Rail travel has seen a decline in recent years, partly down to the rise in remote working, but also arguably due to the lack of train Wi-Fi connectivity required for those travelling for business. 

Economist Dr Daniel Susskind’s recent calculations looked at the value of time spent on board trains in the UK, using the same business case assumptions used by the UK Government in estimating the return on investment for the HS2 project, to calculate the ROI for improved passenger Wi-Fi.  

Mark Barrett, CCO at Blu Wireless

British passengers make around 1.5 billion rail journeys a year with two-thirds of journeys classified as commuter and a quarter as business travel. Using these numbers, Dr Susskind argued that the total value of time spent on board trains in the UK is a staggering £18bn ($23.07bn) a year. 

By making that travel time more productive through enhanced connectivity, the UK economy could receive a much-needed boost. Furthermore, improved connectivity on trains in rural environments would make those areas more attractive for young commuters and enhance local economies. 

Current connectivity 

It is widely accepted that working while travelling by rail is tricky. Connectivity on trains is limited in performance, with users either having to use their own phones or utilising the train’s Wi-Fi network. Both, in fact, run off the same commercial mobile networks, with the on-train Wi-Fi harnessing the signal and then pushing it out through access points inside the train.  

With the current UK rail infrastructure, trains are achieving Wi-Fi data rates between 15Mbps to 30 Mbps per train, which is then shared between all connected passengers; sometimes hundreds of users at a time. 

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With the geography of the UK, trains tend to run across areas where mobile phone network coverage has not been optimised. Phone masts are typically located in high population-density locations but trains routinely travel across rural locations. Losing mobile phone coverage through tunnels and rural sections of the journey makes current connectivity patchy at best. 

What are the solutions? 

This challenge is by no means new. In fact, in 2016 the UK Government undertook its Connected Future Report, reviewing the 5G use cases for gross value add, with the primary use case being identified as improving connectivity on trains. Improving it would increase passenger numbers, enable people to work on trains and be more productive, whilst reducing the number of car journeys and the subsequent carbon emissions associated with them. 

The introduction of more mobile networks spread across the UK’s rural locations and alongside rail lines may seem an obvious solution. However, these are power-hungry, expensive, and operate within limited wireless spectrum. Another option is to deploy a dedicated track-side Wi-Fi (6 GHz) network using towers alongside the track that communicates as the train moves past.

While this provides more reliable connectivity at data rates up to 200 Mbps compared to mobile networks, it still requires intensive infrastructure at a high cost and does not offer the best levels of connectivity. 

In fact, back in 2018 the UK Government Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (now the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) also asked the UK telecommunications regulator Ofcom for its input on the optimum connectivity levels to fully service the trains for passenger use.

Ofcom calculated that 2Gbps per train was needed to efficiently and effectively meet passenger needs and to have the required positive uplift in connectivity and, therefore, rail use. This is a performance gap of at least 10x between the use of Wi-Fi wireless trackside networks to meet this projected demand. 

Next-gen mmWave technology

Ofcom’s subsequent report concluded that only the use of mmWave spectrum (30 GHz-100 GHz) has the necessary Gigahertz of wireless bandwidth to meet the Gigabits of projected demand. Specifically, the licence-exempt band of 57 GHz-71 GHz provides the single largest continuous block of 14 GHz of wireless spectrum available below 100 GHz.

Moreover, being licence-exempt means that no licence fees are due to the government to utilise this spectrum, and is available both in the UK and abroad. In fact, Blu Wireless has been taking part in railway projects in France, Germany, and California utilising mmWave products operating in the 57-71 GHz license-exempt band.   

Currently, the architecture relies on trackside fibre and power networks, which can pose an economic challenge for rural applications, as fibre is often the most expensive CAPEX element for the deployment of a new wireless network. 

However, Blu Wireless is developing a further mmWave product that provides wireless trackside backhaul to avoid the need for fibre to connect each trackside node to the core network. Since the mmWave technology is power efficient it can also be powered from solar panels to provide a ‘carbon-free’ solution.

This next-generation mmWave wireless solution will be ready for installation in 2025 and there are already a number of rail customers interested in deploying this version. 

The ‘Gigabit Train’

‘The Gigabit Train’ is the concept of a train achieving wireless connectivity of 1 GBit per second; 1,000 Mbps of capacity to passengers with the potential to change the future of rail travel. The Gigabit Train is often talked of within the context of EU-funded, next-generation communications projects. 

However, there is a disconnect between the European aspirations of the Gigabit Train and the availability of dedicated wireless spectrum to deliver this performance.

The Future Railway Mobile Communications System (FRMCS-5G) is the European railway communication system that will replace the current generation of rail communications based on the GSM-R system by 2035. Whilst the objective is to boost network performance, its target to bring the allocated spectrum of 5 MHz at 900 MHz and 10 MHz at 1800 MHz is far from sufficient to deliver Gigabit levels of performance.

In comparison, mmWave technology provides access to 14,000 MHz of spectrum. Hence augmenting FRMCS to integrate the mmWave spectrum will provide the capacity to deliver the true gigabit-connected train of the future.    

The future of connectivity

However, for rural rail travel, the issue is finding the right complexity and cost point. Especially in places where there is very little infrastructure, no power and no existing wireless communication or fibre.

The challenge is delivering self-standing, self-powered, wireless nodes along the trackside that can connect to each other and the train at low power in a cost-effective deployment point to provide rural trains with great connectivity. 

With improved wireless solutions utilising the mmWave spectrum, train services as we know them can be transformed. In addition to passenger connectivity, on-train services both to and from the train can be added onto the mmWave link; CCTV monitoring of the train can be uploaded in real-time to the trackside, along with operations data and potentially even signalling data in the near future. 

Overall, gigabit connectivity on trains is set to improve rural connectivity, boosting rural economies and opening up new business opportunities in the countryside.