mainly operation and maintenance.'

How the contract works

Prior to the NRTS deal, the Agency was faced with managing more than 20 separate communications systems contracts. Private finance was seen as a way of ridding the Agency of the hassle at a stroke.

But handing a contractor all the risks of managing, maintaining and adding to the network over 10 years would have dramatically inflated the cost of the contract and delivered very bad value for money, says Raby.

'The need to add to the network is a cost they can't control, but which is completely controllable by us. We've therefore made half of the contract a framework and called it a public private partnership.'

Under the deal, the Genesis consortium of banker HSBC and US contractor Fluor takes responsibility for the national telecommunications network, providing a resilient and reliable service and monitoring the performance. For this it gets paid £490M over a decade.

But all roadside devices remain the responsibility of the Agency. The contract includes a pricing structure for the installation of additional infrastructure and for work generated if a new road is built.

Fluor will manage the contract, with subcontractors brought in for specific work such as cable and CCTV installation. Mott MacDonald will do civils design, with a civils contractor yet to be appointed.

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