What 5G can offer to railways

Railway transportation is increasing very fast in all countries, and as a consequence new railways demand high quality communications for control and signaling of trains, as well as high capacity communications for passengers and for train operations, such as predictive maintenance. Today, current communications systems cannot provide these services, so 5G systems should be needed to replace old GSM-R and dedicated systems for railway signaling.


To ensure that the railway can significantly improve its services, novel data-driven Information and Communication (ICT) solutions are required. These solutions will enable monitoring, analysis and exploitation of energy and asset information for the entire railway system, e.g. power grid, stations, rolling stock and infrastructure. However, to monitor and manage huge amounts of data, current technologies are no longer enough and 5G seems to offer huge opportunities.

Technical specifications

Discussion around 5G falls broadly into two schools of thought: a service-led view which sees 5G as a consolidation of 2G, 3G, 4G, Wi-fi and other innovations providing far greater coverage and always-on reliability; and a second view driven by a step change in data speed and order of magnitude reduction in end-to-end latency.

Some of the requirements identified for 5G can be enabled by 4G or other networks. The technical requirements that necessitate a true generational shift are sub-1ms latency and >1 Gbps downlink speed. « With 5G we increase the data rate, reduce the end-to-end latency , and improve coverage.  These properties are particularly important for many applications related to IoT. One example is emerging autonomous cars and intelligent transportation, to which small latency is essential » explains Zhiguo Ding from Lancaster University. Why is it a revolution for the railroad?

We all too often think that the 5G is a gadget designed to satisfy the downloads and the streaming of travelers on the train. This vision is very reductive. 5G technology can provide industrial technical capabilities that can not currently be achieved. The internet of things, for example, is not a gadget designed to monitor only your fridge or home heating, but to get a permanent inventory of the wear and tear of the elements.

Overall, 5G allows real-time operation for these few examples:

  • real-time monitoring of the queues at the ticket offices;
  • marketing customization of millions of customers;
  • real-time train load rates and information to better distribute passengers;
  • wear of axles and technical components of the trains;
  • infrastructure wear, monitoring peak electricity consumption;
  • possibility of bringing trains to the depot only when it’s strictly necessary;
  • manufacture of certain spare parts with a 3D printer;
  • Traffic forecasts with an artificial intelligence.

All of these possibilities require very large data flows that the current 4G is not able to offer.


On the travelers’ side

Travelers have three essential requests:

  • speed of purchase of tickets and simple readability of tariffs;
  • paperless tickets;
  • Free reliable WiFi on board without cuts.

Pricing is a national jungle, because some elements only concern local residents who benefit from a local social policy, such as students or seniors. It is essential, however, to present, for a trip A to B, the simplest possible pricing at a glance, then to be able to choose the best formula and get a QR code as a ticket, rather than have to print it.

On the phone operators’ side, priority has been given to placing antennas in all villages in the country in order to have maximum residential coverage. However, there are still many « holes » along the railtracks and the 4G is interrupted, sometimes even for simple phone communication. That’s provides frustrations for travelers, as the train is praised for « do so many other things than driving ».

On the rail operators’ side

5G applications can be grouped into three areas, but the initial two being the most vital to railway communications:

  • critical environments communications.
  • augmented bandwidth & high speed communications.
  • mass communications and IoT.

The first point is highly advantageous and useful for control and maintenance applications of critical operations, of very specific interest for railway communcations. These can be undertaken, establishing secure, ultra-reliable (packet loss of less than 1 per 100,000,000 -millisecond) and low latency (1 millisecond) communications.

As emphasized by Prof. Dr. Sabina Jeschke from Deutsche Bahn, 5G train and rail infrastructure sensor data can be transmitted much faster: object recognition and geolocation, train-to-train communication (Car2X) or trains technical datas transmission to depots for conditional maintenance.

Conditional maintenance is a crucial importance. The transport authorities no longer want dozens of trains to sleep in the workshops for several days. As the train is an financial asset that must to run, the availability rate must be significantly improved.

The most critical point is signaling. The weight of a train and its speed determine the space required between two trains to prevent them from colliding. With conventional signaling, this distance is currently very high and the impact on the flow available on a railway line is important. To avoid building other expensive tracks, the idea is to reduce the space between two trains and improve the flow. However, the fact that the trains are not all homogeneous poses problems that only a large amount of data processed very quickly could solve. This demonstrates the importance of 5G, which should be coupled with ETCS Level 3, which is not yet applicable.


Battle of giants

The Commission and EU countries are striving to create a favourable environment for building the ecosystems and developing know-how in Europe. In this regard the European 5G Observatory reports on progress in the area of spectrum and national roadmaps. A new report by the European Commission’s 5G Observatory shows that Europe is leading the way in 5G testing with 139 trials in 23 Member States developing new 5G business opportunities. As the report shows, preparations are intensifying in Europe as the first 5G networks are ready to be opened for business.

5G can also be seen as a new business, while 4G’s sales decline by the fact that the market has become mature and saturated. All the big of the data sector, like Cisco, Siemens, IBM, Samsung, as well as the controversial Huawei have put themselves in order of battle to win markets around the world.

It’s a battle that is not to everyone’s taste. The geopolitical stakes around the fifth generation of mobile telephony are now mixed with financial and competitive challenges. But there are also other issues that worries the scientific world.

Can 5G cause health problems ?

But since its inception, one of the biggest concerns with 5G technology has been the potential effects it has on the body. Published peer reviewed science already indicates that the current wireless technologies of 2G, 3G and 4G – in use today with our cell phones, computers and wearable tech – creates radiofrequency exposures which poses a serious health risk to humans, animals and the environment.

5G increases exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields warned, in September 2017, more than 170 scientists in a common moratorium. For their part, the major health agencies are much more nuanced. The reader who is interested by that may attempt to find an answer to this link, which lists numerous studies on this issue.

Beyond these controversials issues that come out of the railway perimeter, we must keep in mind that the technology and the reorganization of the railway is important for the climate. It is a matter of transferring as many people as possible to a low-carbon transport. However, as the railways modernize, other sectors are capturing technologies much more quickly and could demonstrate to policy makers that the train is definitely late. Between the waves and the carbonless travels of a maximum of citizens, we will have to choose …

References :

2014 – GSMA Intelligence – Understanding 5G: Perspectives on future technological advancements in mobile

2015 – IEEE Spectrum / Alexander Hellemans – Will 5G become the backbone of the Internet of Things?

2016 – Mitsubishi Electric / David Mottier – How 5G technologies could benefit to the railway sector: challenges and opportunities

2017 – Cisco / Stephen Speirs – Why Wait for 5G? The Challenges of Railway Connectivity

2018 – Computer Weekly.com / Alex Scroxton – Trackside network to bring 5G to UK rail travellers by 2025

2018 – Railtech.com – Network Rail va commencer les essais avec la 5G

2018 – Teldat / Fransisco Guerrero – Will 5G solve the railway dilemmas?

2018 – Eurescom – The 5G-PICTURE approach for future railway systems

2019 – Intelligent Transport – Automotive and transport among most-tested use cases for 5G technologies