Simon Holmes, Managing Director of evo-rail, discusses the business’s transformative rail-5G technology – and explains why GBR’s joined-up network must also be well-connected
As the industry’s new ‘guiding mind’, Great British Railways (GBR) is set to deliver a simpler, less fragmented network for passengers and freight customers alike. The industry agrees that this improved network must be joined-up – but it should also be better connected.
Because, despite claims to the contrary, connectivity matters to passengers. In a 2022 survey by Ipsos, nearly 38 per cent of UK respondents stated that they would be more likely to travel by train if the train operator in question offered fast, reliable and free-Wi-Fi onboard.
And this kind of connectivity is no longer a pipedream. Working closely with the University of Bristol and technology partners evo-rail (part of First Group) has developed ground-breaking rail-5G. Our technology can deliver over 1 gigabit of internet onto a moving train, transforming the passenger experience, improving safety and maintenance, and creating new commercial opportunities. Crucially, it could also encourage more people to travel by train.
A step change in rail connectivity
Rail-5G was developed by the rail experts, for the railways. The journey began around five years ago, when FirstGroup recognised that it was struggling to connect its customers – particularly at times of disruption, and around major conurbations.
The ambition was to ensure that passengers could do on a train what they were able to do from home or at the office, leveraging the time that travelling by rail frees up. However, with just 20 – 50Mb/s of bandwidth available onboard, this often wasn’t possible.
The issue of poor connectivity on trains is a longstanding one. I’ve seen it everywhere, from the UK to the States – although the Paris Metro is a rare exception.
Realising that it was time for a step change, FirstGroup approached the University of Bristol (whose mobile 5G lab was the best in the country). The university’s experts suggested stripping 5G down and establishing whether it could be put onto trains consistently, using a different frequency band to achieve huge bandwidths.
This approach was trialled at Network Rail’s Research, Innovation and Development Centre (RIDC) – and we were a little stunned when it proved successful. Evo-rail’s work then began in earnest. The technology itself took around two years to develop; for our team, the real challenge was ensuring that it could be deployed safely on a railway.
Between 2019 and 2021, we used the Isle of Wight’s challenging narrow and bendy Island Line to test the solution. Again, it worked beautifully – and, after implementing it on a 200-mph railway in northern Spain, we had our final proof that is worked well in all usual railway environments, including tunnels
Rail-5G is now being rolled out on South Western Railway (SWR), whose customers and train systems will have consistent, uninterrupted access to the internet. The same with Nomad Digital and Caltrain in the California, US.
Transformative rail-5G technology
But how does this transformative technology work? Rail-5G is transmitted to a train from a series of pole-mounted antennas beside the track and received by antennas on the front and rear of the train. The beams via which the ultra-high bandwidth is transmitted move electronically, maintaining a connection as the train moves along the track.
Poles are placed between 1 and 2km apart, depending on the topology. These antennas use less than 5 per cent of the power required by a mobile mast. Poles can be erected safely, quickly, easily and without isolation, even solar powered if required. The result is a safe, easy-to-maintain solution, with minimal disruption.
Because the fibre that provides connectivity between poles can be integrated and exploited by operators, this technology also has the potential to digitally transform stations, trackside services and even local communities.
Better connectivity will delight rail customers
And the business case for transforming connectivity on our railways is very strong. The most significant benefit being additional journeys of existing train users, attracting new users and saving on mobile data.
According to our 2022 poll, UK rail users would travel by train more often in the future if the onboard Wi-Fi enabled them to use social media (32%), access emails (32%), listen to online music services (30%), stream HD videos (27%), or play online games (18%). Indeed, whether they’re looking to catch up on work or spend their journey 3D gaming, customers want better internet access; evo-rail’s primary goal was always to meet this demand, creating the kind of experience that would encourage people to travel by train. Simply put, if the rail industry wants more customers – and wants to make these customers happy – it needs to address its connectivity problem.
Safer, more efficient trains and value-creation opportunities
This passenger piece is key – but creating digitally connected trains also has operational benefits. Rail-5G enables live asset management monitoring of trains, track and overhead equipment, as well as big data analysis using AI technology for condition monitoring, preventative maintenance, safety and security. Allowing teams to maximise capacity and improve performance, including the safety and efficiency of the railways.
Finally, better connectivity opens up numerous value-creation opportunities. Operators could charge passengers, content companies and onboard system providers when they reached their free Wi-Fi limit, or allow customers to buy guaranteed bandwidth. With rail-5G, they could even create a digital marketplace, selling and serving ads.
Ultimately, the benefits of this ground-breaking technology – for passengers, rail operators, and the wider industry – are clear. Rail-5G, at a fraction of the cost of mobile data, delivers guaranteed 100% coverage and 10-50 the bandwidth to meet customer demand for the very first time, and a decade ahead.
Has evo-rail achieved its original objective – namely, to delight customers? Early signs are ‘Yes’ from existing installations, but we’ll be in a better position to give a definitive answer to this question once the rail-5G deployment is complete on SWR, (later this year).