Future of Railway Communications - Are We On The Right Track?
Trains are (and can be made) an environmentally friendly method of mass transportation. As the battle against climate change is changing our priorities, it’s natural for governments to start look for and invest in infrastructure that offers an efficient and sustainable transportation services.
Railways are complex technical systems with high security standards. A crucial part of that system is the communications system, used for train control-commands and signalling data (security procedures), as well as enabling critical voice communications between control centres and drivers whenever the situation so requires.
In this complex world filled with acronyms, we were interested to get an insider’s view to what this definition work is all about and how it will impact the future of railway operations.
Appetizers: Tomato Soup and Salmon Chevize
Jani, what is FRMCS and how are you involved in it?
Well, in short, it’s a specification about how railway communication will be implemented in the post-GSM-R era. I am representing the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Authority (VÄYLÄ) in the FRMCS Functional Working Group. Our group focuses on the user requirements.
Why such specification work is ongoing?
World is constantly evolving and so are the needs for railways. We need to rethink some core procedures and upgrade them to utilize modern technologies. Some procedures can benefit from digitalization and IOT, some from video transfer. I believe in the future most information will be shared as data and less will rely on voice communication.
While we focus on possibilities ahead, we of course do look back at the needs of train operations as they are today, and make sure that those needs are supported by future systems and the best practices are taken along.
The timing of this effort is driven by 3 main factors:
The current GSM-R technology is reaching its end-of life as the evolution of the technology remains dependent of the telecom industry evolution cycles, with an end of support planned around 2030.
- As GSM-R is based on GSM technology, it is becoming outdated drifting away from mainstream technology making it less and less cost efficient to maintain.
- The GSM-R frequency is suffering from interference problems in many countries, as it’s close to commercial LTE bands.
- These are some of the things creating the demand and urgency in this effort. Of course, one needs to remember that in the railway world changes are not happening very fast. I believe in reality, we’ll see some trials in 2023-2025, but the full migration may easily take place as late as 2030-2035.
Main course: Tagliatelle with Jerusalem artichoke
How much are you co-operating with other critical communications users, like public safety?
Regarding standardization, we’re very much in line. In the same way as e.g. TCCA did, instead of specifying our own standards, the UIC is taking the needs to 3GPP so we get the common network platform. We’re of course a small niche with our requirements, but many of our use cases boil down to the same basic network capabilities as everyone else.
Now that we’ll rely on 4G, 5G and future broadband standards, we can focus on the actual use case. The focus can be put on the functional requirements and applications instead of data-communications problem.
Do you believe that railways will have their dedicated communications networks also in the future?
Among railway authorities, there is a strong culture of wanting to have the infrastructure under self-control. This makes perfect sense to guarantee critical security communications. Also, many operators prefer the idea, and are considering reusing the GSM-R band for the future critical needs, as this is a frequency, they already own.
The downside of this is that it would lead to railways having very specific needs for technology and products, increasing the cost and possibly reducing the market interest.
What will be the role of dedicated networks versus commercial networks?
One of the main debates around this topic is, what information is critical and what can be transferred using commercial networks. If the information is critical its transmission needs to be guaranteed. E.g. we could see the train control commands being deployed as “critical” using dedicated network, and the less critical needs like non safety related passage systems being offered over commercial networks.
Dessert: Chocolate mousse and blackberry sorbet, coffee
What do you think are the biggest challenges in this effort to build new communications standards?
In my opinion the main obstacle is the need for a new mindset and change in culture.
Here’s the dilemma: We want to have everything under our own control to guarantee safety. However, this prevents us from utilizing the potential of mass markets. If we’d not have everything under our own control, how can we guarantee safety in that scenario? This we need to solve to raise to the next level.
Finally, how would you define success for FRMCS? What are the main criteria?
For me, there’s 3 things that I would consider essential:
- Trains are able to roam seamlessly from country to country using single communication technology
- The system is cost efficient to deploy and maintain. This allows the operators to invest more in the service quality and safety.
- Railway requirements are so well specified and implemented, and the reliability and security of commercial network is so high that dedicated communications infrastructure is not needed.
This would be a win-win-win for the operators, for passengers and the society.
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