The rail sector is moving towards an exciting future, marked by advances in automation, IoT, and predictive analytics.
However, to unlock its full potential, the sector will need a strong communications framework, underpinned by mission-critical networks and, crucially, standardisation supported by the global vendor community, argues Rory Mcdonnell of Nokia.
“The industry’s current communications vehicle, GSM-R – a global wireless standard – has been largely successful and adopted by the majority of rail operators. But networks operating outside this framework have had to rely on bespoke technology which, of course, has resulted in interoperability and compatibility issues. Not to mention limited options for competitive tendering and a narrower base for innovation,” said Mcdonnell ahead of AusRail Live & On Demand 2020.
As GSM-R matures and nears its end of life, FRMCS – a mobile broadband-ready technology – is likely to replace it as the new global standard.
“Based on the latest wireless technology, 5G, FRMCS will support the next wave of rail innovation,” Mcdonnell said.
“It allows rail operators to build a platform for mission critical applications, such as Automatic Train Operation (ATO) and ETCS L2, as well as voice and other M2M communications.
“It also supports innovative passenger services, like on-board WiFi and smart ticketing – all of which will increase the attractiveness of rail travel.”
Migrations for FRMCS are set to commence in 2025 with a complete phase-out of GSM-R likely by 2030. However, with the size of the installed base – and need to maintain safe and reliable services – a lot of work will need to be done before its arrival. This includes a gradual shift to 5G, Mcdonnell said.
The need for better supporting technologies
“5G will be the communications bearer of choice for supporting rail services over the next few decades. It is mandated as part of the FRMCS standard,” Mcdonnell said.
“FRMCS depends on connectivity with very low latency – something the GSM-R network can’t provide. Likewise, advances in real-time traffic forecasting, train-load rates, and predictive analytics, demand a far greater data flow than GSM-R technology is capable of.”
In contrast, 5G is designed to support the exact requirements of FRMCS – whilst offering the highest levels of reliability and availability.
“5G allows for extremely low latency, 1Gbps download speeds and greater than 99.9999 percent availability where needed”, Mcdonnell said.
“Additionally, FRMCS and 5G will support trains travelling at very high speeds, where the Doppler effect distorts wireless signals in both directions. Tests are underway to examine what type of receiver modifications will best cope with this challenge.
“From a safety perspective, 5G also supports network slicing and Quality of service (QoS), enabling the rail operator to separate safety critical data from non-safety critical data,” he added.
Preparing for the shift
With most support for GSM-R expected to end by around 2030, vendors are already beginning to align their products with FRMCS and 5G.
In late 2019, German operator, Deutsche Bahn, was among the first-in-line, nationally, to trial a 5G-based network for automated rail operation, with Nokia winning the tender. Since then, a number of others have followed suit.
“Globally, rail operators have already begun to engage with standards bodies to address future spectrum requirements of FRMCS,” Mcdonnell said.
“Rail operators should start planning their path towards FRMCS at an early stage to ensure the seamless transition from existing mature technologies and eliminate the risk of any service impact in the future.”
To prepare, Nokia recommends modernising current GSM-R networks by introducing GPRS for IP services within the next two years. Rail operators should also gradually migrate their on-board radios to packet based systems, it suggests.
Where operators have an immediate requirement to introduce high bandwidth tools like IoT, CCTV and M2M, an LTE overlay could be the perfect answer.
“With this approach, GSM-R would continue supporting ETCS L2 or Voice communications and the LTE network would be deployed to support new applications, thus bridging the gap to FRMCS” Mcdonnell said.
The optimum timeline for migrating to FRMCS is from 2025 and 2030. To ensure a smooth transition, Nokia recommends that railway operators temporarily run both 5G and GSM-R networks in parallel, to ensure seamless support for Voice communications and ETCS data.
“This five-year timeframe will allow rail operators to comfortably migrate all mission critical services from GSM-R to the new 5G-enabled FRMCS network. After this, GSM-R networks can be safely decommissioned,” Mcdonnell said.
For those operators considering LTE as an interim step, the good news is 5G offers a flexible implementation approach.
“It can be implemented as a Stand Alone configuration – i.e. 5G only – or as a Non Stand Alone configuration – where a single network Core supports 4G and 5G concurrently,” Mcdonnell said.
“This allows rail operators to address their immediate network needs with LTE technology and enhance their network at a later date, to support 5G.”
The greater good
In a world where international cooperation is sometimes in short supply, Mcdonnell believes the development of FRMCS has been a highlight, with sometimes competing organisations working together for the greater good.
“Based on the high levels of global collaboration we’ve seen, we believe that FRMCS will become widely adopted across the industry”, he said.
Additionally, the global standardisation will allow new system providers to enter the market, resulting in more Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) products that have economies of scale.
“Rail operators can profit from this and reduce their total cost of ownership (TCO). At the same time, adopting proven products with pre-defined feature sets and simplified Operations and Maintenance (O&M) reduces support costs and increases the overall robustness of the system,” Mcdonnell concluded.
Nokia has been working closely with various bodies to develop standards, and is a consortium member of “Horizon 2020 ICT-053 5GRAIL”. This is a 30-month, €13m EU-funded project which officially started on 1st November and aims to validate the first FRMCS specifications by developing and testing prototypes for the FRMCS ecosystem for both trackside infrastructure and on-board use.
Hear more from Rory McDonnell during his “Digital railway – The next level of rail communications” presentation at AusRail Live & On Demand 2020 – held as a virtual event on December 2, 2020.
Joining Rory on the virtual stage is Karsten Oberle, Head of Rail at Nokia Enterprise, discussing “Future Radio Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) for railways (the journey from GSM-R to 5G) and cybersecurity considerations”.
Learn more and register.
With over 30 years’ experience delivering mission critical solutions, an end-to-end portfolio and a product road map to support FRMCS, Nokia offers a unique proposition to Rail Operators.
Having deployed 120 networks in 22 countries to provide 110k+ km of track coverage, Nokia is the #1 global GSM-R vendor.
Nokia has unparalleled experience in mission-critical network design, as well as deployments in both greenfield and brownfield environments where we enable rail operations in the wayside, onboard trains and in train stations.
Nokia cooperates extensively with standards bodies, driving railway standardization to enable FRMCS/5G for Rail, backed by innovation from 9 times Nobel prize winners Bell Labs.
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