Back on track: Why connectivity is key to the future of the railways, post COVID-19

Since lockdown has eased, people have slowly been returning to work – and businesses and public sector organisations are working hard to figure out how they can get people back to their workplaces safely when public transport still presents a certain amount of risk.

Ensuring that people can get to work without compromising their health or the health of others is every bit as essential as safeguarding workplaces themselves. In the case of the railways, this is a complex ask. Trains carry large numbers of people for extended periods of time, with passenger loads frequently changing. There’s also busy platforms, ticket kiosks and stations which will all need safely navigating.

For rail operators, this adds to an already difficult period. However, this economic and health crisis arrived in a period of significant transformation for many operators, where many were looking for more digital, efficient ways of working to improve services and profitability.

Unscheduled stops

No amount of planning and preparation could have prepared the UK rail network for what 2020 had in store. But as with every critical infrastructure provider, the test now is to continue to work in a world defined by strict guidance and conditions. For rail, that starts with understanding and reacting to the changes that lockdown – and the current easing of these measures – has meant for the industry.

Top of the agenda is controlling passenger volumes in confined spaces, and how that looks taking into account government-issued social distancing regulations. With trains not typically suited to maintaining physical distance, it’s down to rail operators to look at the ways in which they can continue to provide the services people depend on, while prioritising customer safety.

Part of the job here is doing the right thing for those passengers where commuting is critical in their return to the office. But equally important is that rail operators are able to reassure those less confident about travelling again, who want to know that going to work won’t compromise their health.

A way of doing this will be the introduction of new technology on trains, stations and platforms. For instance, smart cameras can help onboard staff to maintain safe distancing. Meanwhile, sensors will be able to monitor passenger densities so operators can understand the flow of people around stations and trains, and make any changes that are necessary to maintain passenger safety.

The additional complexity here, however, is that this needs to happen fast. Rail companies have already suffered heavy losses, and plans are afoot to get schools and offices fully re-opened in the next few months. With no time to waste, rail operators need to understand the types of connectivity required to power this new essential technology, and if their legacy infrastructure is able to support it.

No missed connections

In order to thrive in these challenging times, operators will need highly flexible, agile networks that can work with fluctuating demand during busy and fallow periods. And reliability can’t be an issue – if the systems go down it may hinder their ability to run services at all.

With this in mind, there are some big decisions to be made on which connectivity and network solutions to implement, and which providers to partner with. Technologies such as 5G FRMCS, for example, can meet new demands around safety and automation, while reducing operating costs and improving passenger experiences. In terms of providers, those best placed to work collaboratively for a safe, reliable rail network will come with demonstrable experience in supporting critical connectivity, knowledge of the rail industry, and a fully connected national fibre network to support 5G.

The one constant here is the crucial importance of the rail network to UK businesses and workers. The sooner it can be back on track and providing a regular service, the better for everyone.

Discover how 5G can play a crucial role in rail’s future in our interactive report

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