Demise of GSM-R highlights the need for radical rethinking of wireless communications in the rail industry

train-railway-s-bahn-transportThe International Railway Union has recently called for a replacement for the GSM-R network to be developed as a matter of urgency.

GSM-R is the modified version of GSM, which was developed for the specific needs of the rail industry’s operational needs. However, as the TelecomTV article above points out, the technology has had a notoriously volatile history and is now past its prime.

GSM-R was originally developed in the 1990s to deliver a specific set of functionality for the rail industry, but it was decided that it would use spectrum outside of the main GSM frequencies.

This decision meant that GSM-R required completely bespoke equipment, which in turn significantly raised the cost of deployment and has created commercial challenges ever since for the rail industry. As the International Railway Union itself said: “The use of … GSM-R has proven expensive for the railways, both in terms of capital and operational expenditure.”

The challenge for the industry is that while GSM-R is now nearing the end of its life, the ETCS (European Train Control System) is due to be in place until 2050 and as such, the rail industry needs a replacement solution for GSM-R. Currently there are many different views on the functionality and technology of a GSM-R replacement with LTE and 5G being ‘in the frame’. Whether the use of such technologies in near commercial off-the-shelf variants is some way away from being decided.

What this highlights is that wireless communications continue to be a major challenge for the rail industry — and clearer strategic thinking is the only way the industry is going to solve its challenges.

As our recent report Under pressure: tackling railway connectivity in 2016 outlined, on-board connectivity for passengers also remains a significant technical and commercial challenge for rail operators.

Part of the challenge is that there is a disconnect between the issue of on-board connectivity and how a solution could be architected in such a way to bolster rail operators’ safety-critical operational requirements. Any investment in new infrastructure for improving passenger experiences doesn’t have to be siloed. In fact, we see a huge opportunity for infrastructure investments to also support on-board train operator services, as well as potentially safety-critical functionality. Each new service supported by upgraded infrastructure creates its own opportunities for generating value, thereby helping to recoup investment.

The introduction of new standards, technologies and systems into the rail environment tends, for many reasons, to be a slow process — thankfully matched by long asset lives.

With the multiple challenges of providing broadband wireless for passenger and on-train staff use and replacing GSM-R in train control applications, this does provide the industry the opportunity to investigate whether one system could ultimately serve all requirements. Much like the emergency services moving to public cellular networks — something perhaps unthinkable not that many years ago — the rail industry might have to rethink wireless connectivity. The scale, complexity and safety critical nature of rail systems means this will be very challenging to say the least.

You can read more of our thoughts on these issues or feel free to contact us directly.