From telegraphs to telephones, cables to Connect, over its 150-year history the London Underground has remained at the forefront of communications technology. We look at the journey from a single telegram line to an integrated radio system that connects over 12,000 people making upwards of 11m calls a year, and ask what happens next.

An LR feature, sponsored by: Thales

On 19 February 1901 Henry Wright, a Station Foreman for the Metropolitan Railway, was working at Baker Street station. It was just after nine in the morning and the down platform on which he was standing was busy. As he watched, the 09:07 from New Cross pulled in a few minutes late. Wright kept his eye on the signal at the  front of the platform – as it was not always an easy thing for drivers to see on an Underground railway still powered by steam. It was green and so, after a few minutes of boarding and alighting, Wright shouted at the train’s crew to leave the station.
The train, however, didn’t move.
Realising that something must be wrong, Wright began hurrying towards the signal box to find out what was up. As he approached it though he suddenly realised, with a sinking dread, that he could hear another train approaching. He broke into a run and began waving his arms.
“I began to shout to draw the driver’s attention.” He later told the accident investigation. “I had no lamp in my hand. I cannot say whether the driver’s attention was attracted.”
As Wright watched, the second train slammed into the rear of the 09:07 with a howl of brakes and a sickening crunch, crumpling up the final carriage of the first train and driving the whole thing forward about twenty yards.
As the noise and dust began to settle Wright rushed to the signal box, where he found signalman Frank Crocker standing at the top of the stairs.
“What have you been and done?!” Shouted Wright.
“I know it, but couldn’t stop it,” Replied Crocker, in shock. “What’s the extent of the damage?”
Miraculously, it soon became clear that there were no fatalities. Harry Tinney, the driver of the second train, had been alert enough to spot Wright’s attempt at a warning. He’d already begun to apply the brakes gently but instead immediately slammed them on full. This instinctive reaction shed enough speed to ensure that a full-on disaster was avoided. In the end 19 people were injured, but it could have been much worse.
As work began to treat the wounded and clear the line, a number of other railway workers arrived to inspect the signal box and discover what had gone wrong. Two of the first on the scene were assistant linesman Hayward Alder and linesman Albert Swift. They asked Crocker what had happened.
“The down disc has sold me.” Crocker replied, referring to the telegraph and signalling warning system ostensibly meant to prevent him from setting the signal to release trains into the platform whilst one was already there. The system was there for Crocker to use when visibility was too low for him to physically see the platform and he had relied on it for dispatch that day.
Crocker then told both men that, if accidentally operated a certain way in this particular signal box, the disc wouldn’t lock like it should and the signal would open. He claimed he had reported this before and then proceeded to demonstrate the behaviour, twice, to Albert Swift.
Swift failed to mention this demonstration in his own testimony to the official accident investigators later on, nor was an increasingly desperate Crocker able to replicate the problem on a later occasion to Swift’s boss Mr Buck, the telegraph inspector, and other senior railwaymen. For a while, it looked like Crocker would get the full blame for what happened. Luckily for the signalman, however, even in 1901 rail accident investigations were incredibly thorough.
In the end, it became clear that whilst some of the blame was Crocker’s, not only was the disc system at Baker Street genuinely faulty, but the telegraph company tasked with maintaining it had indeed failed to fix it when asked. Worse, under pressure Buck admitted in later testimony that after Albert Swift had told him Crocker’s account of events, the telegraph inspector had quietly ordered that the problem be fixed. This was the reason the signalman’s later attempts to replicate the issue had failed.
The result of the investigation was clear: good platform-to-train communication (between Wright and Tinney) had helped prevent a major disaster. Bad communications equipment, however, had caused it in the first place. In the aftermath, the Metropolitan Railway brought maintenance of its communications systems in-house. Things would stay that way on the Underground for almost one hundred years to come.

A vital function

Operational communications play a huge part in the safe running of a metro system and it is crucial that the network and secure circuits link users with each other and central core information systems.
On the surface this may seem simply a reflection of the fact that effective communication lies at the heart of every modern city and every modern journey. Most of us will use some form of communication whilst travelling; a mobile phone to check in with a partner, a smart phone to check work emails, play a game, or possibly use an application to check the arrival time of the next train.
For London Underground though, communication means far more than just making a telephone call. Each time you commute you will see platform staff talking on their handheld radios to station managers, they will be minimising any issues and ensuring that your journey is safe to make; drivers and engineers need to communicate with control rooms, all underneath metres of concrete. Today, the systems required to seamlessly manage all these interactions are complex. They are the result of the 20-year Connect contract for which, as part of the Citylink Consortium, Thales was responsible for the design, build and installation of the transmission network, a highly resilient secure fibre and cable transmission system. What’s equally remarkable, however, is the technological heritage on which Connect is built. What is true now was true in 1901 and before – the Underground has a history of pioneering communications systems as old as the network itself, and they have always been critical to its operation.

Telegraphs and tracks

That history dates right back to the birth of the telegraph. It is perhaps not surprising that railway companies were early adopters of this new technology as soon as reliable equipment began to appear in the 1850s and beyond. It is easy to forget that many of the challenges that railway companies face have existed since the very beginning – not least the need to communicate delays or breakdowns to stations and staff further up the line. The telegraph offered the first, fast, practical way to do this. Indeed by 1854 the London & North Western had not one, but two, parallel systems in place – one for general messages, one for information about train workings. Britain’s railway companies also suddenly found themselves in possession of a valuable asset to telegraph companies – vast stretches of long, straight land over which they had the rights (and space) to lay cables.
As telegraph companies throughout the country battled to secure air and subsurface rights from landowners in order to connect up their networks of wires, the railways simply laid their own cables alongside track. Alternatively, they offered the right to do so to private telegraph firms in return for access to the network. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.
By the 1870s it was unusual to find a railway company that didn’t have access to a telegraph system at all. This was certainly the case for both the Metropolitan and District Railways in London. Indeed the Metropolitan had an extensive telegraph system in place right from its opening in 1863. Two-position instruments (where current changes were used to flip a needle between two positions on a dial to indicate dots or dashes) were put in place at stations and signal boxes right from the start. They were relied on heavily to help regulate the service and safely dispatch trains in gloomy, smoke-filled atmosphere of the line.


A Spagnoletti block disc signal. Courtesy Bluffalobrill

As can be seen from the accident account with which this article opened, this telegraph system was still in place (with modification) by 1901. Perhaps more remarkably – and certainly to the surprise of some of the Metropolitan’s board members – so was the man who had created it. Charles Spagnoletti and company had been hired by the Metropolitan in 1863 on £250 per annum to build and maintain the telegraph system. 38 years later the 70-year-old Spagnoletti and his company were still doing just that.
After the 1901 accident the Metropolitan quickly brought maintenance and development of the telegraph system (along with most of Spagnoletti’s staff) in-house. In recognition of his long-service, Spagnoletti himself was granted the title of Consulting Engineer for Signalling and Telegraphs and given a generous retainer of 100 guineas a year. Given his advanced age the Metropolitan board perhaps felt they could afford to be generous with their compensation, as it was likely only a short-term obligation. Just like the original telegraph contract, however, Spagnoletti proved remarkably durable. He finally passed away in 1915.1

1. Incredibly, Spagnoletti’s signals would survive on Britain’s railways for 100 years after this – the last one was finally decommissioned at 0200 on 30 July 2016 at Banbury South signal box.

Like the Metropolitan, the District too used the telegraph for communications from practically the beginning. Indeed initially their network was actually managed by the Metropolitan, and the two systems remained linked thereafter. The District also realised that having a robust and (to all intents and purposes) instant form of communication could help solve one of the railway’s other problems – synchronised timekeeping. Having time standardised across all stations and signal boxes was a critical railway function, but something tricky to do before master/slave clocks became an option. The District, however, solved the problem in a novel way. At 07:58 every morning the telegraph operator at Westminster station took possession of one of the company’s telegraph lines and ‘held over’ the signal – that is, sent a single, long pulse without releasing it.
As stations and signal boxes listened in to this single, long signal would radiate out from Westminster, lighting up other networks along the way as it was picked by operators at Earl’s Court and Mill Hill Park and echoed out onto their own independent telegraph systems. Then, as soon as Big Ben sounded the hour, the operator would release the line. At this signal railwaymen across the Underground would synchronise their clocks and watches, setting railway time for another day.

Voice communications arrive

Again, easy voice communication on the Underground is something that today we take for granted. To provide an indication of the scale, on the Connect network alone 11.4m radio calls were made over the last twelve months, an average of 210,000 each week. These are all made possible due to over 11,000 circuits industriously carrying communications and CCTV images across the capital.
In 1878 such scale was all in the future. Britain’s first telephone company (called, rather unimaginatively, the Telephone Company) was founded in that year, although only point-to-point private lines were possible until the opening of London’s first exchange on Coleman Street in 1879. Again though, London’s railways were quick to adopt the technology as soon as it became practical.

The first documented installation of a phone line on what is now the Underground seems to have been at Earl’s Court in 1881, where it was used to connect the westbound platform with the eastern signal cabin. This was actually a mechanical line (relying on taut wires and speaking diaphragms) rather than the electric system that Alexander Graham Bell had patented and pioneered, as this was not yet entirely reliable or cost-effective. The first electric telephone on the network, however, wasn’t far behind.
That first electric phone system seems to have been installed in 1885 on the District. It was an eight-line system which connected the General Manager’s office on Victoria Street to the workshops at Lillie Bridge depot, three other internal departments and to the Chairman’s office at Victoria station. 

This connection to the Chairman’s office perhaps provides a hint as to why the District was quick to put an exchange in place. James Staats Forbes, Chairman of the District (as well as the London, Chatham & Dover) was the kind of person who would now be referred to as a bleeding-edge consumer. He was one of the first people to secure a personal line in 1879 after the opening of the Coleman Street exchange – the nineteenth-century equivalent of queueing up in Covent Garden for the latest iPhone. By 1880 he’d also become Chairman of a telephone company himself.


James Staats Forbes, painted by William Orpen in 1900

The first electric telephone installed to help the operation of services seems to have followed some time after, once the technology was fully reliable. As London’s veteran pub quizzers know, “Earl’s Court” is your best-guess answer to any question that begins “Which station was first to..?” So it is again here. That first operational installation was at Earl’s Court in 1896.2. The Metropolitan resisted such installations a little longer, fearing that the presence of telephones in signal boxes would be more of a distraction than an aid. It soon became clear, however, that the opposite was true.

2. The first operational escalator was also at Earl’s Court, for example.

As with the telegraph, the railway’s possession of long stretches of track (and in London tunnels) along which cables could be laid worked to its advantage. This helped the spread of telephone systems throughout the network.


As those cables spread throughout the Underground though it is perhaps no surprise that began to occasionally cause issues and fireworks – sometimes literally. 
In 1904, the Board of Trade (responsible, at the time, for railway regulation) expressed concern about cables at stations obstructing safety overhangs on platforms on the District. The District largely denied responsibility for dealing with the situation, saying that the cables were the property of the National Telephone Company (NTC). Then in 1905, during electrification works, some lead-lined NTC cables were lowered to trackside in tunnels near Victoria overnight. Whilst there, a piece of protective iron trough somehow ended up lying across these cables and the not-yet-active live rail.
This remained un-noticed until a few nights later, when the District turned on the live rail ahead of a test train run. The heavy current coursed through the live rail and transferred over to the phone cables via the trough and the lead lining. Witnesses later reported that overhead telephone gantries on Queen Victoria Street erupted into an impressive firework display. Meanwhile major fires broke out at two of NTC’s exchanges, cutting off 2,000 subscribers across London.3

3. This actually triggered a brief public panic at the time as to whether telephones could electrocute people via the telephone system. Ultimately the investigation into the incident helped dispel that myth.

Fear of incidents like this, along with general concern about the presence of ‘foreign cables’ in the Underground’s tunnels, would remain a physical barrier to the spread of telephony on the Underground. The takeover of the phone system by the Post Office starting in 1912 helped alleviate the clutter, as this marked the point at which separate, dedicated tunnels for telecoms started to be dug. Nonetheless, voice communications on the Underground remained a balancing act and both telegraph and hand-delivered messages remained a regular feature on the Underground as late as the 1970s.

Tunnel talk

This isn’t to say that significant efforts weren’t made to tackle the problem of better communications underground. Both between and after the World Wars more installations and improvements were made.4 Extending general telephone capacity on the Underground was largely just a case of waiting for phones and switches to get smaller and then finding space to put them in.

4. Indeed some of those installations weren’t even their own. During the Second World War, all of the telephone lines into the temporary Cabinet War Room at Down Street station were actually provided by the London, Midland & Scottish Railway. The cables and exchange equipment remained in place there long after the war. You can find more on Down Street here.

Tunnels, however, were an altogether different challenge.
Again, this is something we largely take for granted thanks to Connect (and the general availability of radio) now. The base challenge for a railway before such technology existed, however was far harder – involving, as it did, the challenge of trying to connect moving assets (trains) and tight spaces (tunnels) with key people (signallers and line controllers) in an emergency.
A description of the first tunnel telephones on the three Underground lines built by Charles Tyson Yerkes (broadly, the Piccadilly, Bakerloo and half of the modern Northern line) probably provides a good overview of early attempts to tackle this problem.
Here, a pair of bare phosphor bronze telephone cables ran between each station through the tunnels. This allowed staff on one platform to (depending on which end of the platform they were at) call up the previous or next station along the line.
Leaving the cables bare in the tunnels was an ingenious way of allowing emergency communications in the tunnel. All trains were equipped with a basic speaker and microphone combination in the cab, which was connected to a small magneto battery. In the event of a breakdown or other stoppage a driver would dismount and use a pair of fly leads to connect this to the cables, allowing the driver to talk to the platform staff at the previous station.

Yerkes’ lines weren’t the first to use this method, which had appeared on what is now the Central line when it opened. In 1904 the Board of Trade had also made it compulsory for all new railways to have some kind of telephone setup to enable drivers to raise issues with local stations. Nonetheless its implementation on Yerkes’ Tubes from 1906 onwards marked the point at which this, and other Underground communication systems, started to become relatively standardised across the network, even if they didn’t interconnect.


A driver using an early tunnel telephone, taken from a Metropolitan line manual published in 1926.

By 1915 work had begun to take tunnel telephones one step further and separate them entirely from the regular telephone system within stations, at the same time converting them to run off of central batteries rather than portable ones that drivers and night workers had to carry themselves. This brought with it two major advantages. Firstly, it effectively doubled the communications capacity in an emergency (as station-to-station communications would now no longer prevent driver-to-station communications). It also allowed the tunnel telephones to instead put drivers in touch with the people they really needed to talk to in an emergency – their controllers.
Very quickly, it was also realised that there was a third advantage as well. For if drivers were to only use the tunnel telephone in an emergency, then any call that arrived over this system could be treated as such. This, combined with an incident in 1920 where a dropped tunnel telephone in thick smoke prevented the driver from contacting control, resulted in the system being altered so that any voltage change on the tunnel lines – whether triggered by a telephone being plugged in by a driver, or by a driver or line worker simply pinching the wires together and short circuiting them, would automatically cut off the current on that section of line. 


A photo demonstrating to drivers how to correctly pinch the wires.

Talking on the train

Whilst isolating the tunnel telephones for driver use in an emergency had its advantages, it also meant that in the long term a better system for train-to-train, and train-to-controller communication was soon needed.
The first attempt to do the former was the ‘Drico’ (short for ‘Driver to Controller’) system launched shortly after the Second World War. This essentially piggybacked onto the standard tunnel telephone system, but crucially didn’t result in a voltage change on the phone lines. This meant that, if stopped at a signal, a driver could now contact the controller by Drico without the tunnel telephone automatically discharging the current on the line. By 1952 Drico was running on the Northern line. By 1959 it had been extended across the entire network, including the East London Line.
As a system, Drico was a big step forward but the technical limitations imposed by the need not to change the cable voltage meant audio quality was far from perfect. Nonetheless, with modification Drico would remain in place and in use (as a system of last resort) across the whole network right up until radio finally arrived in force and beyond.

Radio arrives

Above ground, the Underground adopted radio just as swiftly as it had jumped on other improvements in communication systems. Development of a radio system started almost immediately after the war, and by 1950 a radio control tower had been erected on the top of 55 Broadway, the Underground’s headquarters building.
The main beneficiaries of this were signals and engineering staff – the system having been specifically put in place to give them mobile communications during incidents. To begin with, the size of the equipment required meant the use of radio-equipped breakdown vans. As the technology improved though engineers began to be issued with handheld systems.
As can likely be imagined, these were hardly the small handsets in use over Connect today. Instead they were closer in appearance to early mobile phones – telephone handsets on top of a briefcase full of wires and battery. Over time these gradually became more pocket-sized devices. This culminated, in the early nineties, with London Underground’s Emergency Response Unit (ERU) being equipped with control vehicles filled with an array of radios, fax machines and TV units.

Radio goes underground

By 1966, a method had also finally been found to bring radio (of sorts) to trains. Pioneered on the Victoria line, it was known as Carrier Wave and – rather ingeniously – used the conductor rail to transmit radio. Something similar had been pioneered in Toronto, but this had only allowed driver-to-controller conversations to be initiated, not the reverse. Tested on the Hainault Loop (along with the Victoria line trains themselves) Carrier Wave was more advanced, allowing both driver and controller to contact each other. This was considered vital in light of the gradual shift to Driver Only Operation (DOO) on the Underground. Combined with the move to Automatic Train Operation (ATO), this increased the need for a driver to be onboard their own train – and ideally in the cab – at all times, lest something happen whilst it was unattended. Carrier Wave helped ensure that was possible.

DOO also brought with it another need that (at least to begin with) Carrier Wave was unable to address: train-to-train communication. With no guards on board, Victoria line trains were equipped with a powerful rear light which could be used to signal to a driver behind that they should pull up close and render assistance. Without train-to-train communication, however, it was impossible for the lead driver to talk to the following driver before they boarded and thus left them blindly walking into a potential emergency situation.

Several different options were trialled as a way of delivering train-to-train communications without much success. These ranged from VHF sets on the Victoria line (which doubled up as the loudspeaker system) to a far more complex (and expensive) system relying on small train-based aerials and tunnel base stations across almost the entire Underground. In 1976 a ‘leaky-feeder’ method (which relied on co-ax cables with their outer condutors cut at intervals to allow radio waves through) was also trialled at the top end of the Bakerloo line, based on a system first used by the National Coal Board, who had faced a similar challenge in Britain’s mines.

Getting leaky

This leaky feeder method would ultimately prove to be the best option and by 1984 it had been deployed across the entire network. It was far from perfect, as it required base stations every 1.4km and was limited to only four radio bands. It was also, essentially, an ‘open’ system – meaning that any driver who happened to be listening could hear the current conversation happening on the line. This led to some creative solutions to prevent confusion for drivers – such as unheard (by the driver) five-digit codes which were transmitted at the beginning of any call and ensured that only the receiver in the relevant train rang. Nonetheless these would remain problems throughout the lifespan of the system.


Tunnel telephone cables at Waterloo

The darkest day: King’s Cross

The tragic events of the 1987 King’s Cross fire would serve to highlight many organisational and technical failings within London Underground. Communications were no exception. The overall decline of the network, both in terms of passenger numbers and funding, had meant that the investment and leadership required to create a modern, safe and – most importantly – consistent communications network across all lines, trains and stations had not always been there.

This wasn’t to say that London Underground hadn’t continued to push the boundaries of technology. Outside of radio, the Underground could boast both the first ever pulse exchange for regular telecoms (surprisingly not at Earl’s Court), early adoption of push-button and tone phones (on the Victoria line) and one of the first ever uses of commercial fibre-optics at Hounslow Exchange.

On an operational level though, its day-to-day communications network remained fragmented. By 1987 radio may have been practically ever-present on Underground trains, for example, but station radio was still patchy. Not every station had been equipped, and even those that were often didn’t have it throughout. One consequence of the fire was a change in the rail regulations to require station radio throughout the entirety of a station. London Underground began to work out how to comply.

In the end, a system based on leaky feeders was once again used to put the new radio network in place, with over 150 stations fully equipped by the end of the decade. This also included work to make British Transport Police radios work underground, albeit by essentially picking up their calls and rerouting them to a control centre over landlines. This facility was, however, unique to the BTP and not extended to the wider Metropolitan Police – something that would become an issue later and which Connect would help correct.

Enter Connect

By the end of the nineties London Underground had succeeded in expanding radio coverage throughout the network, but at the same time there was little to no cross-linkage. Each London Underground line had its own network and standalone radio system and even within lines, direct radio communication between stations and drivers was rarely possible. Indeed over 130 separate communication systems existed across the network.5.

5. London Underground’s above ground telephone developments at this time are worth an entire article on their own, encompassing early use of IBM computers, several small-scale wars with the Post Office and a shock migration from British Telecom to Mercury.


The variety of telecommunications on the Underground is visible even at Edgware Road signal box today.

For London Underground, the price of consolidating and fixing these systems was seen as prohibitively costly. The then Labour Government’s promotion of Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) in the late nineties, however, suddenly opened up an opportunity for change. A £1.2bn project package was put together which called for the replacement and consolidation of the entire Underground radio network as part of a 20-year contract. Flawed as many PFI schemes were, Connect would prove eventually to be a success although, as with many schemes on the Underground at the time, the complexity of the task and time required would turn out to be greater than expected.

The Connect PFI contract was awarded to the CityLink Consortium – comprising Thales, Fluor, Motorola, HSBC and John Laing in November 1999. The goal was to provide a single Motorola Tetra radio network for London Underground, incorporating both the Motorola Tetra Radio and traditional phone, data and video services.

This was no small feat. By the time rollout was completed in 2009, over 400km of track and each of the 270 stations on the Underground had been fully connected. In total, Connect now comprises over 12,000 users, using 7,500 hand radios and over 1,400 train-based ones. Over 1,450km of optical fibre and conventional cabling was also required to complete coverage.

Airwave arrives

A significant point in Connect’s history occurred in the period following the London Bombings in 2005. In the aftermath of the attacks, it became clear that providing radio access only to the BTP was not enough. The network needed to be extended to enable London’s police and ambulance services to go underground at a station whilst continuing to communicate with their peers using their own emergency services-issued radio.

Luckily, the National Policing Improvement Agency already had a project underway to replace police radios throughout the UK. Equally luckily, the Airwave project had already opted to use a Tetra-based system.

As a result, Consortium members Thales and Motorola collaborated with London Underground and Airwave to bring about full integration between the two radio networks. With Connect by this point already a relatively stable installation, work proceeded quickly and by October 2008 final testing was underway. By the end of 2009 London, for the first time in its history, had a fully shared and integrated system of radio communication across the entire Underground and all of the emergency services (the Fire Brigade, whilst not an Airwave user, already had a below-ground radio solution).

Managing Connect


The view inside the control room.

From 2009 onwards, Thales has continued as the sole maintainer and service delivery supplier through the Citylink consortium, ensuring that both the Tetra radio and the transmission network systems are operated and maintained to provide the best service for London Underground. Given the scale of both the task and the amount of equipment deployed, it is not work that can be carried out in isolation. On the contractor side, Motorola continue to provide manufacturer support and close collaboration is also required with other leading communication manufacturers such as Ericsson.

We have written before about lessons learnt from the 2012 London Olympics on LR before, and both Thales and London Underground learnt valuable Connect lessons from the competition as well. The two organisations were forced to work closely to ensure preparations were in place for seamless service and the benefits to both organisations were noted. In 2013 the Thales Network Management Centre (NMC) became co-located with London Underground. This enabled the Connect duty team to work in much closer collaboration with London Underground’s operational staff on a daily basis and improved the ability of both teams to undertake joint analysis to fix issues.

Ensuring 24/7 coverage from the NMC is no small task. Within the centre there is a team of engineers who monitor the network for any alarm events. The same team also co-ordinates the activities of the field staff who are involved in maintenance, repairs out on the network or the replacement of any assets that cannot be repaired on site. Generally speaking, work takes place during normal operating hours but where this would pose an unacceptable risk to the operation of the network, it is postponed until engineering hours when trains are no longer running.

The NMC also includes both problem managers and field technical support engineers to provide an enhanced level of technical expertise for complex faults. Connect is also an evolving product, and when new aspects of technology are introduced, these act as integrators and implementers as well.

Managing the assets

With over 100,000 Connect assets in place on the Underground, it is perhaps no surprise that maintenance activities are extensive and include full servicing and checks on all assets within the system. This extends to staff patrols across the network throughout the year, checking for any signs of deterioration in radio communication quality so that this can be rectified before it becomes a problem.

For each asset, Thales considers the manufacturer’s mean time between failure rates, the asset life expectancy and the data collected surrounding faults and alarms. This data enables engineering teams to make design improvements or select the right replacement asset so that a renewal can take place prior to asset performance starting to degrade. Each year there is a programme of asset renewal activity to ensure that the network can continue to operate at its most resilient levels. This approach has enabled London Underground and Thales to safely introduce improvements, not least because technology has evolved so significantly since its introduction.

There is also now more emphasis on remote event notifications and diagnostics. This has resulted in much more centrally managed activity and less in the field. This is vital because field work still remains a specialised task. The very nature of the Underground – its age and the diversity of previous communications instalments covered earlier in this article – mean that field work on Connect is always likely to require topographical and environmental knowledge not just of the Underground but also sometimes of a specific line.


The control panel wall

Spreading the knowledge

Managing Connect has brought with it a whole-life approach to asset management that considers the design, installation, operation, and maintenance as a single cycle. The principles of this have been established and refined and are now an integral part of Thales’s service offering. The lessons that the team has learned from operating the Connect network and assessing asset conditions have gone on to inform activity elsewhere in the UK, such as on Manchester Metrolink.

Meanwhile ‘Obsolescence management’ is a phrase that might seem to owe more to management speak than practicality, but understanding how to plan, diagnose and proactively respond in a timely manner whilst not disrupting operations has proven vital. Recognising and assessing the impact, then implementing a solution on a network the scale of Connect with such a variety of assets is a challenge that has needed to be mastered.

Managing people

It is not just technology that has allowed successful delivery of the Connect project for almost two decades. It has been the people too. A team of men and women work around the clock on Connect and each one is highly trained, whether they are out in the field or working on projects to introduce a new technology. Processes are in place to make sure that there are acknowledged experts in place to validate innovation, design and then assure that each stage of the work has been completed to the right standard.

Each member of staff undertakes safety training as a prerequisite for their role, but health and wellbeing also underpin all activities. One of the lessons that has been learnt throughout the transport and telecoms industries is that it is important to ensure that everyone is not just fit, which goes without saying, but actually on top form as well. What applies to sportsmen applies to railway and telecoms workers too. A great diet, a good night’s sleep and drinking lots of water are all critical as they contribute to alertness and thus underpin the safety of both individuals and the system. In an industry where safety is of the utmost importance, these small things matter.

Behavioural safety is a concept that has also bled over from the wider Thales group to have a significant impact on Connect: Why do people make mistakes? What makes a bad, or good, habit?

Understanding the causes of complacency and understanding how or why we behave (or even don’t behave) in a certain way can either contribute to or adversely impact safe work and safe engineering practices. This is not just true on Connect but in wider transport work as well.

There are other things that positively affect the delivery of Connect. Over the years that it has been deployed, female role models have increasingly been employed to senior positions across both Thales and the rest of the transport industry where it was very rare before. It has been noticeable on the ground level that apprentices and graduates now join Thales and London Underground having seen both a bright future and real examples of women working at all levels within engineering, safety and operations. There are female Systems Engineers, Data Specialists, Software Engineers, Hardware Engineers and Network Specialists, all demonstrating that telecoms and engineering is a viable career.

In many ways the challenges faced on Connect are not dissimilar to the ones faced by those first telegraph engineers on the Metropolitan back in 1863. There is always a new challenge, a new innovation or a colleague who has succeeded in changing the way we work and behave. What Charles Spagnoletti would certainly not recognise, however, is the make-up of the teams that face those challenges. In Spagnoletti’s time women operated communications systems. In 2016 they make them.

Heading into the future

Which brings us, after 153 years of change, to the future. What next for Connect and for communications beyond it on the Underground?

In the near future, of course, lies the opening of Crossrail. Construction of the line has again seen Thales working with contractors while they undertake the tunnelling and building works. Connect assets have needed to be protected or moved during critical works, some even permanently, due to major changes to the station building schemes throughout the capital. All this has been done with negligible impact to the services provided to Connect’s end users.

Changing working methods to improve reliability further is also of particular interest to the Connect team. Elsewhere within Thales an Intelligent Asset Monitoring product (IAM) has been adopted – a decision support product that is in use with Network Rail.

Whether the team could introduce this to the Connect network, so that its predict and prevent capabilities could be adopted, is a current consideration. The network management platforms will be providing the events and alarms that give performance-related indicators. Having IAM in place as well would allow physical and mechanical data to be added to the mix. This would then highlight critical, but perhaps previously unforeseen, mitigating maintenance or even asset replacement that was required. In the harsh environment of the London Underground network, the ability to effectively analyse this type of data could have an enormous impact.

All aspects of security – be it physical, cyber or electronic – are another fast moving area of change. The Connect network and its assets have been evaluated and precautionary measures such as firewalls and gates are in place. But securing the network is not a one-off approach. The Connect system is re-evaluated and upgraded at regular intervals to ensure that the protection is up to date and robust. Like safety, improvements in security have led to an increased awareness and new behaviours for the NMC staff and for the end users of the system. There is the potential for more challenges to come.

Beyond security, it is highly likely that integration with other systems will be at the heart of Connect’s future. For example, the increased automation in station concourses has required additional telecoms capability. The Connect network now has much greater bandwidth than in 2009 and the IP capability will have an increased take-up by London Underground. This may seem slow compared to rollout in business environments, but public funding, priorities and technical assurance testing can take its toll on the speed of change. Connect is the backbone of the system, but the end equipment is varied with a wide range of uses. Each integration and interaction requires rigorous protection ensuring network resilience, reliability and security.

Looking to the long term

Finally, it is worth looking at what the future could hold for telecoms on the Underground in general. There are certainly lots of questions: How will the evolution of 4G and then eventually 5G pan out? What will that mean to London Underground and the wider travelling public? What will that mean to the next generation of the radio system and how will the industry respond to the safety assurance requirements of a system operating in a rail environment like Connect?

To a certain extent these are all questions that it is not yet possible to answer. Some trends and requirements, however, are increasingly becoming clear. One is that telecoms systems may need to change the way data is processed, but that there will still clearly be a requirement for a secure network like Connect to carry that data from A to B. The challenges of working with ‘big data’ will also inevitably see a requirement for data to move with increased speed, in turn calling for systems that can process more information faster at each end of the connection.

The Internet of Things (IOT) is also increasingly gaining both business and consumer attention. Would this have a future application in the rail industry, as mentioned above? Even if so, again there is still a need for a robust telecoms backbone such as the Connect network to carry the secure capability behind the scenes. Should asset conditions change or functionality be instigated based on an internet instruction, then it would be necessary to ensure safe operations are in place.

Indeed perhaps the more important question is how the cyber security industry will react to this change. These are just a well-known sample of important questions facing the industry.

In a way, many of these future questions are simply evolved versions of the same debates and demands that have always existed on the Underground – it is always about how fast people can safely travel, and how fast problems can be spotted, discussed and fixed. On a more specific level, for Thales as the Connect service provider and operator, the key questions and next steps are also about considering how innovation will assure sustained network performance into the next decade for both the Tetra radio system and the Transmission system, and how improving information management and decision-based support tools can enhance the capability of both systems.

Whatever is coming, it will only be the latest step in a very long journey from telegraph to Connect. For over 150 years the Underground has been at the forefront of telecoms technology. All that really remains is to see whether this is a position it manages to keep.

Should it do so, then exciting, but no doubt complex, times should lie ahead both for the industry and passengers. From the great exchange in the sky, Charles Spagnoletti and multiple generations of Underground telecoms engineers are looking down at that challenge and smiling.

Karen O’Neill is Connect O&M Manager at Thales. John Bull is Editor of London Reconnections. Those looking for more information on the history of telephones and telecoms on the Underground are highly recommended to take a look at the books of Mike Horne, whose work was invaluable during research for this article.

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Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.