Digitalising the UK's rail network: The role telcos can play
With increasing fares and timetable disasters sparking outrage, the UK rail network has a big job on its hands to placate customers and improve services. Digitalising the network is a clear step towards achieving this goal. Whether it’s commuters working on the go, or leisure travellers streaming video content, access to reliable internet is now an expected feature of rail travel, not simply a perk. The UK Government already has plans in place to provide this: in recent years, we’ve seen a series of initiatives laid out, including providing uninterrupted Wi-Fi and 5G ‘on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025’.
However, the digitalisation of our railways won’t just improve the on-board experience for customers. It covers a wide range of upgrades, such as providing the platform to allow the improvement of outdated signalling systems, providing drivers and conductors with better visibility of network issues, and the development of our railway stations. But the rail network and the Government can’t achieve this alone, opening up great future opportunities here for the telecoms industry to advise and support.
Planning the journey to improved connectivity
As it stands, the majority of the UK’s rail network communicates via GSM-R. This is an outdated mobile system with traffic management controlled via a fixed axel system that requires trains to remain a certain number of stops apart. This restricts the number of services available on the network at any one time, meaning the UK has one of the most congested networks in Europe. At the same time, on-board network connectivity is slow and has limited capacity. Network Rail has set a target to upgrade 63% of the UK rail network’s signalling system over the next 15 years. By upgrading its signalling system and improving driver/conductor visibility through in-cab radio systems, the UK rail network will be able to keep more trains on the network and more trains on the move. The opportunity here for the telecoms industry is to facilitate widespread 4G – and eventually 5G – access and onboard Wi-Fi services. Working alongside this, improved connectivity infrastructure would allow commuters to work efficiently, making the most of their journey time – while general customer service can be improved. Rail operators can even boost their own income, such as through pushing deals through to consumers during journeys. Of course, on-board isn’t the end of the story. By providing both the infrastructure and its expertise, the telecoms industry can also help rail operators significantly improve connectivity at stations and reap a number of benefits as a result.
A platform to achieve success
There are over 2,500 railway stations across the UK, most of which have accompanying car parks, ticket machines and shopping facilities. Network providers can play a key role in improving network effectiveness in these locations. For a start, better networks can offer passengers more reliable real-time information boards and smarter ticketing services. Mobile-based ticketing can make more staff available to focus on improving customer experiences, reducing the environmental impact of paper tickets, and even provide companies with a direct channel through which to offer discounts and packages.
Meanwhile, as adoption of IoT technologies continues to grow, connected smart systems can help improve the efficiency of travel. For example, at Heathrow Terminal 2, a ‘smart parking’ system analyses cars via their number plate, and alerts the driver to open car park spaces, before charging them directly. If used in train stations, this could save valuable time for passengers and improve the customer experience – particularly for busy commuters driving to the station in the morning. The IoT also paves the way for smart advertising, and offers Network Rail an additional opportunity to generate revenue. There are also less obvious benefits, such as improved security. Implementing more efficient network solutions means stations can run their security and CCTV systems wirelessly, such as with 5G or wireless technologies, removing the amount of cabling required in stations and giving both staff and passengers peace of mind that their station is more secure.
The future of the connected rail
Given the rising anger about the state of the national rail service, digitalisation and the subsequent improvement of rail travel should be a key strategy for both the Government and connectivity providers. Because whether it’s making journeys smoother and more efficient, increasing the amount of services, or providing more reliable information along the way, there are countless benefits to be reaped from improving network connectivity. And all of this could contribute to wider economic benefits as a result of increased productivity, during and after journeys. Whether its developing new networks or using already existing infrastructure, there’s great opportunity here for the telecoms industry to support and grow. Aside from the aforementioned benefits to the experience of travelling via a train, rail networks also provide intriguing potential for alternative network cabling. Whilst not benefiting from the deep underground security that comes from installing fibre in the sewers, rail networks are inherently less susceptible to interference and damage than street level cabling. They also follow direct routes between cities, reducing latency.