The future of interoperable railway communications


In response to unpredictable fuel prices, continuing economic uncertainties and global environmental concerns, governments and travelers around the world have renewed their interest in railways as a primary mode transport.  To make railways more competitive in the long-distance passenger travel market, major infrastructure upgrades and “greenfield” investments are underway in the Middle East (ME), Australia, China and India.


Interoperability is key in railways. It allows trains and passengers to travel cross-border with maximum comfort.  Modern railways are not only attracting new passengers; the transportation of goods by rail is also increasing due to its competitive costs and outstanding environmental efficiency. 

As most developments in the Middle East are greenfield, there is a unique opportunity to adopt a unified approach in terms of standardisation – the technical specifications to be used – across countries. In doing so, the region could benefit from the experience and best practices gained in other parts of the world, allowing the Middle East to quickly bring public transport ‘up to speed’. The European Rail Transport Management System (ERTMS) is becoming a globally accepted standard that Middle East countries are adopting accordingly. Naturally, it goes without saying that the specific requirements of the region, such as the extremely hot environmental conditions in the summer months, will require tailored implementation.

This will entail massive investment in infrastructure and rolling stock over many years in order to deliver more capacity, higher speeds and greater safety. At the same time, train operators must attract new customers by offering an on-board traveling experience equal or superior to that offered by alternative carriers – for example, by providing entertainment content and broadband Internet access.

Nokia Siemens Networks works closely with infrastructure managers, responsible for track, signaling and railway network operations, as well as railway undertakings, who provide passenger and freight service, to help them turn their business challenges into growth opportunities.

Resolving railway operators´ business challenges
Many of the business challenges faced by railway operators can only be resolved with the help of innovative and ultra-reliable telecommunications solutions. For example:
o    Communication between drivers and controllers, especially for cross-border services, has historically required multiple analog radio systems that reduce operational efficiency and add unnecessary cost.
o    The additional safety demands of high-speed train travel cannot be fully met without accurate, real-time positioning information and faster, more reliable and better integrated communications with on-board systems and personnel.
o    Repair and maintenance operations can be optimized when inspections and other monitoring activities can be carried out when the train is in service – not only at dedicated locations when the train is stationary.
o    Long distance travelers expect news, entertainment and communication facilities equal or superior to those available on the road or in the air.
o    Travelers increasingly require real-time information on delays or alterations to their journeys, and the ability to amend their travel plans accordingly.
o    Controlling unique railway-specific fixed line communication requirements.
o    Managing the transformation from circuit-switched to all-IP packet environment
None of these challenges can be met cost-effectively through isolated initiatives and improvements. Instead, they demand an overall and long-term approach to infrastructure and service evolution.
GSM-R improves efficiency and speed of railways operational services
GSM-R is a proven digital platform that is now the standard for railway voice and data operational services on five continents. Its total interoperability and compatibility is vastly improving the efficiency and speed of all railway operational services. And it allows train drivers to communicate freely throughout transcontinental journeys, regardless of the country they happen to be in.

The leading GSM-R solutions in the world today provide railway operators with a single streamlined digital radio system to replace all existing communication systems, thereby helping to reduce costs, improve interoperability and enhance safety. They also allow maintenance data to be transmitted to the depot in real time to reduce idle time, increase capacity utilisation, and ultimately reduce operational expenditures. GSM-R also offers a standardized, cost-effective communications platform capable of supporting the increased signaling, safety and security demands of high-speed travel.

As well as providing a set of standardized operational and safety-supporting voice services – such as the Railway Emergency Call – for national and cross-border rail networks, GSM-R is also the communications platform for the European Train Control System (ETCS). GSM-R furthermore enables the seamless integration of regional services and applications such as telemetry, passenger information etc. Many of these applications are developed by local specialists working in partnership with network infrastructure and solutions providers like Nokia Siemens Networks.

As an internationally regulated standard, GSM-R is available for non-commercial operational purposes only, i.e. it cannot be used to support applications designed to generate incremental revenues from rail service users.

The impact of LTE
As with all mobile communications, Long Term Evolution (LTE) radio access technology is set to transform GSM-R with higher data speeds, improved user experience and more cost-effective, IP-based operations. However, the change to LTE will require extensive technical and regulatory standardisation to ensure required functionality, full interoperability and a seamless migration from the GSM to the LTE platform. The transition is therefore not expected to be completed until around 2020.
What is clear now is that all relevant technology, including LTE, should move towards railway standardization, in order to achieve operational, functional and interoperability requirements.  Contributions on these new technologies will be reflected in future EIRENE standards to be issued by the International Railway Union (UIC), for Europe by the European Railway Agency (ERA).

Broadband supports on-board customer and staff applications
Broadband on trains is a specially developed wireless broadband platform that supports a rapidly growing suite of on-board customer and staff applications. For example, Internet access, video streaming and online gaming bring more leisure opportunities to passengers, while online access helps meet the needs of business travelers. Video monitoring increases security, while WLAN connectivity for online data throughput helps to improve processes and reduce operational costs.

Broadband on trains also delivers a number of valuable operational benefits such as remote security monitoring, and enhanced ticketing and seat reservation services. But the additional bandwidth also opens the way to an almost unlimited range of information and entertainment applications that can be used to attract new customers and improve the on-board travel experience.

Working in partnership with third-party specialists, Nokia Siemens Networks helps train operators deliver greater value through a range of these information and entertainment services that enhance the traveling experience. Unlike GSM-R, there are no restrictions on the applications that can be supported by Broadband on trains: these can be operational, revenue-generating or any combination of the two.

LTE will be one of a number of backhaul technologies available for on-board Wi-Fi-based Internet connectivity for passengers. It offers superb spectrum efficiency and latency, and is compatible with most existing 3G network infrastructure. Our on-board Broadband on trains unit is already fully compatible with LTE, so its use depends solely on how quickly public network operators can provide LTE coverage for the railway tracks in their respective countries.

The next generation: Rail NGN (Rail Next Generation Networks)
Today’s railways continue to evolve to meet passengers’ demands for a punctual, comfortable and uncomplicated form of transport, while legislation requires ever-increasing safety and security for both the travelling public and rail cargoes. As a result, railways are increasingly relying on sophisticated, secure and reliable means of communication for their own operational needs and to support the needs of passengers. All of this, however, must be supplied at reasonable cost, so, like many other enterprises, railway operators are introducing IP-based communication because old TDM technology is no longer viable.

Nokia Siemens Networks has successfully deployed its world-class carrier grade NGN communication systems in the carrier and large enterprise sectors since 2001 and is bringing next generation networking to railways. Their activities in GSM-R, broadband on trains and communication networks in general gave them an in-depth understanding of needs specific to railways, including dispatcher workflows for communication with stations, workforces and trains, and passenger support systems for special tasks such as helpdesks and emergency call handling. Nokia Siemens Networks  have integrated these requirements into their standard NGN platform and can now present their flagship solution for railways –Rail NGN.

Rail NGN does much more
Nokia Siemens Networks Rail NGN is an all-IP solution for railway fixed-line telephony that provides interoperable railway functionality on a carrier-grade platform. This unique end-to-end solution enables the dispatcher to centrally manage and control all railway-specific communication requirements. Operational Voice Communication (OVC) requirements including dispatchers and role-based scenarios, as well as normal Administration Voice Communication (AVC), are now being provided on a single platform. The solution can be further enhanced with value-adding rail applications and also gives the freedom to individually adapt the platform.

Compared to a standard PBX, Rail NGN can scale up to 80,000 full enterprise features users on one commercial platform. For more capacity, simply add servers – from the management perspective it is still seen as one management domain. Within one server, special groups (multi-attended), containing their own management view and call recording logic can be constructed, giving ultimate call logging control. In addition, Rail NGN possesses special precedence and preemption features to ensure that important calls are processed, even when the network is overloaded or the line is busy – a vital requirement. Moreover, this not only increases communication reliability and therefore passenger satisfaction, but also the security of staff.

by Johann Garstenauer - Railway Solutions Expert, Nokia Siemens Networks

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