Another great step forward for railway mobile telecoms

Posted: 27 February 2013 | | No comments yet

South of a line from the Severn to the Wash, the National Radio Network has fallen silent, as the GSM-R project wraps up its work…

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South of a line from the Severn to the Wash, the National Radio Network has fallen silent, as the GSM-R project wraps up its work in the south.

An analogue radio network, NRN was introduced by British Rail but switched off in the south on December 31, 2012, leaving the region in the hands of GSM-R (Global System for Mobile Communications – Railway) and for a short while at least, Cab Secure Radio (CSR).

The FTN-GSM-R project has seen Network Rail’s Fixed Telecom Network, brought back in house and reunited. British Rail’s unified network had been split up into private operators at privatisation, leaving Network Rail to rely upon other parties for operational communications. The FTN has been renewed with almost 15,000km fibre optic and with greater resilience, so individual failures will no longer bring the network down, and the ability to monitor failures remotely.

It is that network that GSM-R relies on, bringing digital-quality transmission to train-to-shore communications for the first time on the railway – along with a host of other features.

Gary Porter, senior programme manager for the project, said: “The technical challenges of renewing our telecoms and installing GSM-R nationwide were only part of the story. Since this project began in 2002, it’s been a case of working closely as an industry, with all operators, ATOC, the ORR, the RSSB and to the owners of the rolling stock that works on our network

“This all started because we knew our communications networks, including NRN and CSR needed replacing with a single system, and European interoperability legislation mandated that the system be GSM-R. At the same time, we’ve been replacing our fixed network with a world-class web of fibre optics.

“The project has made great strides since building work 2004, with more than 5,000km of GSM-R turned on just in 2012 alone.

“NRN has served the railway well, but it is increasingly unreliable and cannot be used to communicate directly with signallers. GSM-R brings train communications into the mobile age, where they should be.”

Many of the aspects that GSM-R uses are already built in to 2G traditional mobile networks, but just not used by public handsets. The most obvious differences are:

  • Location dependent addressing, which means drivers can contact their signaller with one button, as the system ‘knows’ which box/workstation to talk to.
  • Functional addressing; when a driver starts his duty he/she will key in their headcode, and the signaller simply dials that headcode when they need to communicate. As some headcodes are shared across the network, the system ‘knows’ which one the signaller wants, simply by its location.
  • Group calls; which allow several people to be contacted at once, and talk to each other, in a single geographic area.
  • Broadcast calls; which can be triggered by location, as well as by human hand. Trials are ongoing to ascertain if this feature can be used for safety improvements, such as by alerting drivers to adhesion problems as they enter a certain area.
  • Priority calls, which means an emergency call will override every other call on the network.

Emergency call buttons on every handset have the power to bring all trains in an area to a halt. The yellow ‘Signaller’ button is a step down in urgency, but instantly calls the signaller in cases where the driver has an urgent need, but will not impact on other trains.

Gary added: “An incident on the West Coast main line last year saw trains halted with the use of the emergency button, when a young girl was spotted sitting in the four-foot. Nobody was hurt and the presence of GSM-R also meant that services could be brought back into use more quickly.

“Just stopping at a signal post telephone on the west coast will take up to eight minutes, even if the train starts moving immediately. This new technology can keep things on the move and cut delays.”

Timescale and figures

By early 2014 it is planned that whole UK network will have operational GSM-R. Much of the trackside hardware is already in situ – 95 % – and 50 % of it is operational.

There are still more than 4,600 cab radios to install, but 50 per cent of drivers are trained (8,000) along with more than 2,300 signallers.

More than 3,200 FTN/GSM-R sites have been installed nationwide, which is 94 per cent of the total required.

CSR and NRN will not be turned off immediately, as all operators, from the primary TOC on each route to freight operators, will need to be ready. However, it is expected that the performance benefits of GSM-R will mean operators will convert as soon as possible. NRN will finally cease to exist in 2015.

Nationwide there is 7,200km of GSM-R installed, with a total target of 15,108km by 2014.

The FTN is expanding alongside GSM-R, as GSM-R cannot exist without it, and is being worked into resignalling projects as they occur, including both phases of the Cardiff area signalling scheme.

The total cost of the FTN-GSM-R project is almost £1.9bn, including all fitment of kit (including to operators) and the creation of the new telecoms network.

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