Putting rail back on track

Tuesday, 11 October, 2005

While Australia's railways - and in particular interstate railways - continue to be riddled by different, often incompatible communications systems, the efficiency and continued development of the network are at risk. Antoine Rouot, GSM-R product marketing manager, Nortel, discusses a new digital train radiocommunications system that's already improving efficiencies in other parts of the world.

Let's face it, 2004 was not a great year for Australia's railways. A recent report by the NSW auditor general, for example, suggests that last year was "the worst year in the past decade" for the state's beleaguered rail system.

One of the main reasons for the discontent, according to that report, was poor communications.

"We observed that where passengers receive advice, it is often delayed, inaccurate, inconsistent or incomprehensible," the report has found.

The report also found that communication among controllers, signallers, train crews, stations and others "breaks down during service disruptions" and that the communications technology used was "cumbersome and obsolete".

Even intra-state rail companies rely on different communication technologies, which results in major cost inefficiencies as trains roam throughout Australia. It makes a lot of sense to find and implement a standardised common railway communication system across all Australian states and territories, in the same way that countries in Europe and Asia, including India and China, have been doing for the past few years.

Global System for Mobile communications for railways (GSM-R) is the result of more than 10 years of collaboration between various railway companies confronted by the reality of rail systems spanning multiple territories.

GSM-R is a secure platform for voice and data communication between the operational staff of the railway companies including drivers, signallers, shunting team members, train engineers and station controllers.

It delivers features such as group calls, voice broadcast, location-based connections and call pre-emption in case of an emergency, which improves communication, collaboration and security management across operational staff.

The selection of the GSM technology as the foundation of GSM-R has contributed to the success of this new standard. GSM-R benefits from the economies of scale of its GSM heritage and has proved to be the most cost-efficient digital wireless communications network built on a carrier-grade platform for railways.

It goes beyond voice and signalling services, with new applications such as cargo tracking, video surveillance in trains and at stations and passenger information services using GSM-R technology.

GSM-R is customised and designed to meet the needs of railway operators globally and is:

  • Feature rich - The close collaboration of suppliers and railways ensures that features of existing communication solutions and new features are integrated into the GSM-R standard to address the needs for railway communication;
  • Interoperable - The international harmonisation of GSM-R technology and frequencies provides cost reduction and operational benefits;
  • Safe - GSM-R provides highest availability and fully supports train control and signalling;
  • Cost efficient - GSM-R benefits from GSM-related economies of scale and operational advantages. GSM-R is a completely open technology standard used by more than a billion people worldwide and enjoys multi-vendor support;
  • Futureproof - GSM-R offers a clear evolution path towards higher data capacity by delivering general packet radio service (GPRS) capabilities and interoperability with Wi-Fi.

While GSM-R specifications were finalised in 2000, 35 countries have already selected the system across the world, including all member states of the European Union and a growing number of countries in Asia, Eurasia and northern Africa. GSM-R is already contracted for deployment along 97,000 km of track worldwide.

The Australian challenge

Australian railway communication systems are currently outdated and proprietary, which makes them increasingly expensive to maintain. Just as telecommunications operators moved from analog to digital technologies (such as GSM), so current discrete rail communication systems will be replaced over time, following the examples set in other parts of the world.

As a widely deployed technology, GSM-R is cost effective for both network operators and mobile terminals such as cab radios and handhelds. This makes the technology both scalable and adaptable.

The International Railway Union (UIC) has designated a frequency band for GSM-R close to the existing GSM900 standard. This is well suited to countries in Europe but is not suitable in Australia since other commercial operators already occupy this band. One solution is to operate GSM-R in Australia in another band, such as GSM1800.

Alternatives to GSM-R include TETRA and APCO25, but neither is considered right for railway communications; both lack the railway-specific functionality that GSM-R provides and neither has been deployed on a meaningful scale to date.

These technologies were designed for different applications such as public mobile radio (PMR) and public safety networks and are only supported by a handful of technology vendors, casting doubts on their competitiveness and viability.

The Australasian Railway Association (ARA), the political voice for the rail industry in Australia and New Zealand, has already specified a list of objectives for a national railway communications system that includes:

  • National interoperability;
  • Multi-vendor standards;
  • Support for new and emerging train control systems;
  • Support for track and train safety requirements;
  • Operational across entire range of rail networks and both public and private communication networks;
  • Provides the optimal risk and redundancy levels for railway safety standards; and
  • Is the lowest-cost industry solution that meets these criteria.

GSM-R has already demonstrated its credibility in European and Asian markets and is seen as a strong contender to meet the ARA's mandate in Australia.

Whether or not it will be adopted as the next standard for Australian railway communications remains to be seen, but given the urgency of the overhaul required to bring Australia's systems to standard, the answer shouldn't be too long in the making.

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