Getting rail communications back on track

This week saw Cobham Wireless, together with cable and antenna system manufacturer RFS, host an important event that brought together over 80 top executives from the communications, infrastructure and railway industries to discuss how to improve voice and data provision on trains in the UK.

Railways and metro systems are the some of the most challenging environments in which to deliver cellular coverage and are a major priority for both the Department for Transport (DfT), and consumers who demand seamless data and voice when in transit in the UK and beyond.

To investigate how this can be delivered, Cobham Wireless and RFS arranged the ‘Going Underground’ event at London’s Transport Museum, which featured presentations from EE, Real Wireless and the Department for Transport, in addition to case studies outlining successful deployments in the UK and across Europe.

The enlightening opening speech from Gavin James, Department for Transport’s Programme Manager, Digital and Telecommunications Services, highlighted a commitment from the DfT to ensure data and voice coverage is available to all rail passengers in the UK. The data element, he stated, is being provided by Wi-Fi but the provision of voice services was still a challenge. How to deliver this was one of the day’s most pertinent themes.

Collaboration was the key word throughout the event with presentations highlighting successful projects between operators, infrastructure providers and rail companies – including Vodafone’s deal with East Midlands Trains and EE’s deployment on Chiltern Railways. These initiatives have vastly improved coverage for passengers using these services and are great examples of the types of partnerships the DfT are keen to encourage, and an area where Cobham Wireless have been central in recent years.

London Transport Museum

Cobham Wireless experts have a long history of delivering communication systems in some of the most challenging railway scenarios in the world including metros, tunnels and cuttings. Every deployment has unique characteristics and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to provide robust public safety, data and cellular voice services on moving carriages. This is why operators and rail companies are eager to engage with experienced infrastructure companies to develop bespoke systems.

Discussions at the event served to verify that train communication services are very close to the top of the priority list for the UK’s transport authorities, train companies and mobile network operators – in addition to consumers who have demanded reliable coverage on trains since the mobile phones became commonplace in the late 1990s.

As Gavin illustrated, while Wi-Fi is serving the data element on many routes, the voice requirement included in many new rail franchises is still lacking in areas where on-board repeaters and similar solutions are yet to be installed. The DfT requires that communications should be available regardless of network provider or device being used, which is why Wi-Fi calling seems an unlikely solution to the voice problem.

In the UK the number of calls going over the Wi-Fi networks is very small, with not all providers offering the service as a native app, and third party provision reliant on specific apps or handsets. Therefore, DAS is an obvious solution for robust, vendor neutral voice calls to even the most basic of handsets and has a long history of successful rail deployments.

It was fascinating to hear the disparate views at this year’s event and, here at Cobham Wireless, we’re eager to encourage further debate through future events to ensure the UK’s railway network offers the connectivity demanded by consumers.

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Matt Richards Matt Richards
Regional Sales Director, Cobham Wireless

Matt is the Head of UK Sales for Cobham Wireless and has 18 years previous experience within manufacturing, IT systems integration and software development companies.

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