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Delivering a step change in on board connectivity

In this guest writer feature, Richard Graham, evo-rail’s Chief Engineer, discusses developing 5G for rail

In 2017, First Group realised that there was a problem with the way the rail industry delivered connectivity on trains. Existing 3G and 4G cellular technologies weren’t fit for purpose, offering speeds as low as 10 megabits per-second.

The group established a rail telecoms division, evo-rail, to address this issue – and, after a five-year development process, our transformative rail-5G is ready to be deployed on South Western Railway (SWR). It’s a phenomenal achievement, made possible by evo-rail’s in-depth knowledge of both rail and technology.

Developing Rail 5G

This achievement wouldn’t have been possible without the University of Bristol and Blu Wireless. Both played a key role in the development of rail-5G, which delivers continuous internet at up to 50 times the average speed of existing mobile connections.

When First Group approached the university in 2017, its experts suggested using millimetre wave (a radio frequency associated with 5G). They then put the transport operator in touch with a local mmWave start-up, Blu Wireless, where I was working.

What followed was a truly collaborative development process, hinging on in-depth knowledge of the radio technology from Blu Wireless, and the University and evo-rail’s understanding of the rail network.

Together, the three parties created a new high-frequency technology. This technology directs a radio beam to the moving vehicle, following it electronically as it travels along the track. The long corridors of the rail network proved to be an ideal use case.

Rigorous testing

The development process was a long one, involving various phases of testing. Initial lab testing was followed by tests on cars. We then used the rail test centre to fit and run our system on trains for the first time, checking that there would be no interference with OLE.

We also carried out tests with Rail Alliance at Long Marston, and launched a three-year trial on the Isle of Wight’s Island Line, installing trackside antennas and fitting the old Island Line trains with our equipment. These vehicles were 80 years old, and it proved to be a great robustness test for the antenna units mounted on the train roof.

Now, as we deploy on SWR, we’re confident in the solution, having already long-term tested our system in some harsh environments, contending with narrow rail corridors, tunnels, and curves. In the rail industry, bringing a new product to market can be a slow process, but that has worked to our advantage, allowing time to robustly test and optimise the solution.

How rail-5G works

The building blocks of this new technology are relatively simple. Trains are fitted with two antenna units – one at the front of a vehicle, and one at the rear. They communicate with pole-mounted antennas running along the track (placed anywhere from 500 metres to two kilometres apart, depending on its geography).

As a train travels up and down the track, radio links are set up between these antennas. When one link disappears, we can redirect traffic to another – and even aggregate links to deliver incredible amounts of bandwidth.

Rail-5G is fed to a train’s existing router, boosting the 20-50Mb/s of mobile bandwidth currently available. This means that existing Wi-Fi systems don’t need to be replaced – a clear benefit for operators.

Ultimately, our technology can provide 100 per cent coverage and an average of over 1Gb/s internet. It’s an incredible solution, and a step change in onboard connectivity.

Easy and safe to deploy

It’s also easy to install. Our train antennas are roughly the same size as existing units, meaning that no additional approval is required. They feed through to a small unit in the ceiling space of the vehicle – which, in turn, connects to the existing network.

The system’s trackside poles are also small, discreet, and low power, with one antenna requiring around 40 watts to run. Fitted with solar technology, these poles could generate enough green power to run for 18 – 20 hours a day. It’s quite incredible.

All-in-all, rail-5G is a lightweight, low-cost implementation – and deployment needn’t involve heavy equipment or legions of workers.

The system’s trackside poles are discreet and low power, with one antenna requiring around 40 watts to run. Fitted with solar technology, these poles could generate enough green power to run for 18 – 20 hours a day. It’s quite incredible.

All-in-all, rail-5G is a lightweight, low-cost implementation. But this doesn’t mean unsafe. We’re a rail company – and, as such, safety is at the heart of everything we do. This has led us to develop our solution in a certain way, setting up the kind of long-term trials that just wouldn’t be feasible for a normal telecoms business. We’re closely involved in safety, design, approvals, and build, and understand our customers’ needs. Indeed, the fact that rail-5G was developed by experienced rail professionals is key, giving operators confidence in the product.

Working with Network Rail

Network Rail has also been heavily involved in the progression of this transformative technology. We worked with them to address concerns about electro-magnetic interference with existing infrastructure and went through a rigorous testing and approvals process. Today, we have an excellent understanding of the rules and regulations and know exactly where units can be installed. Our ability to navigate this process gives us confidence as we enter other, similarly safety-conscious markets.

Now, we’re seeing results on SWR, and it’s so exciting – especially for someone like me, who’s been involved since the beginning.

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