GSM-R on track as Britain looks to the future

The deployment of GSM-R technology heralds a new era in UK railway comms. Wireless spoke to Tim Lane, acting technology manager at Network Rail Telecoms, to find out what the future holds

GSM-R on track as Britain looks to the future

Spectrum is the key,’ says Tim Lane, acting technology manager, Network Rail Telecoms, as he considers how Britain’s national rail network infrastructure might develop in the coming years. ‘I know we have some other issues that in legislative and planning terms mean that at the moment we are not able to offer services outside of the railway, and of course these affect any business case, but access to radio spectrum is still key.’

Lane started working for Network Rail back in 2003, just a year after the company took over the running of Britain’s rail infrastructure under a mandate from the Government to improve every aspect of the nation’s railways. As a former engineer with a background in radio, and having been with the technology team for seven years, he is well placed to help drive the rollout of GSM-R, an international wireless standard for railway communications, across the country.

‘For GSM-R we have spectrum which in effect Ofcom is obliged to allocate us by virtue of European law,’ he adds, ‘but in terms of a railway investment case using license exempt spectrum to deliver services that aren’t on the railway, I don’t believe it is sustainable because you’ve got no surety that you can get the life out of your equipment before the spectrum users change their practice and make it unworkable. So, in that sense, access to spectrum is key to deliver a lot of these services.’

Common standard 

Right now, GSM-R is beginning to snake its way up and across the land, bringing areas such as Harwich, Cambridge and Birmingham into the 21st century.

‘The majority of the network is 2G+R with the common standard agreed meaning trains should theoretically be able to start a journey in Germany and finish in the UK,’ he says.

Lane goes on to explain that this is operated by Network Rail and comprises infrastructure owned solely by the company, meaning no commercial networks are involved. Furthermore, telecoms network maintenance is delivered by Network Rail’s 10 route organisations, where its traditional S&T (signals and telecoms) maintenance skills reside. ‘Network Rail Telecoms also has its own NOC and technical support specialists in all telecoms disciplines,’ explains Lane.

Bespoke products

He believes that the firm has what is arguably Britain’s third largest existing network legacy, with some 16,000 kilometres of optical fibre.

He adds: ‘[There’s] legacy fibre which was there before, a lot of copper on the trackside for distribution, SDH transmission, TDM switches for business purposes, so things like HiPath, MXone. That type of product.’

Smaller bespoke products are also used to provide secure communication between drivers, signalers and members of the public at level crossings, with the signaler being presented with a positive identification of a phone they are talking to via touch-screens or key and lamp systems, and of course legacy radio systems. 

‘In terms of existing kit we’ve got an MPT1327 band three system that is gradually being phased out between the end of this year and the end of 2015,’ he says. ‘We’ve got a UHF – what we term cab secure radio – which gets telephony-type functionality in the cab.

‘Then we’ve got a curious thing called “radio electronic token block”, which is in use primarily in the far north and West Highlands Scottish lines, but also in East Anglia until the end of this year when we switch that off. That’s a long chain of radio repeaters that runs the full length of the line because there is no infrastructure on the line, no signaling, no communications. Everything is done over the radio system, so you issue electronic tokens to the train driver over this long chain of radio repeaters.’

Digital replacement

For its part, GSM-R was designed to be an efficient digital replacement for those existing in-track cable and analogue networks, carrying signalling information direct to drivers and other operational staff to allow for faster speeds. It’s expected that the technology will also push deployment and advances in other areas too.

‘Remote infrastructure monitoring is an area of growth for Network Rail,’ explains Lane. ‘Rail temperature, points condition, wheel flat, leaf fall, bridge bash, embankment slip – to name but a few. Getting data and alarms back to those who monitor the infrastructure involves a mix of low power wireless devices and mobile backhaul.’

With Lane confirming the use of a wireless layer in the network for CCTV security to address things like cable theft and improve safety at level crossings, there are ideas aplenty.

‘Why would you not put forward-facing CCTV on trains in that scenario?’ he asks. ‘You could dynamically access the infrastructure when a train goes through in that situation, so there is lots for the industry to think on.’ 

Lane says that RFID is another emerging opportunity for the UK rail industry, with trials of vehicle location and selective door opening taking place and deployment generally involving both train operators and the infrastructure operator.

‘I recently addressed the CEPT SRD/MG where I warned against standardising 900MHz RFID devices in a way which would prevent them being used in the presence of GSM-R, thus denying the rail industry access to low-cost COTS devices,’ he adds.

Harmonised applications

While some may talk about TETRA-style robust encrypted radio systems for the industry, Lane suggests that TETRA in itself isn’t the right technology or way to go for railways.

‘We would look to standardising in Europe common harmonised railway applications for both voice and signalling – ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System) as it is today is already very close to this – and look for the applications to work across a wireless IP bearer, so that you could have a different wireless IP bearer in different member states,’ he explains.

‘Of course, you do need a fit for purpose radio system that is robust and I think that requirement will drive us towards a fourth generation service.

At the moment I don’t see where a suitable 4G network is coming from though because of the scarcity of suitable radio spectrum.’

Indeed, like many of his counterparts, Lane also wonders just how we are going to deal with the bandwidth demands of the future given all the talk of consumers being able to access comms in real-time on trains without any firm plans in place.

‘In reality I don’t think you know what the unconstrained bandwidth demand from passengers on a busy train would be. We can say for the operational equipment of a train, cameras, sensors, staff etc, we are probably going to give a fairly accurate prediction on that, but no one has ever given passengers on a busy train unlimited access to the internet and seen what effect it has on the service,’ he adds.

Lane concludes: ‘I’m absolutely convinced that the future of all train connectivity is via what we’re terming an on-train comms gateway. It probably looks like the sort of box that delivers on-train Wi-Fi today, but it needs really high availability and to be clever enough to prioritise operational, business and passenger traffic. A purely personal view, but if you’ve got a widespread deployment of a box with big processing power, there could be a whole app store market to allow train operators to upload clever business-ware to their trains.’

Written by Wireless magazine
Wireless magazine

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