In July, Cobham Wireless welcomed partners and guests to London’s Magic Circle for an event dedicated to railway communication. Unfortunately, many of the attendees – travelling from across the UK as well as from Europe and the Middle East – will have experienced the less-than-magical reality of mobile connectivity on the UK’s rail networks.
What can be done to improve on-board comms for passengers? What can we learn from projects in other regions, and what kind of challenges still remain? These are among the questions posed and answered by speakers at the event.
Putting service quality on the line
As most rail users will know, UK mobile network performance on-board is not on par with what customers are receiving in other transport scenarios or cities and fails to deliver on what today’s mobile subscribers expect from their service provider. David Brown, Region Director of P3, gave us the stats to prove it – the results of the consultancy’s research into the digital transformation and mobile network performance on the UK’s railways.
The research covered rail services across the length and breadth of the country and the results act as proof-points for scenarios most rail users are all too familiar with. As many as four in ten YouTube videos will fail when passengers attempt to stream content on their devices, said Brown, with call reliability on railways lower than on cities and roads , and at least one in ten web browsing sessions failing. And it doesn’t matter if you’re with EE, O2, Three or Vodafone: all mobile operators are struggling to deliver adequate services to subscribers on board.
Brown stressed the need for the deployment of new trackside infrastructure which leverages 5G, as this will provide a long-term radio link solution and deliver the connectivity level which will be required to support the needs of device users on board.
A fail-safe approach to underground communications
From Great Britain to Germany: event attendees were invited to compare and contrast the underground rail systems of London and Berlin, with a presentation by Professor Dr Alexander Huhn from the University of Applied Sciences HTW Berlin, who also headed up several comms projects for BVG, Berlin’s public transport authority.
Both Berlin’s population and U-Bahn rail system are roughly half the size of London’s, said Huhn, so one would imagine very similar challenges when deploying mobile and critical comms in these vital transport networks.
The U-Bahn carries “more than 560 million passengers per year, and the length of the lines together is 146km,” explained Huhn. The system comprises 173 subways stations, with an average distance of 800m between each. As expected with such infrastructure – which dates back to 1902 – when it came to renewing the DAS and passive antenna system to roll out UMTS/LTE (3G/4G) for cellular coverage, and switching to TETRA for public safety, “we saw a lot of technical challenges.”
“It’s not so easy to get a new room [to house the equipment] inside a subway as space is limited,” he continued. In addition, “you have problems in terms of RF”, as “it’s challenging to keep leaky feeder cable in a good condition due to nature of underground.” This includes damage caused by the vibrations of trains, which pass at three-minute intervals close to where the cable runs and, “the biggest problem of all”: damage caused by brake dust and ferromagnetic particles.
Huhn overcame these challenges with a cellular system which has Cobham Wireless’ idDAS system at its heart. This has reduced the number of base stations needed, with sites moved to the surface to reduce A/C requirements, and Yagi antennae have replaced the leaky feeder cable.
DAS in the desert
Space, power consumption and A/C were also considerations in Doha, and were outlined by Andy Fletcher, Head of Design with H COM, which designs and delivers comms systems in Qatar – many of which use Cobham Wireless’ DAS solutions. Fletcher detailed H COM’s work on two major cellular and public safety network projects in the state: the first for a metro in Doha, and the second for a light railway in a new city being built north of the Qatari capital.
Connecting any underground environment comes with its own set of specific problems, though luckily – and unlike the UK – in Qatar, “everything’s great here – we don’t have to worry about old cruddy rail tracks and things, this is all brand new and shiny,” said Fletcher. The size of the comms system is significant, but again, the modern state has the space and resources to support such a feat: base station hotels for the metro are housed in “shiny new buildings” with “about 150sqm rooms, with all the air conditioning you ever wanted!”
Again, the LTE and TETRA systems Fletcher discussed are powered by Cobham Wireless’ idDAS, which are also well-suited to those regions with lesser financial resources than Doha. The technology is flexible, scalable, delivers high data throughput and a superior service to subscribers, reduces CapEx and OpEx, and supports a neutral host model which maximises ROI for involved parties.
These benefits were detailed by Cobham Wireless’ Ingo Flömer, who summarised how idDAS and idOBR can provide dedicated underground/metro coverage, delivering excellent voice quality and fast internet access for passengers. Flömer discussed how idDAS could provide coverage across an entire underground system, supporting multiple operators and frequent channels, using only five base stations. The system can be configured to avoid handover between base stations, as well as preventing coverage from leaking to the outside world, both things which can disrupt the end user experience.
The benefits of idDAS have been realised by railway operators, mobile operators and passengers across the globe. Cobham Wireless’ systems have also proved to be extremely resilient, due to their use for public safety comms. As Fletcher commented, “this is public safety: cellular operators might cry if part of the network falls down, but rail is in danger of being shut down if they don’t have public safety comms in part of it – it’s a bit more critical.”
Thanks to everyone who came to our rail event: Witness the Magic of Connectivity.
Back to blog list