Ingo Flomer discusses the importance of cellular connectivity on rail routes

How many times have you had a call drop out on a train? How many times has the YouTube video you’re watching on your journey failed to load? Have you ever tried to email colleagues on your commute, only to find it sat in your outbox by the time you arrive at the office?

Trying to use your mobile phone on board a train is notoriously difficult. Poor, unreliable connectivity has become a frequent part of train travel and is an unwelcome frustration for passengers. Consistent connectivity is an expectation of modern life. Whether we’re at home, work, or travelling between the two, we expect to be able to access cellular services anywhere, anytime.

Running behind
Unfortunately, though, the UK’s rail network is still running behind when it comes to reliable network coverage, with call reliability below that achieved on roads and within cities. Other European countries face a similar dilemma. Most railway communications infrastructures were developed in the early nineties, designed with the communications standards of the time in-mind. The issue which faces Europe today is that this legacy technology trails a long way behind the current 4G coverage standards, and the 5G networks which are now being launched by operators.

Rail communications systems need to be improved in order to deliver efficient communications for passengers, rail operators and for emergency services. According to a recent YouGov survey, only 33 per cent of rail commuters felt their mobile signal reception was good enough to allow them to connect to the internet, and almost a quarter rated their mobile service on-board as poor.

For those using the train to travel to and from work, unreliable – or a complete lack of – mobile reception can hamper efforts to communicate with colleagues, send work emails or access files remotely; over half of passengers said they were prevented from doing these things due to poor connectivity.

While some rail operators offer on-board Wi-Fi, this service can also be slow and unreliable, and does not meet the expectations and preferences of many rail users. The same survey reported that over half of commuters indicated a strong preference to connecting to the internet via their mobile provider compared to via a public Wi-Fi network.

The UK government has recently announced that it will work with the industry, to ‘dramatically improve’ connectivity for passengers on all mainline rail routes by 2025. The commitment forms part of the government’s 5G strategy and follows the introduction of minimum standards for mobile connectivity on new franchises.

For the UK to thrive in the digital age, it’s vital that this promise is fulfilled and an effective communications solution is found and implemented. This will not only ensure that passengers get the value and quality of on-board experience to justify ticket price rises and service disruptions, but also help boost productivity and support the UK’s digital economy.

Getting back on track
To achieve the rail connectivity the UK needs, a similar approach to coverage must be taken as has been in built-up urban areas, with rail lines supported by a dedicated coverage system. For above-ground rail networks, strong signals are required within carriages to provide sufficient cellular coverage. Unfortunately, trains offer a less-than-ideal environment for supporting cellular signal, with their metal roofs and multiple windows making signal loss a major challenge.

However, digital solutions exist today which can address this problem for rail passengers, whilst also supporting GSM-R for track to train communications and signalling control, and the dedicated public safety networks used by the emergency services, such as the 4G-based ESN in the UK.

Digital on-board repeaters provide a homogenous signal, equalising the fluctuating signal from outside. The result is an improvement in signal received inside the train, and consistent signal strengths at reasonable levels. A solution such as this also involves a leakage cable and antenna placed on the roof of the train, rather than the window, where reception is far poorer due to the reflection of the glass.

Rail operators have the power to greatly improve cellular on-board coverage, by investing in solutions which deliver consistent and reliable signal inside the train. Passengers will of course benefit, but there are significant gains for rail operators too. Reliable cellular overage which guarantees passengers’ ability to access the internet would allow operators and third parties to launch dedicated apps with real-time train updates, digital entertainment, click-and-collect on-board dining, and other value-added services. Connectivity could become a competitive differentiator for operators, helping them to attract more passengers. A more enjoyable on-board experience would, in turn, lead to repeat custom, boosting customer loyalty and retention.

Our demand for connectivity is going nowhere. Connectivity is improving in cities, and transport networks must not be left behind. To meet the demands from passengers, rail operators must be prepared to upgrade their communications infrastructure. A better quality of experience for these passengers – which means no more dropped calls, buffering videos or stationary selfie uploads – will help boost customer satisfaction levels, which will be invaluable for a transport industry which has received poor press in recent years.

Ingo Flomer is CTO at Cobham Wireless, the global leader in the provision of advanced wireless coverage and mobile communications systems. It produces innovative, cost-effective solutions that address market requirements for improved connectivity, greater capacity and better quality of experience.
Cobham Wireless’ intelligent digital Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), along with its advanced network validation tools for mobile and IP networks, help propel networks to the next generation.