The Hong Kong MTR Corporation Ltd (MTR) is celebrating its 40th anniversary. First installed in 1979, the network was originally a simple 8km four-car configuration line running between Shek Kip Mei and Kwun Tong.

Travellers in Hong Kong now make use of one of the finest transit systems in the world, and benefit from cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity in all the MTR stations. Through the network BAI Communications has helped provide, two billion passengers are connected each year as they travel on more than 220km of rail, through 90 railway stations and across 68 light rail stops.

Paul Chan, Managing Director of BAI Communications in Hong Kong, has been there from the beginning. He discusses how the complex project has developed over the years and how innovative transport systems are increasingly becoming a defining feature of smart, world-class cities.

Innovation is in the details

BAI Communications in Hong Kong (previously known as RFE) first won the contract to design and build an 1800 MHz, 2G connectivity system for the MTR in 1997. “When I first started passengers were happy if they could talk on the phone while they were at the station or on the train, and if they could send SMS messages,” Paul says. “But there was an opportunity to improve customer service and to provide 2G coverage inside the MTR tunnels for new 1800 MHz operators.”

The project – to upgrade the network from 900 MHz to 1800 MHz – was complex and covered 34 stations and tunnels that had to be completed in two years. “It was quite complicated as the MTR is a confined space and there were a lot of constraints like a small working time window,” Paul says. “We had to plan comprehensively for the major engineering works from an early stage as we wanted to ensure passengers would not notice any interruption to their normal train services.”

BAI used numerous innovative methods to achieve this. New works and upgrades in underground tunnels were carried out at night, in short bursts of two to three hours, so travel could continue seamlessly during the next day. To fit the work into such a short timeslot, engineers swapped their traditional, bulky tools for lighter, modern versions, which helped with transportation.

More and better

Since then, the mobile phone network in the MTR has been continually updated and improved, moving smoothly from 2G to 3G and then 4G to create one of the smartest and most efficient systems in the world. It is now praised as a benchmark transport system for other cities around the world to strive to match.

BAI has achieved this by working closely with the MTR, international vendors, experienced local partners and mobile operators to understand their requirements and future-proof the work. “Whatever technology we deploy, we try to see as far as possible into the future,” Paul says. “Things change so quickly in the telecoms sector, we need to keep abreast of the new technology and have a good understanding of the regulatory system in cities to understand how it will be deployed.”

Today, travellers can easily use applications like YouTube and stream videos online at a data rate exceeding 10Mb/second whilst on the move. “It is fascinating to watch how customer connectivity usage changes throughout the day,” Paul says. “If you take the early morning trip, I think it is 90 per cent leisure. But, in the evening people are more focused on work-related activity. They still have emails to deal with, but they leave the office so they can make use of the half an hour travel time to complete that day’s work.”

Safety, security and comfort

Connectivity is not just beneficial for customer-facing services. It also helps the overall travel experience – often without passengers realising – as safety, comfort and efficiency can all be improved through better communication networks.

For example, on-board wireless CCTV is connected to trains’ alarm systems to relay video back to the remote Operation Control Centre (OCC). Warning signals from emergency alarm buttons, smoke detectors and door sensors can automatically trigger video systems to pan across the area, capturing footage of an incident to send back to the OCC via the radio platform.

“Connectivity can also reduce congestion, even with the same number of passengers,” Paul says. “Our platforms can improve passenger flow by wirelessly checking each entrance and allocating the ticket gates accordingly to maximise the throughput.”

The future

In 20 years, BAI has effectively delivered multiple high-profile projects across the MTR and was awarded with the Gold Quality Award in building the Radio Systems on the MTR South Island Line. So, what will the next 20 years bring?

“We are looking at Internet of Things (IoT) technology,” Paul says, referring to the interconnection of everyday objects, such as ticket gates, escalators, media displays and trains, to allow them to share data and improve customer service. “We are examining different sectors in different cities to see how IoT technology could rely on 5G and provide better services and connectivity for the transport environment right across the globe.”