LTE for metro and main line rail

LTE for metro and main line rail : Wireless connectivity from track to train is vital for modern rail operations, but bandwidth is running out. Could LTE, better known as 4G, solve the capacity crisis and simplify railway communications?

Railways depend on wireless communications. But with current networks stretched to the limit, operators are looking to high-speed mobile technology – LTE – to ease the capacity crunch and enable new passenger-centric services.

“The attraction with LTE is that it offers a hugely increased data and service carrying capability,” explains Tim Murphy, Global Solution Leader for Radio with Thales. “LTE also has the potential to reduce costs for rail operators because multiple services can be carried on a single bearer.”
New needs

Operators currently use a variety of wireless technologies to provide track-to-train connectivity. Among these are Wi-Fi, TETRA, P25 and GSM-R, the mobile communications standard for main line rail.

While technologies like these meet operational needs such as train control, voice communications and passenger information, they lack the flexibility and capacity to satisfy the demand for new data-intensive services. These include capabilities such as CCTV video streaming, vital in driverless metro systems. Equally significant is demand from the passenger side for on-board internet access.

On top of all of this is a communications architecture that is beginning to struggle. Networks are increasingly heterogeneous, with different bearers for different types of traffic. All of this adds to cost and complexity.
Data on the move

LTE (long term evolution) could help both metro and main line rail operators to satisfy the hunger for bandwidth. Commonly known as 4G, LTE is the standard for high-speed wireless communications that is now being deployed across public networks by mobile operators. Railways could benefit by tapping in to the same networks.

“The attraction with LTE is that it offers a hugely increased data and service carrying capability,” explains Murphy. “LTE also has the potential to reduce costs for rail operators because multiple services can be carried on a single bearer.”

Metros are likely to be among the first railway businesses to adopt LTE for operational purposes. One reason for this is that metro signalling – notably communications-based train control (CBTC) – is not tied to a particular communications standard. Interest is growing as CBTC evolves towards LTE.

Following successful trials in Shanghai last year, Thales is now at the point of delivering projects that will use LTE for metro signalling.

“Following successful trials in Shanghai last year, Thales is now at the point of delivering projects that will use LTE for metro signalling,” confirms Murphy.

For main line rail, particularly in Europe, the picture is more complex. Over the last 15 years, operators have invested huge amounts of money in GSM-R networks to provide operational voice communications and signalling.

While GSM-R works well for these purposes, bandwidth is limited and it can’t be used for data-intensive applications. And as a safety-critical system, it’s not designed for public use. Migration to LTE for operational purposes will happen in the long run, but in the meantime, rail operators need to meet passenger demand for better mobile connectivity.

Outside Europe, where GSM-R constraints do not apply, LTE is expected to gain ground more quickly. “You could see LTE-based solutions that would address both signalling and passenger communications in the main line area,” says Murphy.
Getting to grips with LTE

While LTE migration strategies will vary considerably between different countries and operators, getting the most out of LTE will require new ways of thinking for everyone.

The biggest change will be the shift away from railways being in charge of their own communications networks. In almost every case, LTE services will be provided by mobile network operators (MNOs), not railway companies. “Nobody today is going to give a block of protected spectrum to the railway,” notes Murphy.

On one hand, this means that railway infrastructure operators will be spared the enormous capital and operational costs that go with building and maintaining dedicated communications networks.

On the other, it means that rail operators will need to hone the commercial and technical expertise needed to negotiate access to LTE networks with mobile network operators and other spectrum providers. Regulated spectrum such as LTE is a valuable commodity, so finding ways to use it in the best way for rail operations will be a priority.

In the case of LTE, you’ve got to build in your protection. We would envisage offering this as a managed service.

As with any new technology, there are new risks to be managed. “Cyber threats are evolving daily,” emphasises Murphy. “You can’t dissociate these from the communications system. In the case of LTE, you’ve got to build in your protection. We would envisage offering this as a managed service. It’s an important decision for the customer and it’s not always an easy one.”

There’s also a need to guarantee the quality and integrity of LTE services where these are used for operational purposes. “Thales will be a key player in this, pulling together the technology needs plus the service needs and working with spectrum owners to give the required solution. It’s an emerging area,” says Murphy.

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