In the next few years, satellite navigation systems are set to become the norm in the world of railways. The EU, for example, is developing projects such as STARS, which aims to bridge the gap between the European Rail Traffic Management System and the European Global Navigation Satellite System through the use of satellite navigation.

In August, the Italian Railway Network installed a satellite-based management system on a regional line, making history in the EU.

In South America British satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat and other partners have partnered with Rumo, Brazil’s largest train operator, to enable real-time tracking and communication.

The project’s initial results were very positive and showed a shrinking of communication times from 10 minutes to real-time.

Inmarsat director of sector development Steven Tompkins explains why satellite is the way forward for rail connectivity, not only in Brazil but worldwide.

Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): Why was the project with Rumo Rail established?

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Steven Tompkins (ST): If we look at Rumo’s network in Brazil, they have about 14,000 kilometres of railway track. A lot of that railway track goes through remote and rural areas,  where you have quite unreliable connectivity and where things like 3G or 4G don’t exist or are unreliable.

When you are managing a huge rail network like Rumo is, maintaining that efficiency is really important, especially for something basic such as communicating between drivers and control centres and ability to send data from locomotives. If you don’t have reliable connectivity on all lines, it takes a long time to transmit those messages.

This is why we engaged with our partners Globalsat Brazil and Cobham Satcom to build a solution that would allow that communication on the whole of the network.

IGM: When was the project established?

ST: We began the project early this year and we’re through the installation process, which is focusing on 300 train and 2,000km of railway line.

IGM: How does the project work?

ST: Inmarsat owns and operates a network of satellites, which are up in geostationary orbits about 35,000 kilometres above the earth surface, providing reliable Internet and voice connectivity wherever you are in the world.

To connect with the satellite network, we provide our own satellite terminal, a circular piece of hardware which has the size of a laptop and is fully integrated.

Wherever the train is, it can use the satellite terminal to send voice messages and data up via the satellite. The signal is then relayed down to a ground station, which can be spread around the world, sending back the message to

On top of that, train drivers can also use a push-to-talk system which essentially allows them to maintain voice communications from their existing radios, relaying the message via satellite.

You can have voice connectivity wherever you are and it’s a simple system because it integrates with the existing equipment and you don’t have to set up communications infrastructures.

IGM: What challenges have you faced since the beginning of the project?

ST: Installing equipment on 300 locomotives over 2,000km of railway lines is obviously no mean feat. Our local partner Globalsat Brazil – that has managed the project and has been at its front end – has done a fantastic job that installing that hardware.

There’s a lot of coordination needed between all the parties and Rumo to get that installation underway and really make it efficient. Also, the installation process has happened during a global pandemic, which makes things even more difficult.

IGM: What were the project’s results?

ST: One thing is being able to increase the speed at which you can send those messages and have those communications, which have obviously good efficiency and safety outcomes.

Because our solutions are quite reliable, another nice side effect of this project is that our technology will also be used as a backup for terrestrial communication.

If you have an outage on the terrestrial communications because of a natural disaster or an environmental event, you have got this very robust unit. A company like Rumo – as it transitions more to a digital future, using telemetry and onboard communication systems –  can be certain that it has a reliable network that will provide the basis for taking advantage of a digital future.

IGM: What do you hope to achieve in the long-term future?

ST: With Rumo, there’s certainly a potential for expansion, but our big focus is expanding this project to other rail operators, not only Brazil but also in areas where there are issues with connectivity, such as Australia or Russia.

We are working with other rail operators and we want to expand that solution to Europe or the US.

Rail operators are moving towards a future with more automation and train control systems that will need reliable communications.

We’re doing a bit of work in Europe to look at how our connectivity fits within an overall system [and we are looking at] using terrestrial networks to implement systems such as the European rail traffic management system.

We see big applicability for this technology and we received a very positive response from the rail industry which has renewed its interest in the technology.