As an island nation Brits have always had to put up with their fair share of harassment from the sea. But as most will recall, this winter’s barrage of storms were particularly severe, with the worst weather for twenty years causing widespread flooding and wind damage.
The people of the small seaside town of Dawlish in Devon know all too well the devastating effect extreme weather can have on communities and livelihoods, especially those in remote, difficult to reach places and perching on exposed shorelines.
As well as ferrying local commuters and serving tourists coming into the popular resort town during summer, Dawlish’s coast-hugging railway line provides the only rail link from Plymouth to London and one of the main routes to Cornwall and the rest of the south west. When in February ferocious waves smashed through the sea wall obliterating a 200ft stretch of the track, there was no time for hanging about when it came to restoring it.
When civil engineering firm BAM Nutall was drafted in by Network Rail for the job, IT head Rob Youster was well aware of the time pressures they would be under. Luckily BAM Nutall had an impeccable track record of delivering high profile UK infrastructure projects within strict time frames, including the development of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and major tunneling works for London’s Crossrail project – the largest construction project ever undertaken in Europe due to open in 2018.
One of the biggest tasks for the Dawlish project would be putting in place an emergency communication network under hazardous conditions and having it up and running from day one of the restoration.
‘We always face challenges trying to get IT on site before project staff arrive,’ says Youster. ‘But the shift in IT requirements means this is becoming greater than ever before. Years ago it was probably four to five weeks before they needed it, now it’s becoming almost an immediate requirement.’
Bam Nutall’s project management staff indicated to Youster the critical need to reliably and securely share large amounts of data such as architectural blueprints, progress diagrams and correspondence between those at the site in Dawlish, Bam Nuttall’s own offices and those of Network Rail. But with no server on site and no access to WiFi, plus continuing challenging weather conditions, a bespoke solution was required. Installing fibre infrastructure would be too time consuming and there was not enough space on site for a satellite solution. The team needed a Wide Area Network (WAN) flexible and resilient enough to cope with the changing situation on site 24 hours a day.
Luckily BAM Nutall on-site connectivity partner Trellisworks was able to deliver, and could accommodate a turnaround of just 24 hours.
The solution they put forward consisted of a Pepwave MAX wireless router with bonded 100 Mbps bandwidth across to the main BAM Nuttall datacentre, containing eight individual SIMs operating in redundant pairs. Alongside this, two smaller mobile data routers were installed to provide access to subconstractors and guests to the site network.
‘With the solution we had, we had to consider the elements,’ explains Youster. ‘Trellisworks made us a complimentary bespoke antenna that was put just outside the window of the cabin so we could keep an eye on it, and gave us plenty of guarantee that adverse weather conditions such as thick fog wouldn’t affect it. It works just the same as your mobile phone, only in a more condensed area.’
An extended part that Trellisworks provided enhanced the signal, allowing it to point to either one of two masts at any time, as the team used two separate carriers. This proved invaluable as the project gathered publicity and press began to crowd into Dawlish.
‘Our meeting on site concluded we should go with two network providers, that allowed us to not be hindered by any sudden uplift in usage of mobile broadbroand in the area by the press,’ says Youster. ‘We were also able to give the BBC and ITV continuous timelapse images from a camera installed at the site.’
To compliment all this, a Peplink Balance device was installed into BAM Nuttall’s central data centre to provide a stable and high bandwidth VPN (Virtual Private Network) and SIM bandwidth bonding, combining all of the SIMs together for maximum bandwidth.
And Trellisworks’ SIM management service ensured that no costly overage was incurred on any of the SIMs, avoiding a shock at the end of the project when the bill came in.
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‘We work very closely with our partners as opposed to just picking them out of a phone book, as it were,’ says Youster. ‘They were able to be on site to help with the changing situation as it progressed, monitoring network traffic and performance. As the situation on site evolved and we progressed further up the sea front, our office and the solution had to be moved so that the wireless connectivity was still in range.’
As a result of the efficient and seamless communications throughout the repairs, the project was able to be completed in eight weeks, ahead of schedule, and with absolutely no connectivity interruptions.
‘I always ask an honesty report of how well the IT performed on site,’ says Youster,’ and this time everyone on the project team scored us five out of five.’
Now that Dawlish has its lifeline back, Youster and the team at BAM Nuttall are looking into how to add yet more efficiencies to similar projects in future.
‘The areas I’ve been looking into are sustainability and green IT,’ he says. ‘If we could use a solar panels and other kinds of green energy out on site we’d be able to provide the communications solutions needed without having to use huge amounts of power. It also means we’re not totally reliant on one form of power should powercuts and outages occur.’
This focus on being green is particularly pertinent considering that the team are likely to face more projects around countering the affects climate change on the UK’s vital infrastructure, as extreme weather events like 2014’s freak storms are predicted to increase in frequency.
Youster is confident his team will have the agility to stay ahead of whatever nature throws at them- ‘We’re right on the pulse of how we can address these unknown problems in future.’