Traincomms News from BWCS

Satellite – No Longer Pie in the Sky for On-Train WiFi?

Friday 11 Feb 2022

Satellite, once one of the contenders as a main channel for delivery of broadband to trains, appears to be making something of a come-back in the train-to-shore connectivity stakes. A consortium, led by Canadian professional services giant CGI, is currently working with on-train connectivity specialist Icomera, the UK’s  Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA) to demonstrate a hybrid satellite and terrestrial communications network for use on trains.

The Satellites for Digitalisation of Railways (SODOR) project will investigate the use of different IoT applications aimed at cost-effectively improving passenger experience and rail safety. The project will try to demonstrate that satellite is a viable option where tracks cross remote areas frequently lacking wireless masts and fibre infrastructure.

Satellite communications featured in several projects in the pioneering days of on-train WiFi. GNER, as was, employed it to provide in-fill coverage and terrestrial back-up between 2004 and 2010 and SNCF and Thalys ran satellite links to trains for several years before deciding that the associated operational and maintenance costs were too high.

More recently, however, changes in antenna technology, lower data costs and increased demand for blanket coverage has led to a renewal of interest in what satellites can offer the rail industry. This, combined with a more compatible link-up with emerging 5G services, means that satellite companies are no longer left on the outside looking in.

As Peter Kingsland, UK sales director at Icomera, more succinctly put it, “Satcom technology and costs have of course evolved over the past 15 years and now it forms part of the future 5G comms eco-system, so we fully expect it in to play a role in on-train comms in some countries as part of hybrid solutions.”

The UK trial follows a similar satellite pilot project set up in Italy in 2020. At the time the Italian satellite-based track management system covering a regional line was deemed to be the first in the EU.

Elsewhere, British-based satellite giant Inmarsat has been working with Rumo, the largest train company in Brazil, to enable real-time tracking and communications. The Brazil project, which involves 300 locomotives and covers over 2,000km of track, has reportedly enabled Rumo to reduce communication times between trains and the control from ten minutes to instantaneous.  

The SODOR project in the UK will feature a new antenna developed by Isotropic Systems which it says can help combat the coverage problems due to line-of-sight issues that have notoriously dogged previous satellite operations. The company says it can offer trains multiple simultaneous connections to satellites in any orbit, including NGSO constellations scheduled for launch by companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb, SES, and Telesat.

Icomera reports that one of the key components used in the new trial will be its SureWAN™ aggregation algorithm which enables onboard routers to intelligently connect to multiple cellular, trackside, and satellite networks simultaneously. The system will also seamlessly transition between the connections as the train passes through their respective areas of coverage.

Network Rail and rail operators ScotRail, Northern and LNER, are also heavily involved in the project. Speaking at the time of the consortium being formed, Robert Gardner, Senior Innovation Engineer, Telecoms, at Network Rail, commented “Over the coming decade, new-age satellite communications have the potential to transform how we provide data connectivity to railway vehicles, particularly in rural and remote regions. Through our involvement in Project SODOR, we aim to learn more about how modern satcoms can supplement terrestrial wireless communications and explore the potential value and benefits to passengers and the operational railway system.”

The trials are set to being in the latter half of this year.


Track-side connectivity and on-board WiFi provision will be the main subjects of this year’s Traincomms Conference. 

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Wireless network suppliers may be interested to know that BWCS’ annual Wireless Networks in Ports Conference will take place later this year. Read what the participants said about this unique, highly focused event examining the battle to install and improve wireless networks in ports here …

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