Digital communications are revolutionising the railway business

Norman Frisch, Global Business Development, Huawei Railway Transportation.

Norman Frisch, Global Business Development, Huawei Railway Transportation.

Travelling by train in the 19th century was fraught with hazards and inconveniences. It is even said that Sherlock Holmes' famous deerstalker hat only appeared because the character once had to brave an English train, known for winds and smoke whipping through the cabins. He needed the hat to stay warm – and it has since stuck as part of his brand.

Dodging the elements was not all of it. During the same period numerous ‘gauge wars' were fought as railways argued over the standard size of tracks. The situation was so ridiculous that commuters travelling from Buffalo to New York in the US had to repeatedly change trains sometimes within a few kilometres down the track, because the railway lines were different.

Today most railways are on the same gauge standard. But technology has moved on and other needs for standardisation arose. By the 1990s, European railways discovered they were experiencing huge delays because of different communications systems. Every time a train crossed a border, it had to be laboriously reset to the comms system of that territory, which bled performance and delivery.

Numerous experts were brought together to decide on a standard going forward. One of these was Norman Frisch, today Global Business Development lead for Huawei's Railway Transport portfolio. He explained that the eventual decision came to a standard now called GSM-R:

"We chose GSM because it was already very successful in the public market. The railways saw piggybacking on that standard would mean the features being developed for the public will roll into the GSM-R standard. Functions such as text messaging and packet data were added as they emerged."

Today GSM-R is mandated by the EU. But given the disturbances caused by a lack of standards, the benefits are clear. So whereas African railways are not obligated to be under a common standard, it makes business sense for them to do so anyway – and for more reasons than just efficiency.

As Frisch noted, GSM-R inherits benefits from GSM improvements, such as the introduction of GPRS. This opened the door to packet-based or IP-network transmissions. In short, railway comms were able to become IP (Internet Protocol or Packet Data)-enabled. Now that process is stepping up another generation with the arrival of LTE.

For a casual observer, it may seem as if railways are adopting old technologies. Certainly for many consumers LTE is already a mainstay. But railways can afford to take their time, not the least because their investments are long-term. This brings the benefit of adopting tried-and-tested technologies that make a real difference:

"Railways have a much slower tech lifecycle. They don't build a service for subscribers. The demands from trains are different. They need critical voice communications and data. When a network fails for mobile users, they get annoyed. When it does for trains, it can cause a catastrophe."

This is also why LTE is not yet a railway standard, but operators around the world are nonetheless expanding into the technology. Even at the GSM-R level, the packet communications enable a new level of awareness both in the train and in control rooms. As LTE engages railways, this capacity is growing. For example, it is possible now for control rooms to have a real-time view of a train's cab, and for travel information to be fed onto screens in the train.

Commuters can garner info from those screens. They can also benefit from in-train broadband: modern to rail standards ruggedised ‘mi-fi' systems are able to consolidate LTE data throughputs from several networks into single WiFi access points with their combined data throughput. Then there is LTE's narrowband component, a low-power, highly dedicated way to add sensors and other IOT systems to the railway without deploying a new wireless network.

"It costs billions to maintain all the equipment every year," Frisch explained." Just saving a tiny bit of that maintenance cost will translate to a lot of money. Yet the cost you have to connect the sensor down in the countryside to your control centre can be very expensive. LTE drastically reduces that infrastructure cost to build an IOT network. The sensors and data can already piggyback on the LTE narrowband, so it's a one-two. You can run devices for five years, maybe even longer, on one battery. It's much easier now to roll out such a system for the long term."

Add it all up and the evolving world of railway communications is creating a lot of opportunity. This momentum is being maintained by avoiding vendor silos: cross-compatibility and integration are guarded to make sure operators have ongoing choice in the technologies they want to deploy. Huawei has even established a network of 19 OpenLabs, local laboratories where it and third-parties are integrating multi-vendor solutions with new products and use cases that leverage these networks. One of these OpenLabs was launched in Johannesburg in April 2017.

It is clear that there is more to be gained when everyone follows the same standards. But don't look at that as a necessity. Modern critical railway communications offer a huge opportunity to evolve and expand what can be delivered, both for railways and their customers.