When you settle into your seat on your next rail journey, see if you notice small towers dotted along the journey right next to the track. These are GSM-R base stations - a private GSM network for rail operators.
Launched in the UK around 2007, the technology is based on the GSM mobile standard, and GSM-R suppliers have committed to support this system until 2030.
So what’s the future of rail communications? Enter the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) using the latest 5G technologies.
To learn more about the opportunity for this new mode of operation, I spoke with Jochen Apel, Global Vice President of Digital Industries at Nokia, on the latest Actionable Futurist Podcast.
We explored the exciting world of 5G technology for rail networks and its potential for transforming the rail industry.
We also discussed the unique benefits of upgrading from the existing GSMR system to a 5G-based system, such as faster data speeds, a larger ecosystem of vendors, and more data to support critical operations, automation, and asset management.
Jochen also sheds light on the potential of the Future Rail Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) as a global standard.
We dive into the trials being run by Nokia with customers and SNCF, SBB, and Deutsche Bahn, and discuss the transition process for rail operators moving to FRMCS systems.
Don't miss this enlightening episode as we uncover the advantages of 5G technology integration for rail networks and learn what smart rail operators can do now to prepare for this imminent change.
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Welcome to the Actionable Futurist podcast, a show all about the near-term future, with practical and actionable advice from a range of global experts to help you stay ahead of the curve. Every episode answers the question what's the future on, with voices and opinions that need to be heard. Your host is international keynote speaker and Actionable Futurist, andrew Grill.Speaker 1:
Today's guest is Jochen Appel, global Vice President of Digital Industries at Nokia, leading their endeavours for advancing the digital evolution of the transportation, energy, public safety and defence industry segments. Jochen and his team work with customers to harness the power of networks to support critical operations, intelligently automate processes and proactively manage assets, achieving the benefits of pervasive connectivity and digital transformation. Now I've just come back from speaking at the Middle East Rail Summer in Abu Dhabi, so I got to see first hand how technology is transforming transportation and also saw the Nokia stand The big question at the top of the show what's the future of rail?Speaker 3:
The future of rail for me is really about automation and digitalisation. These guys need to get more trains on the track, and you can only achieve this if you automate much more than what they're doing today.Speaker 1:
I'm a bit of a geek. A lot of people on the podcast are not familiar with what's actually used today in rail infrastructure. If you're a passenger, you will see these little mini base stations on the side of the railway with directional antennas. That's the existing system. Maybe you could talk about what companies are using today and where we need to get to.Speaker 3:
What you see today is basically what is called GSMR and, again, it's a technology which got introduced 23 years ago. So most of the rail operators in Europe, a lot in Middle East and the majority of the rail operators in Australia, for instance, in China, they are using this standard. Let's say, since it is a 20 plus years old technology, we are running out of components, we are running out of people who are able to maintain this. So in the future, we need to migrate to a more powerful and new, modern way of a communication system.Speaker 1:
This new system is called the Future Rail Mobile Communication System, or FRMCS for short. This is using the latest technology 5G faster data speeds. How is it different to GSMR? It's?Speaker 3:
using 5G, so it's using the most modern wireless system we have in the market right now And the big benefit is it is standardized 3GPP system. So I think it is a technology which is commonly available. So you have a big ecosystem of not just network vendors, you have a big ecosystem of device manufacturers And you can put a lot of very advanced use cases on this system because you have much more bandwidth So you can put video there, you can put voice there, you can put train control there. So there is a big benefit in having a 5G system compared to GSMR, which can do a little bit of train control and a little bit of voice.Speaker 1:
So it seems quite limited. I'm just surprised that we haven't upgraded it a lot earlier. What's holding it back? Is it governments or operators? What's driving the need to upgrade?Speaker 3:
So, first of all, there is a common standard across all the European countries, right? And if you need to find a common, let's say, sense of what you're going to do from a technology perspective, there is a long-lasting process involving all the stakeholders, and I think we were lucky that they agreed on GSMR 25, 23 years ago. And, of course, there are a lot of trains who need to migrate, not just the networking piece. So there's a lot of stuff which holds the industry back to migrate And it's a big commercial effort to do this. However, at a certain point of time, you can't stick to old technology all the time, so at a certain point of time, you need to migrate.Speaker 1:
So just for my information, sort of train control and those sort of things, if it's limited on the GSMR system, how are we getting data back from trains today if they're not using this future mode of operation?Speaker 3:
So we are getting data back from trains today, but it's very much along the standard of ERTMS, which is the train control system which we are using in Europe and in those countries who are adopted or adopted the standard, and GSMR is part of this. But this data is limited to train control. So you can see a train, you can tell the train what's ahead of them, how fast they can go, if they need to slow down, all these kind of things. That's all good And this works perfectly well. So we have a lot of countries adopted this model. However, if you want to move, for instance in automated train operations even without a driver, then you need, for instance, video traffic, because in the operation center you need basically a video understanding, okay, what's going on on site. And then you have the limit of a GSMR based system which has a very, very constrained data channel. The data channel is good for train control, but it's not there for any advanced data.Speaker 1:
So that's a good point. As we move to automated vehicles around the world. With a train, truck, road, rail, you're going to need a fast data bearer, and 5G does that also. There's low latency, so it seems obvious that it should be upgraded. So what are the unique benefits of the Nokia system that can actually help train operators move to this next mode of operation? So what you can get from Nokia is basically everything.Speaker 3:
You can get the infrastructure on the mobile site, but you need also the backhauling. You need basically the services. You need the mission critical push to talk. You need the video services up to a cab radio, up to an onboard gateway. Although we are not producing our own onboard gateways, we are working together, for instance, with Altstorms, or, let's say, a signalling vendor, to make sure that their system works perfectly with our system. And last year at InnoTrans, the big rail fare we had in Berlin, we were even demonstrating this.Speaker 1:
Now it's interesting that the GSMR system R for Rail is based on the GSMR Global System for mobiles which, as many know, took a long time to get all these countries to agree to standards and frequencies and those sort of things. Would FRMCS become a global standard, just as mobile platforms, and GSMR has become that global mobile standard.Speaker 3:
So the bigger vision of FRMCS. As it is, of course, predominantly standardised for European countries, there is a big potential that this gets adopted by railways across the globe because it's open for any frequency. It's open, basically, for any beer. It's very much not tied to any specific regulations. So I think that's really something which helps everybody to use or to take benefit of a big ecosystem which will build up. Just because maybe Europe is adopting this. It is also a big benefit for other countries that they can rely on these ecosystems. So, yes, because it relies on standards which are already available across the globe, it has a good potential to become a global rail standard.Speaker 1:
And so who was responsible for developing FRMCS a few years ago? Was that Nokia? Was that an industry-wide initiative?Speaker 3:
No, it's basically an initiative driven by the UIC, so by the rail community of Europe. They basically understood because the rail communication vendor industry, so Unifei. Basically we told them look, we can maintain GSMR until 2030, roughly right. And then of course, there are debates right and left, but at that point I think it was an initiative coming from the industry, from the communication industry, really motivating the rail industry. So you need to think about a new standard. It will take many years and the learning is it took already many years and we know that it will still take two, three years further down the road until we see first real commercial deployments based on these standards. It's a joint effort between the operators and the industry to drive this.Speaker 1:
IDC, a global research company, recently surveyed railway executives about the future of rail. What were some of the surveys? key findings.Speaker 3:
For me, a key finding was that, although we hadn't had that much insight maybe we saw that of course 80% of our customers or basically the rail operators which could surveyed they already started on the FRMCS side. It's a very good start and we were also amazed about the amount of operators doing this already. Another finding was also that the complexity they have today and the big TCO they face today with all these purpose-made communication systems they are operating, and then the big promise that with FRMCS it can be produced based on standardized hardware everywhere the same in the world, that's a big, big benefit for them. So I think this is really something they look forward and this is the main outcomes for me.Speaker 1:
Now in rail systems it's literally lots of large moving parts and safety is critical, both for the people operating the rail network as well as people using it. So what are the safety improvements that FRMCS brings over GSMR and what are some other improvements that the FRMCS system can bring?Speaker 3:
From a safety perspective, gsmr does what it is supposed to do The big benefits from a safety perspective. When we think about more automation, then we need to give systems steering, basically everything, a good fuel of the environment the train is in. So I think we are providing more data and therefore the system gets more safe. They get better situational awareness, they understand is there any obstacle on the track, and so on and so forth. So we can simply provide much more data which will help automated systems to react much faster and in a much better way. So train operator will get basically a high level of efficiency gain when they migrate to FRMCS because again they can collect more data about the situation of the track. They can do much better proactive maintenance. So you will see a higher availability of the rail infrastructure. But you will also understand, or you will also see, that rail operators are able to bring much more trains on the same track because they can run much closer because of the latency improvement we have in the network.Speaker 1:
Well, that seems like a key benefit because if you want to run trains more often here where I live in London the Elizabeth line, the new rail network they are now operating at what is probably the maximum capacity and that is down to the signalling system and now obviously they have got next generation signalling systems there as well. But I didn't really realise that in order to be able to run trains more regularly. It is a safety issue, it is a scheduling issue and those sorts of things. So it sounds like this has got huge benefits for network operators, not just in the maintenance, and they can probably do more predictive maintenance and therefore the trains won't wear out as often. They can replace the parts. 5g has some real benefits as a technology. There is network slicing, you can run private 5G networks. What are those specific 5G components that will be integrated into this rail network that are already being used in consumer and broad 5G networks?Speaker 3:
The specifics on 5G is basically, on one hand, is you can deal with more spectrum option and you have much more bandwidth If you have spectrum which goes up, let's say, on the upper side of the spectrum family, and you have the possibility to connect millions of millions of sensors and devices just in one cell. And this is the big promise coming out of IoT. And again, this goes back to the sensors which are today in a train, which are connected probably via whatever network. That's okay. you can aggregate data. you need to be very selective on the data which you can transmit from the train to the operation center. With 5G you can transmit any data because, especially when we talk about machine learning or predictive maintenance, you don't know which data you need to be able to do predictive maintenance. You need to collect all the data and then you understand which data are very, let's say, beneficial and which data you can scrap. And this is, i think, the big benefit that the limitation we have today with the existing systems in terms of bandwidth and how many devices you can connect per cell, they go away with 5G And then you have basically a big variety of use cases you can realize, because there's no limitation on the bandwidth side anymore.Speaker 1:
So there's probably two things there. At the moment the data can be collected I'm sure brand new rolling stock, there are a multitude of sensors on that but I assume at the moment it's probably not able to send all that data back in real time. I'm wondering if it's being collected and then maybe downloaded at the depot versus being able to have that in real time. And the parallel I like to hear is I know that Airbus have instrumented every part of their airplanes And I understand that after a flight a terabyte of data gets downloaded so they can actually look at the health of the aircraft. And I know from my experience with Qantas they have network operations centers. They know the health of the plane while it's in flight. So what you're saying is this new generation technology really does allow more real time decision making And maybe they'll find out information about the rolling stock. They never knew that they could because it's happening in real time And if a particular bend is always stressing, the vehicle going to know more about that earlier because you've got trains going through. So maybe talk through some of the use cases that will be unlocked with this new data availability.Speaker 3:
We are in constant discussion with. We are partnering with most of the rolling stock vendors as well, because they are usually also signaling vendors, so they are our partners in the various go to markets with various projects. So the benefit is not just that you can collect the data Indeed, you can do this in the depot and they are doing this today The automation behind in terms of mitigating issues. So, for instance, if you would collect the data in what we call real time, so it let's say, a door gets broken and you get an instant notification, the door is broken. Then at the next stop and we think more in a in a mainline environment, right in the metro environment, this doesn't make sense. But in a mainline environment, at the next stop, there is already a technician who is able to repair, probably, this door, if he knows what's what went wrong, what is probably broken, having already the right spare part with him, and so on and so forth. So you can really collect data. You can, you can give it to a machine, the machine is analyzing it and triggers already the corrective action, which probably in this use case is we send a technician. This is just one use case. Another use case might be video, which usually consumes a lot of bandwidth but also requires a low latency connectivity. So in an 803 or 40 environment where you don't have a train driver, where you even in an 804 environment where you don't have a steward or something at the train and the train stops in the middle of nowhere and you need to probably evacuate the train, then you better know what is the environment, right, probably the same stopped in the middle of flooding or something like this, so you don't want to evacuate people there. So this all is possible with, let's say, with with these higher bandwidths And, of course, certain use cases can be done through a usual carrier network of a mobile network operator as well. And this is the next benefit of using a harmonized system, because you can use this as a backup. So if your bandwidth is in a certain area not enough or you need for a specific occasion, you need more than you just do, basically a rooming with the, with the mobile operator, and then you have more bandwidth on demand. And this is this is the big benefit of using a modern 5G system.Speaker 1:
So I'm sure the people that have decided they're going to make the move, this new FRMCS, it's not a simple rip and replace because you've got existing rolling stock, you've got safety considerations. So what are the transition plans to adopt these new FRMCS systems and can they be running parallel with the existing systems?Speaker 3:
An infrastructure manner of a rail operator tells you what he thinks or she thinks is all concerned about this move, you might run away, right, because this is horrible complex. Right, it is really horrible. Complex because it's not just removing or building up a new network is, as you said, there is a lot of, let's say, rolling stock involved. There are a lot of government entities, regulators, involved to need to give their stamp, that and this is safety proof. You have the signaling companies on top and so on and so forth. It will be a faced approach and it is a faced approach and we are doing a couple of trials already With some of the of the major rail operators. It will be that you need to deploy an FMC as network next to a G some network, because you need to give at least four or five years to the train operating companies to move from one technology to another. They can't do this just in one year or something like this. Day and again, on the, let's say, continental Europe topic is that a train runs from Portugal to Helsinki, right so? and you need to make sure that the same train operating company can run in any of these networks. There's a parallel operations of G some are and FMC is needed And and this is probably another advantage of a company like Nokia doing G, some are doing FMC, as in the future as well there's a lot of interworking needed between on the functional level, between G some are and FMC. So you can't ask the train driver To know if he operates in an FMC S environment or in a G some are environment. If he needs to press the emergency button right, it's just a button and then everything needs to go very smooth, irrespectively in which network he's connected. We will see an introduction of FMC S. It will be up and running, maybe line by line or certain corridors, and then we will see after every train operating company had enough time to change the onboard equipment and we will see a shutdown. So we expect a transition phase between Four and seven years, depending on the on the, let's say, size of the network and where it is located. Is it more centrally located so that you need to connect a lot of other countries? that might take even longer.Speaker 1:
So you mentioned you've got some existing trials happening. Anything that has pleasantly surprised you, some things you didn't expect that you're seeing some increased benefits from the trials you're running already.Speaker 3:
We do trials predominantly with our customers, but also with SNCF, with SBB, with Deutsche Bahn. Deutsche Bahn is relatively advanced, since they were able to isolate a complete piece of their network which is not in commercial operation. We're doing some learnings, especially on very, sometimes very, basic things. So is the frequency to be used? is it interfering with others? yes or no? What is the size of the cell at the end? today we are running in a complete different level of frequency with GSMR, then later with FMC S. We were expecting that we probably need double size of the cell. The reality is, depending on the use case, you might not need really the double amount of the cells at the end of the day. So these kind of things are important. We also see some functional outcomes when it comes also to interworking between GSMR and FMC S. That's, i would say, a little bit of way to go to get this completely up and running and the line, and there's a particular focus on the understanding at the moment.Speaker 1:
So what should smart rail operators be doing now to prepare for this future of rail?Speaker 3:
Do trials, make your own learning right. It is very important because every country, unfortunately, has its own spectrum regulation, so maybe the spectrum which is now getting allocated in the country for FMC S was used 10 years before for something different. You still have a bunch of equipment out there radiating in the spectrum, so you need to understand is there a relatively high level of interference in your country? We know that every rail operator has implemented GSMR and on the functional level in different ways. So some are using this for, for instance, for shunting functions, some are using this for the stewards in the train and so on and so forth. So they need to understand what is the real impact, changing my specific system to a new technology And what? what else do I need to do on top of what is in the standard? So we only recommend OK, go and try to build up a trial environment which is very close to your GSMR based operations you have today.Speaker 1:
What is a really forward thinking rail operator? look like? What are the traits of an organization says, ok, i know this is going to be expensive, i know it's going to take four to seven years, but I really want to be known as a rail network of the future. And when I look at what's happening in the Middle East, eddie had rail is fortunate they actually have a brand new network that they've got to deploy and play with. So give me a sense of what is a really forward thinking transportation operator. Look like, what are their traits? And obviously they're the sort of companies you'd love to do with because they want to buy the system now.Speaker 3:
The forward-looking people are usually thinking, okay, it's not just a replacement GSMR to F-RAMC, as they think in the possibilities they might get even just in 10 years from now because of a new system, and then they design it accordingly, which is, yeah, maybe even the spectrum I can get today is not enough. Okay, in 10 years from now I might get additional possibility on the spectrums that I can implement much more stuff. So I think the ones who are really thinking in digitalization almost in everything and in doing automation almost in everything, they are the forward runners in terms of, okay, i anyway need a network, right? So I anyway need a superior network doing this. I implemented today. Once developers got the App Store platform from Apple, you saw the amount of apps exploding and this is what we think will happen there as well. Of course, train control, mission critical voice and all ATO type of stuff that will be there anyway. It's already there today, it will be there anyway, it will be there in the future and it might be let's say it will run probably even smoother. But the amount of use cases you can put on top, which will really help to improve your train operation, i would say the sexiest thing to think about. Yeah.Speaker 1:
As this is the Actionable Futures podcast, what three actionable things should our audience do today when it comes to better understanding the needs of modern transportation networks?Speaker 3:
They need to be customer friendly, right, And customers are people who get moved from A to B, but also companies who put goods on the RAIN network. So, of course, let's say, as a user of the transportation system, you want to have, let's say, a superior service, always in time, maybe even no timetable like in Copenhagen, right, You don't have even a timetable. You can stay there in two minutes, A train is coming and you can jump on it. Right, And this is what people want. This is the same experience like jumping in my own car. It is always stands in front of my door so I can go there. And if the RAIN system provides a kind of similar service, it's something which really gets used by the people. Then, on the cargo side, if a RAIN system can provide a similar service or a better service, say, or much less carbon emission, carbon footprint, then people will use it right. So the attractiveness of the service needs to be there, because the RAIN system as such is anyway seen as the better way of moving things than people, because it's more green. So from that perspective, that's really the key topics for a modern transportation system.Speaker 1:
Yeah, I've just come from a conference in London called Innovation Zero, which is talking all about the move to Net Zero and ESG initiatives, And they're all talking about electric vehicles. But we already have electric trains that are very, very sustainable and they reduce emissions, So I think people should look towards rail as part of the future as well. Fascinating discussion, Jochen. Where can people find out more about you and your work?Speaker 3:
My LinkedIn profile is always up there. And yeah, people can send me an email, can basically call me. I'm very approachable so I'm happy to answer to anything.Speaker 1:
Well, i think you've answered the question what is the future of rail? I think you're right in the middle of it and I'm glad to see that companies like Nokia are looking towards the future of rail. Thank you so much for your time, thank you Andrew.Speaker 2:
Thank you for listening to the Actionable Futurist podcast. You can find all of our previous shows at actionablefuturistcom And if you like what you've heard on the show, please consider subscribing via your favorite podcast app so you never miss an episode. You can find out more about Andrew and how he helps corporates navigate a disruptive digital world with keynote speeches and C-suite workshops delivered in person or virtually at actionablefuturistcom. Until next time, this has been the Actionable Futurist podcast.