Digital Technologies Transforming Ground-to-Train Communications in the Rail Industry


At the end of May, 2023 France formalised a ban on domestic short haul flights for journeys possible in less than two and a half hours by rail.Germany has also implemented a scheme to charge just €49 per month for travel by rail and metro across the entire country, answering calls from an increasingly vocal cohort of environmentally aware travellers wishing to have cheap access to high speed rail journeys across Europe and driving demand again following the slumps after COVID 19.

However, current infrastructure and train speeds mean we are far from the EU’s strategic objectives of doubling high-speed rail traffic by 2030 and tripling it by 2050. Operators and infrastructure managers need to adopt new technologies that can support greater numbers high speed trains, safely reduce the spacing between trains and support increasingly large demands for connectivity between ground and trains to ensure passenger safety and efficient command control operations.

The Global System for Mobile Communications - Rail (GSM-R) has served as the backbone of radio communication in the rail industry for over two decades. However, with the rapid advancement of technology, GSM-R is approaching obsolescence, necessitating the development of a new and modern standard: Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) based on 3GPP standards.

A digital transition is needed to support new operations such as real time onboard video backhaul, onboard data transmission and support for automatic train operation (ATO). With features such as high reliability, low latency, and large bandwidth, FRMCS is set to transform ground-to-train communications, providing enhanced safety, efficiency, and data transmission rates compared to its predecessor and meeting the requirements of future evolution service scenarios.

Spectrum Selection

By taking the advantage of European spectrum decision in Europe and ecosystem availability, it is widely believed in the industry that the prospected FRMCS with newly assigned TDD 1.9 GHz spectrum can meet customers’ requirements for quick commercial deployment of FRMCS. This will accelerate the digital transformation of the industry based on the mature industry ecosystem of 3GPP standards. The TDD 1.9 GHz can be deployed as an additional layer on top of the existing 900MHz GSM-R band. The 900 MHz spectrum that currently undertaking the GSM-R traffic can be re-farmed for FRMCS once the GSM-R network is phased out.

FRMCS Advantages

The traditional narrowband solution has narrow bandwidth and cannot support real-time transmission of large amounts of information such as acceleration and driving status. High-bandwidth and low latency networks ensure continuous bidirectional communication between trains and base stations. This allows more traffic data to be transmitted, and intervals between trains to be reduced, increasing overall capacity on networks. When trains get too close, warning information is easily transmitted between trains and the dispatch centers to ensure safety.

Another advantage of the high bandwidths is support for super-distance video warning, this utilises AI and edge computing to identify intrusions onto the tracks, or rock and tree falls, providing advance warning to oncoming high-speed trains and allowing them to slow down in plenty of time. Track side sensors can also be used to detect abnormal weather events and transmit real time data to drivers and control centers.

The high bandwidth solution provided by FRMCS supports simultaneous video and voice transmission at command centers. This means customers do not have to prioritise feeds and allows fast onsite information gathering and efficient and accurate command and control of networks.

System Architecture

Unlike GSM-R, FRMCS adopts a three-strata architecture, consisting of the application, service and transport. This new architecture facilitates expansion of railway applications (such as management visualization, predictive maintenance, intrusion alarm, precise positioning, digital map, and disaster alarm) as needed. In addition, this decoupled architecture allows railway operators to choose 4G or 5G for the transport stratum based on their service requirements and business/ecosystem maturity.

Industry Adoption and Future Evolution

Replacing GSM-R poses several challenges, including functionality, quality of service, and cross-border interoperability. However, the development of FRMCS standards and the involvement of industry organizations and stakeholders are addressing these challenges. The seamless service transmission during the evolution from GSM-R to FRMCS is a key consideration, ensuring uninterrupted communication during the transition phase.

With the commercial deployment target of FRMCS set to commence from 2027 onwards, FRMCS standard over 5G is still on the standardization and verification process. A 5G-ready solution at TDD 1.9 GHz with mature wireless technology is preferred for today’s deployment. This solution should support a smooth upgrade to 5G in the future, enabling future-oriented continuous evolution of the FRMCS and meeting commercial deployment requirements while protecting customers’ investments.

Huawei, a prominent player in the field, has already completed successful tests and applications of a FRMCS-oriented and 5G-ready LTE solutions. It is also widely expected that there will be a coexistence period of 5 to 10 years between GSM-R and FRMCS during the transition, ensuring a seamless service transmission and independent channels for different services based on local network maturity.

Rail industry is moving to the future

The rail industry is embracing FRMCS, recognizing its potential to enable digital transformation, enhance safety, and improve operational efficiency. Huawei has been at the forefront of FRMCS deployment, with multiple use cases already implemented worldwide. Huawei is also actively working with industry partners to study the application of 4G/5G wireless broadband technologies in the railway industry. In addition, Huawei promotes the standard and ecosystem of high-power terminals, effectively improves the coverage of base stations and reduces customer network investment. At this stage, Huawei is willing to work with customers to explore the commercial deployment of FRMCS to accelerate the digital transformation of railway communications.

FRMCS is poised to revolutionize ground-to-train communications in the rail industry, offering a modern and efficient solution to replace the aging GSM-R system. With increased safety, efficiency, and data transmission rates, FRMCS will pave the way for the digitalization of railways, supporting advanced technologies such as automatic train operation (ATO) and train control systems. Collaboration among industry players, adherence to global standards, and the seamless evolution from GSM-R to FRMCS will be key to ensuring the successful commercial deployment of this transformative communication technology.

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