Full steam ahead: How the telecoms industry can help digitalise the UK’s rail network

With rising fares and timetable disasters sparking protests, the UK rail network has a big job on its hands to placate customers and improve services. Digitalising the network is an obvious step towards achieving this goal. Whether it’s commuters working on the go, or leisure travellers streaming video content, access to robust internet is now an expected feature of rail travel, not simply a perk. The UK Government already has plans in place to provide this: in recent years, we’ve seen a series of initiatives laid out, including providing uninterrupted Wi-Fi and 5G ‘on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025’.

However, the digitalisation of our railways won’t just improve the on-board experience for customers. It covers a vast swathe of upgrades, including providing the platform to allow the improvement of outdated signalling systems (providing drivers and conductors with better visibility of network issues) and the development of our railway stations.

But the rail network and the Government can’t achieve this in isolation, meaning there are great future opportunities here for the telecoms industry to advise and support.

Plotting the journey to better connectivity

As it stands, the majority of the UK’s rail network communicates via GSM-R, an outdated mobile system with traffic management controlled via a fixed axel system which requires trains to remain a certain number of stops apart. This restricts the number of services available on the network at any one time, meaning the UK has one of the most congested networks in Europe. At the same time, on-board network connectivity is slow and has limited capacity.

Network Rail has set a target to upgrade 63% of the UK rail network’s signalling system over the next 15 years. By upgrading its signalling system and improving driver/conductor visibility through in-cab radio systems, the UK rail network will be able to keep more trains on the network and more trains on the move. The opportunity here for the telecoms industry is to facilitate widespread 4G – and eventually 5G – access and onboard Wi-Fi services.

Running alongside this, improved connectivity infrastructure would mean commuters can work efficiently, making the most of their journey time – while general customer service can be improved. Rail operators can even boost their own income, perhaps by pushing deals through to consumers during journeys. Of course, on-board isn’t the end of the story. By providing both the infrastructure and its expertise, the telecoms industry can also help rail operators significantly improve connectivity at stations and reap a number of benefits as a result.

A platform for success

There are over 2,500 railway stations across the UK, most of which have accompanying car parks, ticket machines and shopping facilities. Providers like SSE Enterprise Telecoms can play a crucial role in improving network effectiveness in these locations. For a start, better networks can offer passengers more reliable real-time information boards and smarter ticketing services. Mobile-based ticketing can free up staff to focus on better customer experiences, diminish the environmental impact of paper tickets, and even provide companies with a direct channel through which to offer discounts and packages.

Meanwhile, as adoption of IoT technologies continues to grow, connected smart systems can help improve the efficiency of travel. At Heathrow Terminal 2, for example, a ‘smart parking’ system analyses cars via their number plate, and alerts the driver to open car park spaces, before charging them directly. Used in train stations, this could save valuable time for passengers and improve the customer experience – particularly for busy commuters driving to the station in the morning. The IoT also paves the way for smart advertising, like this example used in Zurich, and offers Network Rail an additional revenue generation opportunity.

There are also less obvious benefits, like enhanced security. By implementing more efficient network solutions, stations can run their security and CCTV systems wirelessly (say, with 5G or wireless technologies), removing the amount of cabling required in stations and giving both staff and passengers peace of mind that their station is more secure.

The connected future of rail travel

Given the rising anger about the state of the national rail service, digitalisation and the subsequent improvement of rail travel should be a key strategy for both the Government and connectivity providers. Because whether it’s making journeys smoother and more efficient, increasing the amount of services, or providing more reliable information along the way, there are countless benefits to be reaped from improving network connectivity. And all of this could contribute to wider economic benefits as a result of increased productivity, during and after journeys.

Whether its developing new networks or utilising already existing infrastructure, there’s great opportunity here for the telecoms industry to support and grow. Aside from the aforementioned benefits to the experience of travelling via a train, rail networks also provide intriguing potential for alternative network cabling. Whilst not benefiting from the deep underground security that comes from installing fibre in the sewers, rail networks are inherently less susceptible to interference and damage than street level cabling. They also follow direct routes between cities, reducing latency.

SSE Enterprise Telecoms is already working on large alternative network projects to modernise and improve the UK’s connectivity ambitions – and we’re ready and able to assist as the UK’s rail network initiates its digital transformation journey. If you’d like to know more about our network and connectivity solutions, get in touch today.

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