Delivering connectivity for rail networks

4 mins read

The dual polarisation technology that’s sending rail connections through the roof. By Daniel Montagnese.

As we start to slowly get back to more frequent travel, and as passengers begin boarding trains once again, despite the ongoing Covid crisis, rail operators will have to consider how to keep their customers happy. 

Most travellers want connectivity to stream movies, scroll on social media, and chat to friends - particularly on long haul journeys – and the pandemic has also introduced the new remote working model to many more workers, which doesn’t look like it’s going away.

People can now work from anywhere, not just in their offices or homes, so passengers can save time by working while travelling. As the world is becoming increasingly digitalised, and the demand for connectivity any time, any place, is on the rise, a strong, high-bandwidth connection will be deemed essential across rail networks.

Thanks to this growth in demand, rail operators are going to be faced with the challenge of keeping passengers connected whilst on the move. This can prove difficult on journeys through rural areas where connectivity can be less dependable. To overcome this, operators are looking to implement high performance antennas, which have a vital role to play in the delivery of reliable connectivity.

Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) antennas are providing rail operators with high bandwidth, super-fast connectivity, meeting the needs of passengers today while preparing for the digital demands of the future.

Activities that tend to be popular with travellers often come with a need for higher bandwidth. For example, video streaming is popular for viewing of movies and television, and for chatting to friends and family – but this data usage is intensive. In addition to this, many travellers now use multiple connected devices, like phones, laptops, tablets, and smart watches, further increasing the bandwidth required. MIMO antennas have multiple input and output channels, allowing for data streams to run in parallel, resulting in higher data throughput. This means that operators can meet passenger demands for data intensive, connected applications while on the move.

Internet connectivity is not only used for passenger Wi-Fi. Internet of Things (IoT) devices are also increasingly relied on by rail operators for ticketing and communications. Some operators also employ IoT to monitor the flow of passengers – waiting at stations, traveling in each train coach, and to understand when the dips and peaks occur. Live travel updates such as delays and cancellations can also be monitored, allowing operators and passengers to stay informed, and timetables to run more smoothly. Long term analysis of this data can guide operators to optimise their schedules to meet customer needs well into the future. 

Providing a reliable connection

It is essential that antennas are selected with the upmost care, as they connect moving vehicles to the public cellular network.

For business operations, reliability is key to avoid system failures and profit pitfalls. When using the internet for this as well as passenger connectivity, signals can become congested and cellular reliability can prove to be poor.

Most train antennas have a single polarisation only or have a mixed polarisation (lack of polarisation purity), which can cause issues for both passenger connectivity and signalling.

By implementing an antenna with dual polarisation, horizontal and vertical diversity are introduced. This means that simultaneous streams of cellular communication can exist in parallel, greatly increasing data throughput rates and signal reliability. Isolation between antenna ports ensures that the electrical signals remain separated and are not able to interfere. This keeps passengers connected on the go, while ensuring customers and personnel remain safe.

By utilising GNSS navigation, operators can benefit from greater accuracy and resilience. Antennas which provide access to dual-band GNSS ensure access to the maximum number of data sources, enabling operators to provide the best possible connection. By leaving behind the legacy GPS navigation system, which uses much fewer satellites to determine the antenna’s location, operators ensure they are future ready in a move towards the ultimate end goal of a better connection.

Offering reliability and safety

Rooftop antennas are constantly exposed to the elements, and encounter a whole host of different terrains, temperatures, and weather conditions. It is essential that they are hardy and resistant to withstand tough conditions and offer longevity. Waterproofed and wind resistant solutions will prevent operators having to make their own adaptations or face constant repairs.

Overhead lines can carry up to 25,000 volts, 100 times the supply received by our homes. For the safety of passengers and personnel, this must be redirected from the catenary line away from the RF path. Operators should choose external mountings that have high voltage and current protection for the welfare and safety of those on board.

There are two common certifications that rail operators must comply with. The first is the European certification EN45545, while the other is the United States certification NFPA-130. Products without both certifications can cause issues for operators deploying their trains across the globe. Global certification will ensure the process is as efficient as possible, negating costly delays whilst operators alter their equipment to comply with regulations.

Keeping data safe should be another priority for operators, who must implement solutions that protect both the personal data of passengers and private business data. Antennas which support repeater signals are often the preferred option for this and are being widely implemented in regions like Switzerland and Germany.

The size of the antenna chosen is also a factor which could impact its performance – depending on the location. Low cellular frequencies allow lower data throughput, but a much further range, which is why the wider public network for railway in rural areas relies heavily on the bands below 1 GHz, for maximum coverage. It is also important to note that a larger antenna is needed to pick up these signals. That means a balance must be struck, when implementing antennas for rural use. They must be large enough to offer operators and passenger the best possible signal, while remaining aerodynamic and reasonably low-profile to avoid damage when passing foliage, tunnel entrances, and other potential obstructions.

For urban trains such as metros where data throughput is a higher priority than range, higher cellular signals above 2 GHz can be deployed. As a result, those antennas can afford a smaller size, which is useful in narrow tunnels and built-up areas.

Meeting digital demands

As digital demands increase, rail operators must deploy future ready solutions to ensure customer satisfaction and safety.

Antennas with high-bandwidth capabilities are needed to handle modern applications, while dual polarisation technology ensures on board Wi-Fi will not interfere with signalling.

Global certification, optimal satellite navigation systems, and high voltage and current protection will help to ensure smooth operations and public safety. Considering the particular use case, whether a train will be travelling in rural locations or inner-city environments, will also help operators choose the correct size antenna for the job.

As 5G and Wi-Fi 6E technology further accelerate digitalisation, operators must choose the correct equipment to ensure their operations are optimised. This is how they can stay ahead of the competition and continue to meet the expectations of their customers.

Author details: Daniel Montagnese, Head of Product Management Antennas at HUBER+SUHNER