As society becomes increasingly connected and digitally driven, people travelling by train expect fast connectivity at their fingertips and enough space to have a comfortable journey says Daniel Montagnese, Head Product Management Antennas at HUBER+SUHNER

With the internet being such a large part of everyday life, passengers want to be able to check their emails, stream videos to stay entertained or contact friends and family while travelling. As such, the top priorities of operators are passenger capacity and comfort.

This means that modern train designs need to utilise as much space as possible inside and outside the carriage, leaving little room for roof mounted equipment, such as antennas. However, with antennas playing a vital role in ensuring fast and smooth connectivity, this can leave rail operators with a significant challenge to overcome.

Overcoming environmental challenges

External rooftop antennas allow for plenty of space inside the carriage to keep passengers as comfortable as possible, while enabling fast connectivity to be provided. With many different rooftop antennas available to purchase, rail operators must carefully consider which one will best suit their needs and more importantly, the needs of their passengers.

As they are exposed to the elements, a rooftop antenna must be hardy and resistant. It must be able to withstand tough conditions and offer longevity and reliability no matter the environment it is travelling through. Trains encounter many different types of terrains, landscapes and weather conditions, so rooftop antennas must be selected with these factors in mind. It is not unusual for operators to apply silicone to the outer edge of a rooftop antenna, in order to protect the device against wet weather conditions. However, when silicone is applied, removing or replacing the antenna becomes challenging and complex, and can cost the operator valuable time, resources and money. To prevent this, operators should look at an antenna that features its own secondary seal. This provides an extra layer of protection for electrical components and no costly adaptions are needed.

High voltage and current protection are also vital, for infrastructure on the outside of the train. Overhead lines can carry up to 25,000 volts, which is 100 times greater than the supply we receive to our homes. While this is necessary for the everyday running of the train, operators must be diligent when choosing external mountings and opt for those designed to redirect the dangerous energy from the catenary line away from the RF path.

Operators cannot simply attach anything they like to the exterior of the train. When passing through tunnels, the train must adhere to strict height restrictions which allow the carriage to complete its journey safely, without damaging infrastructure. Particularly in regions like Europe, where bi-level rail cars (or double decker trains) are common, there can be a miniscule amount of space between the train’s rooftop and the tunnel ceiling.

To overcome this challenge, operators should implement low-profile solutions, which sit relatively flat to the train’s rooftop, and do not cause an obstruction to existing permanent infrastructure.

Staying future-ready

Whether passengers are completing their daily commute, or travelling cross country, modern connectivity expectations are stringent. Activities such as video streaming or online gaming require a high-speed connection to function, and without this, passengers will become frustrated. In order to stay future-ready, operators should choose antennas that are equipped for 5G, as well as the upcoming Wi-Fi 6E protocol. By doing this, they can accommodate the latest generation of internet, keeping customers satisfied and staying ahead of the competition.

Another way to stay future-ready, is for operators to join the migration from legacy GPS navigation to GNSS systems like Galileo, BeiDou and GLONASS. As well as offering greater accuracy and resilience, GNSS systems utilize many more satellites, meaning there are more available signals resulting in greater accuracy in a move towards the ultimate end goal – a better connection.

Antennas which provide access to dual-band GNSS ensure greater access to the maximum number of data sources, enabling operators to provide the best possible chance of a reliable connection. An important part of staying future[1]ready, is the realization that at some point – infrastructure will need to be upgraded. Portfolios of equipment which use the same mounting interface make this process simple and hassle-free, meaning less installation time, saving operators costs. Portfolios like the HUBER+SUHNER SENCITY® Rail portfolio not only have a common interface, but also work with the interface that the Kathrein rail antennas have been used for decades. A swift upgrade is vital for minimum interference and maintenance.

Stringent regulations can stop the smoothest of plans in their tracks, especially when they differ from region to region. Many rail operators want to deploy train infrastructure across the world, meaning they must comply with a variety of local rules. To prevent a headache, operators should implement equipment which is certified according to EN45545 and NFPA-130 regulations, so it can be deployed without hassle, wherever the business takes it.

Choosing wisely

When choosing connectivity solutions, factors like form height, mountings and environmental protection may seem menial to operators. However, paying close attention to these details, is how malfunctions, damages, and subsequent down-time and customer dissatisfaction are avoided. Those who opt for a low-profile, future-ready design, will be the ones who see infrastructure meet high expectations for years to come.