LESS than a decade after they first came into widespread use, smartphones have become one of the defining technologies of our age. A smartphone user now has more processing power in his pocket than Nasa had when it sent Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969. The smartphone has radically changed how we communicate and how we consume information.

NomadAccording to Ericsson’s 2016 mobility report, global smartphone subscriptions are projected to increase from 3.9 billion in 2016 to 6.8 billion by 2022, while data usage is set to rise massively from 1.9GB per smartphone per month in 2016 to 11GB in 2022, when there will be 550 million 5G subscriptions.

For the rail industry, accustomed to dealing in lifecycles spanning decades, these are dizzying rates of change. This is a particular issue for rail operators because the smartphone has changed our expectations of how we spend our travel time. For the passenger, an onboard Wi-Fi connection has quickly gone from being an extra to an expectation, but to the frustration of rail users, connectivity packages and data allowances on trains has not kept pace with the devices so many of us carry.

Overcoming the barriers to onboard connectivity offers the prospect of substantial benefits both in terms of operational performance and service quality. With the advent of LTE and 5G telecoms technologies, the concept of the networked train, where onboard systems communicate seamlessly with each other and the trackside, is quickly becoming a reality.

According to Mr Reece Donovan, CEO of Nomad Digital, the networked train goes much further than simply providing a reliable Wi-Fi connection. “The mission is really around three things,” he explains. “There’s connectivity to support the passenger journey. Then there’s the infrastructure on the train providing information to passengers. Thirdly, it’s about helping operators to optimise maintenance of their fleets and drive savings.”

Nomad’s vision for the networked train is based on a common scalable IP connectivity platform, which enables onboard systems to communicate with each other and the outside world while maintaining a secure separation between passenger-facing and safety-critical applications. The platform provides a basis for applications such as Wi-Fi, passenger information and infotainment as well as telemanagement for vehicle monitoring and remote diagnostics. Off-train passenger and fleet data is stored securely at a network operating centre (NOC).

New levels of connectivity will enable operators to introduce additional services for the passenger, both generic and personalised, fostering closer relationships with their customers, improved brand loyalty, and generating new revenue streams. Frequent traveller schemes, personalised journey planners, targeted promotions and booking of services such as meals on the train or bicycle hire at the destination all add value and enhance the passenger experience.

Donovan stresses the need for solutions that are future-proof and capable of adapting as technology evolves. Nomad’s Onboard Information System (OBIS) is being developed to feed information simultaneously to both the train’s passenger information screens and passenger’s smartphones or tablets, reflecting the fact the mobile devices are likely to become the primary means of relaying passenger information. OBIS will also support personalised journey and sales services.

Alongside these passenger benefits, the networked train offers the prospect of improved fleet performance through condition-based monitoring and the development of predictive maintenance regimes.

This is another area where the potential for progress has been constrained by a lack of connectivity. Today’s trains are stuffed with a variety of analogue and digital systems of varying origins and ages operating completely independently of one another - door actuation systems, passenger counting, CCTV, Wi-Fi and passenger information systems are generally point solutions functioning in isolation.

Donovan says that with a networked train it will be possible to give a single maintenance-friendly view of a vehicle and its constituent systems with the ability to predict failures and issue alerts in real time when a failure occurs in service.

However, the management of data generated by onboard systems is critical to the successful implementation of a condition-based maintenance regime. According to Nomad, a modern EMU can transmit around 5000 signals or 2GB of data per day - equivalent to around £2000 per train per year. However, Nomad estimates that only around 0.25% of this data is critical to maintenance and the key therefore lies in processing data effectively to extract what is relevant. This needs to be supported by an on-shore back-office system for visualisation and analysis, which can develop predictive algorithms and integrate procedures into maintenance management.

“Big data is expensive and it takes time to move backwards and forwards,” Donovan says. “With condition-based monitoring you need a lot of pre-processing and we only send the stuff that’s relevant. With big data, you can end up creating connections that are not very insightful, so the ability to do some processing on the train gives you something that’s relevant, timely and cost effective.”

“Most people in the railway industry seem to accept that you need some form of onboard connectivity,” Donovan concludes. “Naturally it will happen at different speeds for different operators. Some literally just want passenger Wi-Fi but they don’t think about the other things. But if you consider the cross-selling opportunities and the value it brings, it makes a lot of sense.”