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Three Trends Driving Wireless Tech in the Railway Industry

The application possibilities of wireless technology in the railway industry are seemingly endless. An Industrial Ethernet network is inherently flexible and easily expandable, which makes it ideal for accommodating future trends in the transportation space.

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Customer demand for a safe, entertaining, and enjoyable travel experience is dramatically increasing. Rail travelers today, whether riding on high-speed trains, light rail, subway, or metro systems, expect onboard Wi-Fi, a variety of entertainment options, and access to accurate, up-to-date travel information. These offerings and add-ons are no longer considered luxuries but are necessary for railway companies to stay in business.

A study conducted on passengers traveling the Capitol Corridor route along the US West Coast in 2012 showed free wireless Internet access led to a 3% increase in train capacity. If rail operators want to compete with buses, cars, and planes as preferred transportation options, they need to keep up with the latest technological advancements and meet customers’ high expectations for the overall travel experience.

To deliver these onboard services, the network infrastructure running behind the scenes needs to be reliable, secure, and just as sophisticated. While traditional fieldbus technology is relatively simple and extremely reliable, many engineers are now incorporating Industrial Ethernet into their communications networks; it offers a variety of benefits – increased flexibility, ease of adding wireless local area networks (WLANs), real-time communication, and system interconnection. All of these benefits make it easier for rail companies to meet consumers’ high standards and expectations while also delivering uncompromising safety and minimal downtime or delays. A solid network infrastructure can make or break a customer’s travel experience and, in turn, the business success of a rail company as a whole.

Wireless technology is becoming essential for operating modern railway systems, as evidenced by three emerging trends: increased passenger expectations, flexible network configurations, and the skyrocketing productivity demands.

Increasing Passenger Expectations: The Backdrop for Change

As rail operators encourage people to abandon their individual vehicles in favor of public transportation options, they need to keep up with the latest technological advancements and customer expectations.

As rail operators encourage people to abandon their individual vehicles in favor of public transportation options, they need to keep up with the latest technological advancements and customer expectations.

If rail operators want to successfully shift travelers’ primary mode of transportation from road to rail, they need to provide onboard wireless Internet access. With smartphones, tablets, and laptops becoming more and more ubiquitous, not having a fast and reliable Internet connection when traveling is a big turn-off for both consumer and business travelers. Other forms of entertainment, including the availability of movies and TV shows, are another major interest area for passengers. To pull it all off successfully, it requires a sound network communication structure and industrial wireless products.

In addition to Wi-Fi and entertainment, real-time passenger information systems are critical – whether you want to buy a ticket, reserve a seat, or access up-to-date information about arrival times, connections, and platform information. When traveling by train, passengers want the same benefits and real-time information they can get when traveling by plane, and railway companies are being forced to step up their game in order to compete and be seen as a preferred method of travel.

Flexible Network Configurations: Catalysts for Growth

 A typical wireless network design for a train in need of onboard wireless connectivity. In this scenario, the rail operator sought fast, reliable transmission of operational data and passenger information via an industrial Ethernet infrastructure, plus the interconnection of multiple onboard systems via Fast Ethernet switches.

A typical wireless network design for a train in need of onboard wireless connectivity. In this scenario, the rail operator sought fast, reliable transmission of operational data and passenger information via an industrial Ethernet infrastructure, plus the interconnection of multiple onboard systems via Fast Ethernet switches.

In order to maximize profits and keep down costs, trains are often reconfigured to accommodate changing capacity needs. More cars are added to accommodate rush hour traffic, then removed during less popular commute times. This process of adding and removing cars can be very time-consuming and labor-intensive for operators.

Wireless technology can facilitate a faster connection process between train cars, offering an ideal solution to this challenge. Wireless networking capabilities can also enable remote management and monitoring of the network from a central location, including traffic control and passenger information systems. This helps engineers and operators recognize the topology of a train’s onboard network and use the information to assign numbers to rail cars and even specific seats. It also gives teams a snapshot of occupancy within individual cars and, therefore, a better idea of how many train cars they need to add and take away at specific times of day, ultimately making them more efficient at their jobs.

Productivity Demands: Network Reliability is Key

With the strong desire of rail operators to drive efficiencies, improve reliability, shorten dwell times at platforms, reduce headway between trains, and enhance security, the performance requirements for trains are increasing tremendously, as is the demand for control and diagnostic systems. To ensure passenger trains perform as expected, data collection and real-time monitoring must occur across a range of onboard systems – and the data flow doesn’t stop there. With the help of wireless technology, diagnostic systems can now report back to depots before a train arrives for maintenance so spare parts and tools can be organized and ready to go, and communications-based train control (CBTC) systems can remotely facilitate the control and movement of trains. Effectively incorporating wireless technology into a network design is key for increasing productivity and efficiency of train and platform operations.

From WiFi and onboard entertainment options to real-time travel information, passenger demands on public transportation continue to increase. To meet these demands, the wireless network running behind the scenes needs to be well designed and just as sophisticated.

From WiFi and onboard entertainment options to real-time travel information, passenger demands on public transportation continue to increase. To meet these demands, the wireless network running behind the scenes needs to be well designed and just as sophisticated.

Reliability of the wireless network is extremely important in the transportation industry. In addition to safety concerns, downtime and delays cost money and negatively impact customer satisfaction. When it comes to wireless, products with built-in parallel redundancy protocols (PRP) – a data communication network standardized by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC 62439-3 Clause 4) that allows systems to overcome any single network failure without affecting data transmission – can help dramatically improve the reliability and quality of wireless connections. The loss- and latency-sensitive applications typically found within the railway industry also can be successfully operated with industrial wireless technology.

The application possibilities of wireless technology in the railway industry are seemingly endless. An Industrial Ethernet network is inherently flexible and easily expandable, which makes it ideal for adapting and accommodating future trends in the transportation space. As networking technologies and customer expectations continue to evolve, rail cars will become progressively more sophisticated, and data rates will continue to increase to support new applications. This makes networks designed for future upgrades and expansions essential, so both current needs and future requirements and trends can be met.

For more insights on how to successfully integrate wireless applications onboard trains, click here to download a free white paper, “Industrial Wireless Technology for Railway Systems.”

Richard Weatherburn, BeldenAuthor Richard Weatherburn is Belden’s global vertical marketing manager responsible for the transportation market and has been associated with the transportation industry for more than 15 years. 

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