All images: Max Bögl
Enhancing rail connectivity in rural areas
A recent IRITS webinar explored how railway telecommunication stakeholders plan to introduce the new 5G telecommunications system in the most rural areas in Europe. Ilaria Grasso Macola reports on three lessons learned from the event.
To be launched in 2025, the new 5G-enabled telecommunications standard Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) is set to replace the existing standard, the Global System for Mobile Communications – Railway (GSMR), which is used on most of the European Union’s railway system.
The system was at the centre of a recent webinar held by the International Railway Summit organising body IRITS, titled ‘How can we ensure efficient FRMCS connectivity in rural areas?’.
In the webinar, railway telecommunications stakeholders discussed the best approach to ensure connectivity even in the most remote areas of the continent. Here is what we learned.
SkedGo CEO John Nuutinen. Credit: Skedgo
MOTIONTAG managing director Fabien Sauthier. Credit: MOTIONTAG
FRMCS will replace the obsolete GSM-R and adapt to different scenarios
As explained by International Union of Railways head of FRMCS Dan Mandoc, almost 70% of European trains are covered by the GSM-R standard, which enables trains to make emergency calls.
“The train is a very heavy thing, running 180km/h,” Mandoc said. “It cannot steer right, it cannot steer left, it can only advance or brake. “It needs to know what’s happening in front of it around three to five kilometres ahead, and to do all this it needs a very strong point of service and special capabilities to be able to do so, especially voice communication, which has to function at 100%.”
A 2G system, GSM-R is quickly becoming obsolete as railway telecommunications technology has a different life cycle compared with other industries, usually lasting 15 years. Given its 5G nature, FRMCS will allow for railway digitalisation, improving the connection and data transmission.
If you want to have interoperability, you need a system which is cost-effective and safe, you need to do it at the European level.
Mandoc said that FRMCS development plans began in 2010 and will be operational in the first half of 2025. The first step, which began in the second quarter of 2019, revolved around specification and setting up a migration plan to move from GSM-R to FRMCS.
When it comes to migration preferences, Mandoc said, the situation is extremely complex because it’s not a national problem but needs to be done on a European scale.
“If you want to have interoperability, you need a system which is cost-effective and safe, you need to do it at the European level, and therefore the system has to fit in with all the EU members’ needs, which are very diverse,” he explained.
The second step, which is being carried out these days, focuses on prototyping while the third will revolve around deploying the technology to coexist with GSM-R from the second half of 2025.
Credit: SkedGo | MOTIONTAG
FRMCS should be used in a very flexible way, especially in rural areas
Connecting trains to the control room is fundamental, but the approach should use multiple radio access technologies for different areas and different railway sections.
“The dispatchers make use of these connections to communicate with onboard devices,” said Frequentis public transport solutions head Markus Myslivec.
As there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, several different solutions can be considered. One way to connect the FRMCS is by deploying a gateway that connects the technology with its radio access technologies like any other communications system.
“These gateways are not boxes anymore but software modules,” he added. “So, if you already run a state-of-the-art infrastructure, that should provide enough processing power for official gateways.”
Another option is to enable different connections – including GSM-R access, public access and FRMCS access – and see which one fits best the area and the customer needs.
“Never forget that our focus is to keep trains moving while connecting them to various communication and radio access technology,” Myslivec concluded. “There’s no one-size-fits-all option; talk to the industry, talk to us and benefit from the experience of other domains to find the right connection for [any given] areas.”
FRMCS connecting will present planning challenges in rural areas
Bringing cost-effective broadband to rural areas is not easy, explained Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency senior inspector Markku Voutilainen, but can be achieved.
“The main solution is to provide a commercial and profitable broadband service in rural areas, which cover 90% of railway lines in Finland,” he explained.
To achieve a cost-effective solution both for railways and for the public, the industry will need to figure out a series of challenges – including FRMCS offering narrowband services for uplink directions or how to implement fault tolerance in high availability communication services.
Other challenges will revolve around how to provide broadband services when the bandwidth loses capacity as the distance to the base station increases and what to do when the primary network fails.
“I don’t know how we’re going to solve all these challenges,” concluded Voutilainen. “But together with the industry and other stakeholders, I’m sure that we will find a solution to these challenges by using 5G-enhanced features in the most cost-effective way.”
Main image: The future looks bright for night trains. Credit: Shutterstock