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How 5G will transform rail transport

by Shaun Newton

03 February 2021

The consumer messaging around 5G is well known: it will deliver better, more immersive experiences than previous generations while simultaneously enabling new services and capabilities.

However, 5G can offer much more than this. It is a revolutionary technology that enables networks to perform at scale, adapt at pace and unlock new revenue streams. It will help transform transport, health, agriculture, manufacturing, entertainment, mining and other industries.

Its combination of speed and responsiveness – while seamlessly connecting people, machinery and automated processes – will provide solutions to some of society’s most compelling challenges.

5G will cover a wide range of use cases and related applications. These uses include internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR) and edge computing. While these technologies exist today, the networks currently supporting them constrain their full potential.

The technological advances that 5G enables will differ by industry and application. However, all will allow data and communications solutions to create more efficient and sustainable business processes, improve consumer services and enhance users’ quality of life.

This blog explores 5G’s impact on rail transport operations and how it can help transport authorities restore ridership and revenue. Our next blog will further explore how shared 5G infrastructure can generate shared benefits. Transport authorities and their partners, such as mobile network operators and associated service providers, all stand to prosper from the opportunities 5G will create.

5G: Built for rail

COVID-19-related changes to consumer behaviour have accelerated the need for 5G. Transport authorities are under increased pressure to do more with less, facing drastic declines in passenger numbers and subsequent revenue losses. Rebuilding public trust and confidence in rail systems’ safety won’t be easy but is crucial to restoring profitability. 5G offers mission-critical capabilities that will facilitate this task.

Currently, most transport systems worldwide are using – or are upgrading to – wireless control systems such as communications-based train control (CBTC), positive train control (PTC) and the European train control system (ETCS). Most of these systems still rely on cellular or Wi-Fi networks designed in the 1990s. They’re proven technologies, but they can’t scale to support modern applications and use cases.

One result is that transport operators often install multiple different systems to handle the various safety, operational and passenger functions. These include voice, signalling, condition monitoring, closed-circuit TV (CCTV), heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) monitoring and passenger Wi-Fi systems. Installing a single wireless infrastructure – such as 5G – to manage all these functions simultaeneously, eliminates incompatibilities and maximises interoperability between systems.

5G offers significant improvements to latency, concurrent connection numbers, session transfer speed and reliability, and power consumption. These improvements make 5G ideally suited to connecting IoT sensors and devices. Bringing these onto a single, unified network will generate economies of scale and significant ‘network effects’ that will amplify their value and utility.

The 5G promise

On an operational level, 5G delivers efficiency, cost, productivity and security benefits. It enables technicians and operators to monitor railway networks in real-time. It also allows analysis of various systems related to power, passenger flows, facilities such as lifts and escalators, ticketing, signalling, staff and contractor management, and more.

Unlike other generational upgrades, 5G isn’t just about providing passengers with better download speeds and streaming while on board. Critically, it enables innovations that will restore public trust in mass transit, improve profitability and even create new revenue streams.

These capabilities mostly revolve around real-time data feeds to provide service and rail network updates. They also include more pertinent safety-related information such as monitoring mask wearing, social distancing and on-train seating density.

Other adjacent innovations would enable passengers to connect to services outside the rail network. Such connections allow multimodal travel coordination and scheduling, even including online shopping and services. Coordinating click-and-collect groceries, dry-cleaning pickups or takeaway food orders – to name just a few – will help make the daily commute fast, convenient and time-saving.

Our Connectivity outlook report 2020 shows that the benefits of advanced technology are strongly desired, tellingly 85% of rail users are interested in 5G, and 83% support their city investing in a 5G network. 95% of rail users would be more likely to use the rail network in their city if technology-driven solutions were implemented.

Thus, the question for operators is no longer whether they should upgrade their networks to 5G – it’s when.

5G: Railway requirements are built-in

5G offers a seamless upgrade path from existing global systems for mobile communications-railway (GSM-R) wireless services for railway operators. GSM-R is a version of the 2G standard with additional requirements to make it suitable for railway systems. For almost three decades it has formed the backbone of railways’ wireless networks. But it’s out of date, and a new standard is required.

Industry bodies abandoned work on a 4G-based standard called LTR as 5G became imminent. Instead, work started on the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS), a set of railway-specific requirements for 5G including latency, bandwidth, security and safety.

These requirements are part of the 5G standard, meaning it’s railway-ready from day one.

Better yet, many of the legacy 2G systems and 5G networks often share the same frequency bands, making upgrades far less disruptive than with previous generations. FRMCS offers a roadmap and upgrade path for public operators or private networks. Many railways have their own private 2G, GSM-R networks and it provides them with a seamless upgrade path to roll out 5G.

Operators can deploy new 5G systems alongside their 2G equivalents and switch over when they’re ready. There’s no need to ‘forklift’ out old systems or manage massive power network buildouts and hard cut-overs.

With 5G networks in place, operators will find they can connect seamlessly to other 5G devices. These include remote sensors on bridges, weather stations and traffic cameras. These connections will enable improved situational awareness and make it possible to anticipate maintenance needs and traffic surges, and adjust service frequencies and arrival times.

Finally, 5G wireless makes edge computing viable for transit operators. Edge computing decentralises servers and data centres to improve performance. With fast, low-latency 5G connections, moving trains will transmit data as they pass a station or platform. These data transfers will keep essential systems updated and offer passengers fast and seamless streaming and connectivity.

5G: Enabling the stations of the future

5G makes possible the station of the future, where connected services combine to create a seamless travel experience.

Stations of the future will help passengers feel safe and connected. They – and the data networks they run on – facilitate the mobile, distributed modes of work we’re adopting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Biometric ticket gates, information kiosks, live service apps, connected CCTV cameras and pervasive IoT devices will create an environment without physical ticket barriers. Navigation information to help travellers with accessibility requirements will transform stations into free-flowing and data-rich environments. Real-time data will stream to mobile apps, AR or even VR devices, headphones and smart glasses.

Station infrastructure will connect to low-cost wireless networks for real-time condition monitoring and predictive analytics. Elevators, escalators, HVAC systems, passenger announcements and information screens, and ticketing systems will share data and allow operators to adjust and optimise services in real-time.

Crucially, the tipping point for 5G is coming. In 2021 we will see greater device uptake by consumers. By 2022, travellers will expect continuous 5G connectivity throughout their journeys.

Transport authorities that engage early with 5G will position themselves to roll out services, rebuild customer trust and restore lost revenue streams faster than those who fall behind. It’s not merely a matter of having ‘the best’ new technology; instead, it’s a matter of committing to efficient operations, improved safety and best-in-class customer relationships. These are the fundamentals of any successful business, making a commitment to 5G a business-positive, revenue-restoring, customer-centric ‘must’.

Read the 2nd part of this series here.

Shaun Newton - Senior Solutions Manager – Telecommunications BAI Communications Australia

Shaun Newton

Head of Product, BAI Communications Australia

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