While most onboard connectivity focuses on passenger Wi-Fi or mobile usage, a stable, reliable wireless connection also opens up a world of possibilities for additional services to benefit both rolling stock manufacturers and operators; from improving staff communication and station security, to removing some cables from trains.
Current train wireless connectivity relies upon third-party mobile and satellite infrastructure. The reasons for this are obvious: it's already there, well tested, and is a cheaper solution. But this is no longer fit for purpose if we hope to meet the modern passengers' demands. Instead, we need to look to the rollout
of bespoke, dedicated, trackside infrastructure - a rollout that requires not only a considerable amount of capital investment, but also careful planning.
The planning aspect is key: if you do not take care and approach a wireless rollout in a holistic manner, there is little chance of recouping the initial investment.
This claim isn't made lightly. Real Wireless carried out a study last year and found that it is necessary to combine revenue from both passenger-facing services such as onboard Wi-Fi and operational benefits, for a rollout to ever deliver a positive net value.
With pressure from both passengers and government, rail operators can no longer avoid providing consistent and quality connectivity. However, the infrastructure required to provide a dependable wireless system remains expensive, with rail in particular finding it difficult to demonstrate exactly how it could achieve a return.
This is because, in a nutshell, providing wireless for hundreds of people inside a fast-moving metal box is extremely difficult. In addition with many lines located in isolated areas and often through cuttings, providing a reliable and high-speed wireless service is not cheap.
Furthermore revenue generated from passengers is unlikely to meet the costs of these large-scale rollouts, not least because few passengers are now willing to pay for the service. This is why operators need to be intelligent in how they approach these projects, and consider where they might make further revenue or efficiency savings to build a more comprehensive case for investing in wireless.
As such, wireless technology's role in improving operational efficiency will shape, to some degree, how the industry develops. Wireless implementations in signalling and control systems are hugely beneficial for operators. But in order to start rolling out this technology, operators will need to have first considered and rolled out a reliable wireless system across their entire network.
Improving communication between staff is a key benefit. Wireless can also support train shunting operations, emergency call services, group voice calling and broadcast systems, ground-to-train communications, and track side communications. Even when a wireless solution relies upon public networks over long distances, it can still serve to enhance certain types of communication, including connecting disparate train signalling and control systems.
For high-speed services it is essential for drivers and engineers to have access to the latest statistics and figures on how the train is performing and operating. However, each additional sensor increases the overall weight and complexity of the vehicle. Currently we have to balance the provision of sufficient feedback for staff to do their job as well as they can, against keeping weight down. Yet with the advent of the Internet of Things, low-power wireless sensors which constantly send information back to a central point do not require cabling and could both simplify maintenance and reduce rolling stock weight.
We're currently seeing a strong push from passengers, governments and regulators for reliable onboard Wi-Fi and mobile services, but this is unlikely to mean 4G and high-speed Wi-Fi arriving in the next 12 months.
Now is the time for both operators and technology providers to start work. In 2016 we expect the rail industry to work so it is in a position to roll out this technology as soon as it feasibly can. It is particularly key for passenger operators reaching the end of their contracts to begin planning now.
Wireless for rail isn't easy and nor is it cheap. But with pressure from passengers and government mounting, operators need to look at how they can make a business case for wireless. For those taking into account the operational efficiencies and cost-saving benefits of wireless infrastructure, the costs change from an expensive overhead that helps meet customers' expectations, into a sound investment that opens up new revenue streams.