The industry must roll out wireless technology as soon as it feasibly can. Failure to do so in 2016 will cost operators their franchise, or cost them financially as they fail to recoup their investment, says Simon Saunders…
Rail networks are currently undergoing a drastic overhaul, ushering in a new era of business – both for and by rail – to the country. In the UK, projects like Crossrail, Heathrow Express and the now infamous HS2 are all harbingers of a next-generation British rail infrastructure that will support and drive the economy. In the US, Amtrak recently sought consultation in addressing its notoriously bad Wi-Fi. Its high-speed wireless internet service implemented four years ago often leaves users frustrated due to inconsistent poor connectivity. No Wi-Fi on trains is bad, but Wi-Fi that doesn’t work is even more frustrating for passengers. Due to a combination of congestion, large isolated geographies, and the current limitations of Wi-Fi technology, many of the world’s major train operators are in the same boat.
As railways once again become the arteries serving UK domestic travel, there’s an increasing desire for an improved standard of wireless connectivity across the network. As the country’s transport infrastructure continues to evolve, the importance and necessity of wireless also evolves and grows with it. The real question is no longer whether rail needs wireless, but rather how it can roll out sufficiently reliable wireless in a cost-effective manner.
It’s crucial to note that more and more frequently these wireless provision demands are coming not just from passengers – whose expectations are growing at an ever-increasing rate– but also from regulators and government.
In 2015/16, wireless offerings are set to play an increasingly important role in differentiating between the major rail operators. Wireless provision is already becoming a key element of the buying process, and in turn is having a direct impact upon revenue generated from passengers.
But this goes beyond passengers alone, becoming a differentiator between operators during the franchise process. The UK is a great example of this, where it was recently announced that the ability to provide free Wi-Fi across the rail network will be taken into account when allocating franchises from 2017 – a process that operators will be focusing on in 2016.
With pressure from all sides, there is now little option for rail operators to not provide consistent and quality connectivity. But the infrastructure rollout required to provide a solid wireless system remains expensive for the transport industry, with rail in particular finding it difficult to demonstrate exactly how it intends to see a return on investment from a mass rollout.
For example, the unique structure of rail interferes with wireless signals in a similar manner to a Faraday cage. When combined with the speed trains travel at and the often complicated terrain they cross, it’s not realistic to expect mobile connectivity to be supplied by the macro network. As a result, providing wireless that can meet expectations of reliability and performance requires the rollout of trackside wireless infrastructure across the entire network, an incredibly expensive undertaking.
Intelligent approach to rollout
The levels of revenue generated from the users of wireless are unlikely to meet the costs involved in these large-scale rollouts on their own, not least of course because few passengers are willing to pay a premium for the service in 2015. This is why rail operators need to be intelligent in how they approach such a rollout, considering where further revenue or efficiency savings can be made – in other words, to build a more comprehensive case for investing in wireless.
As such, the role that wireless technology can play in improving operational efficiency will shape, to some degree, how the industry develops in the next twelve months. Wireless implementations across signalling and control systems are hugely desirable for operators, facilitating secure, safe and reliable operations across huge geographies, and in turn reducing delays. To even start rolling out this technology, operators will need to have first considered and rolled out a reliable wireless system across their entire network.
Clearly a key benefit of a reliable wireless network is enabling better communication between staff across a private network. Train shunting operations, emergency call services, group voice calling and broadcast systems, ground-to-train communications, and track-side communications are all enabled by a stable wireless provision. Even when a wireless solution relies upon the public networks over long distances, it can still serve to enhance certain types of communication, including disparate train signalling and control systems.
In the next twelve months we’re unlikely to see widespread rollouts of the more sophisticated technologies across the UK’s transport networks, nor would it be recommended that operators strive to do so: thorough consideration of how to rollout and maximise the benefit of wireless technology is vital.
But what we will see in 2016 is the rail industry working to ensure it is in a position to rollout this technology as soon as it feasibly can, ahead of the looming franchising process for the network’s post-2017 contracts. Not only will this mean operators undertaking comprehensive analyses and business case studies of how to roll stable wireless out across their networks, but also detailed consideration from expert advisors as to where else this technology could enhance their operations.
Failure to do so in 2016 will either cost operators their franchise, or cost them financially as they fail to recoup their significant investment in a rollout.
Professor Simon Saunders is director – technology at Real Wireless