Business models for rail are changing. Historically, the primary focus of both rail operators and authorities has been on driving effective operations. While still a primary concern, emphasis is increasingly shifting to the need to deliver a better quality of customer service.

A major rung on the ladder to achieving this goal also featured as a commitment in the government’s 2017 manifesto – delivery of full and uninterrupted high-speed mobile signal and Wi-Fi internet services on mainline routes. Connectivity is increasingly important to passengers and can have a major impact on the quality of their experience. Indeed, if Wi-Fi doesn’t live up to a passenger’s expectations, the experience can often tarnish their perception of the quality of the entire service.

Earlier this year I spoke about this topic at Train Communications Systems 2018 alongside Network Rail and a host of industry experts. With consensus on the need to implement quality communications across the country’s railways, discussion focused on the challenges and solutions the industry faces.

Here’s my summary of some of key topics the sector faces:

Tackling technology challenges

The first step to consistent connectivity is to build out the backhaul network. High-speed wireless services need increased data rates to function. This in turn requires trackside fibre and a network of base stations – all of which can only be installed by engineers with specialist skillsets.

Before any firm decisions are made, the industry needs to be careful not to commit to any one technology solution too quickly. Historically the telecommunications industry has been built on relatively short technology evolution cycles, with new solutions built on top of legacy infrastructure. Sometimes this involves competitive solutions, with one approach eventually winning out. The success of LTE over WiMAX in the battle for 4G supremacy is a good example of this.

With 5G on the horizon, the rail sector will need to consider the risk of a solution being superseded before investment decisions are made. In addition, whatever approach is taken to next generation deployment, it must ensure existing services are maintained. From a passenger experience continuity perspective, we will need to continue supporting legacy handsets and voice services for the foreseeable future.

Part of ensuring service quality is recognising the complexity of trackside architecture. Unfortunately, the heatmaps used to identify service quality across a transport corridor do not provide the granularity required to do this effectively. Sophisticated modelling is needed to address a range of variables specific to delivering signal to moving vehicles as this is a very different proposition to stationary scenarios. Combined with radio frequency (RF) planning, this can assist with decisions like antenna positioning on trains, as well as how to locate and space trackside base stations.

The cost of quality

It’s no secret that achieving the gigabit train will require significant investment. Ensuring a return means the sector will need to be efficient in its approach. Organisations need to conduct reviews into their current infrastructure in order to develop a strategic approach to where and when investments are made. This should also include looking at macro mobile network operator (MNO) networks – while these often provide good service around towns and cities, we need to ensure greater focus is placed on interconnecting rail corridors.

Shared infrastructure and investment will be key. It’s important to remember that the gigabit train won’t only be about rail companies providing passenger Wi-Fi and mobile signal. Government and business have a stake too. A recent Deloitte report for the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) showed there would be productivity gains from enabling commuters to work more reliably on trains, with research suggesting poor connectivity had prevented up to 40% of passengers from working at least half of the time during their journeys. Moreover, quality connectivity will allow many businesses to provide a whole range of bespoke services direct to commuters. Ultimately the business case grows when more organisations collaborate on these projects.

Achieving consistent high-quality communications across a nationwide rail network is a big challenge. However, in addition to improving the passenger experience, the incremental benefits are huge. The operational impact alone can be significant – to date Wi-Fi has driven a myriad of service improvements, allowing everything from onboard contactless payments to staff communications that increase passenger safety. Improving the speed and quality of communications will continue to deliver innovation and service delivery across the sector.

By Malcolm Keys Director, BAI Communications UK