Next generation railway communications are creating new challenges
Development of the world’s next generation of railways is now well underway: we are seeing a convergence of hyper-connectivity and data that will transform how rail infrastructures are operated and maintained. As the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) begins to take shape, operators could be at a crossroads when it comes to how they procure critical communications services and technologies.
Challenges of capacity, safety and added-value services
The intense pressures on rail operators are clear. To compete in their newly liberalized markets, rail companies must attract more passengers and more freight. At the same time, they need to maximize value from a complex range of assets while ensuring that passenger and staff safety remains paramount.
To grow profitability and market share means competing on price, speed and quality of customer experience – not only with other rail companies, but also with other modes of transport. As well as a punctual and frictionless journey, rail passengers are looking for value-add services such as wifi connections, content and information about their trip, shopping, entertainment and so on.
Automation, AI and IoT - impossible to avoid
The wave of new digital technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things and new generations of communication technology each have a critical role to play in helping operators to meet these competing challenges. They can help keep passengers and staff secure through rapid transmission and analysis of video and facial recognition data from fixed CCTV cameras and those on drones. They can optimize asset management and maintenance processes with remote monitoring and predictive analytics. And they can maximize capacity and continuity of service by enabling signaling and other real-time data to be sent directly to drivers or (in the case of the closed environment of a metro) to the systems operating driverless trains.
As the successor to GSM-R, FRMCS will be vital for the widescale digitalization of rail by enabling the rapid transmission of all this rich data.
Challenges for partners
As well as being more powerful, FRMCS will bring new levels of flexibility so that operators have more choice and are not tied into particular digital infrastructures, systems and devices. This increased diversity opens up new options for rail operators. Should they retain control of their own customized hardware and software – as they primarily did with GSM-R – or should they transfer direct control for critical communications infrastructures to specialist partners via an agreed Quality of Service?
Let’s look at what rail operators now need from their technology partners. For one thing, they don’t want to be tied to proprietary hardware or software or locked into a single vendor. Part of the remit of FRMCS is to ensure full interoperability and we are already seeing a more diverse ecosystem of providers and technologies, and a shift towards more mass-market devices and more off-the-shelf software and hardware.
In this context, superb systems integration skills together with the ability to collaborate with customers and other providers is more vital than ever among technology partners. IT partners also need to be able to develop and deliver digital technologies rapidly and in an agile way while integrating them with legacy systems, some of which need to be supported long after they’ve ceased being manufactured.
Experts in critical communications will change the game
Given these complexities, the critical advantage for rail operators of a strategic IT & Telecom partner is that they can more easily and effectively provide evergreen solutions and keep pace with rapid technological change. Agility and innovation have never been more important given the arrival of 4G and 5G along with other major advances such as the move towards cloud virtualization.
In addition, perhaps one of the biggest emergent challenges is the very real and growing cyber threat to critical national infrastructures. Operators need partners with advanced capabilities to protect people, systems and data and pre-empt threats as they evolve.
This is an exciting time as operators look to harness the power of new connected technologies to increase speed, capacity and efficiency. With FRMCS on the horizon and the first pilot projects expected in the next three of four years, we’re on the brink of a new era for digital rail.