GSM-R – How far to the end of the track?

Carrying voice and data for the operational personnel working on most rail networks in Europe has been the task of GSM-R for the past 15 years. On almost 40 rail networks, mainly across Europe, though with some in North Africa, Asia and the Far East, train drivers, station controllers/control centres, engineering teams and dispatchers have all been relying on GSM-R (part of the European Rail Traffic Management System, ERTMS), for their comms.

The technology has allowed signalling traffic between rail control centres and drivers – even at high speeds – and has delivered features such as group calling, voice broadcast, emergency calling and train position telemetry and reporting.

But are GSM-R’s days numbered? For their views on the technology’s state of play, Wireless magazine spoke to a handful of leading GSM-R players.

How much track is left?

Dirk Lewandowski, head of railway solutions at Nokia Networks, told Wireless that the GSM-R standard was initially deployed for voice, but then grew to become the communication technology for signalling and train control, as well.

‘It is a European standard, widely used and obligatory for all EU members,’ Lewandowski says. ‘There are still projects where GSM-R is being deployed, or has just started; in Eastern Europe, for example, in Poland and Romania. We therefore expect the standard to have about 15 more years of lifetime.’

Dr Rainer Lasch, head of railway regulatory affairs at Kapsch CarrierCom, concurs with Lewandowski and says that: ‘Kapsch CarrierCom (KCC) and the GSM-R Industry group (IG) are committed to support GSM-R beyond 2030.’ He adds that more than 55% of the planned 154,000km rail networks to be covered by GSM-R in Europe are now equipped and operational.

Russell Clarke, general manager, mobile communications, at Siemens, says that while GSM-R has been extremely successful across Europe, the same is true globally, where international markets have adopted EU standards – though with varying degrees of implementation.

‘Throughout Europe, GSM-R is delivering its primary function of interoperability, transforming train-to-ground communication and facilitating the migration from 35 different systems to a unified platform. Using 2G technology, which has now been around for well over 20 years across the world, GSM-R systems are still being introduced and implemented by rail operators in some countries.’

Clarke adds that providing a solid foundation for the future introduction of new technologies, ‘GPRS and EDGE provide the capability for a 2.5G network to support expanding features.’

Spectrum issues

On the subject of spectrum, both Lasch and Lewandowski concur that while GSM-R uses a 4MHz-wide range of the E-GSM band in Europe, (other non-EU countries use different bands that provide less capacity), spectrum is an issue. This is especially the case with ETCS (European Train Control System), for operations such as shunting and main station communications.

In order to tackle these, new GSM-R features have been defined, such as ER-GSM, in order to provide up to an additional 3MHz that will help overcome capacity issues at hotspots. Lasch added that, in addition, IP-based packed data technology (GPRS/ EDGE) is now integrated in GSM-R and can be used for ETCS as well.

From Siemens’ perspective, Russell Clarke gives the assurance that: ‘There is certainly sufficient spectrum still available for GSM-R to meet the original design brief to provide voice communications and data needs, particularly for train control. A successor for GSM-R is more closely linked to the expected obsolescence of GSM-R rather than the requirement for additional capacity.

‘Indeed, there is sufficient bandwidth such that Siemens is developing a number of additional applications to more fully utilise the existing asset, including Driver Advisory Service (DAS), Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) and Passenger Information Systems (PIS),’ says Clarke.

Plans in place

Nokia’s Lewandowski says the company is planning to invest in GSM-R updates for the long-term future, as it expects GSM-R will be running for the next 15-20 years. But he adds that it is also preparing for the ‘potential migration to 4G technology for railway customers, with so-called overlay scenarios – GSM-R for voice and ETCS, LTE for broadband services’.

‘A UIC (International Union of Railways) and the European Railway Agency (ERA) standardisation process is currently on its way, but the results for Europe are not expected before 2020. As a result, we are expecting a rather long phase in which two systems will exist in parallel,’ observes Lewandowski.

KCC’s Rainer Lasch notes: ‘Under the umbrella of EC and UIC, to coordinate technical, political and regulatory aspects, different groups are already working to define the future railway, IP-based telecom system, addressing ERTMS requirements, telecom standard evolution, and more. The migration from the current GSM-R system to this next generation in our view will see GSM-R in operation after 2030 for a minimum of a further 10 years.’

According to Clarke, all GSM-R suppliers, including Siemens, are investing to maintain and comply with standards, including the latest EIRENE system requirement specification 7.4.0/15.4.0, which was published in January 2015 in the Official Journal of the European Union and which came into effect in July 2015.

‘In addition, we anticipate further changes, with UIC requesting further inclusions, which could result in a major change with the release of the EIRENE system requirements specification 8.0/15.0. The telecommunications world is dynamic in nature and we do expect GSM-R to evolve to an, as yet, undefined technology. However, we see 4G as being complementary to the current system, rather than a replacement for it. We do not expect it to replace GSM-R in the short or medium term,’ says Clarke.

He goes on to say that the Industry Group (IG) roadmap ‘clearly offers long-term support for GSM-R’, with contracts demanding 30-year support for the system.

‘History supports this, with the last cab secure radio (CSR) system only just being decommissioned approximately 35 years on, though still being supported by Siemens! There is a great deal of research currently being undertaken by IG, the UIC/ERA into the move to LTE, 4G and 5G.’

Lasch adds his reassurance that the nine members in the GSM-R Industry Group, which covers the entire system from end-to-end, including infrastructure and system suppliers, terminals, cab radios and dispatcher, are committed to support GSM-R beyond 2030.

Where’s TETRA in all this change?

As far as TETRA narrowband wireless communications systems playing a role in the future of rail comms in Europe, Nokia’s Lewandowski does not see TETRA as an option due, in his words, to ‘missing broadband capabilities and because it is not standardised and interoperable’.

He says: ‘In our opinion, TETRA has no future as technology for mission critical communications and also not in the public safety market, which is also heading towards LTE.’

KCC’s Lasch expresses similar sentiments, saying: ‘TETRA is not an option for railways, because it is an old technology and not proven for railway-specific requirements such as high speed, ETCS, or interoperability.’ It should, however, be noted that TETRA has been widely used around the world for communications on metro systems.

Lasch says that it remains to be seen which IP-based telecom technology will be selected, in the end, by the regulatory bodies (UIC/ ERA). He adds that with the arrival of 5G, ‘there is a huge probability for this generation to become the successor, because railway-specific requirements can be considered in the standardisation process from the beginning, which has not been the case for 4G’.

Beyond Europe

Beyond Europe, Nokia’s Lewandowski says China is also looking into LTE as a future railway communication system. ‘Nokia has a strong market share in China and is discussing migration scenarios with customers. We believe in global technology standards. In the past it was always beneficial to have one common technology worldwide.’

According to Clarke, Australia has GSM-R in Sydney and Melbourne, but it looks increasingly likely that it will install an LTE solution in Perth. In Brisbane, the TETRA network is being extended and enhanced to support the railways and in North America an analogue network continues to be used. This, Clarke says, ‘is an area we will be watching with interest as we all seek to move to LTE’.

He adds: ‘Unlike countries where systems have to operate across borders (as in the EU), those that are able to operate autonomously could be more agile. Therefore, we may well see new technologies introduced outside Europe first, although again, they may prefer to wait for a European standard rather than have to write a potentially costly country-specific standard, themselves.’

European footnote

According to Clarke, one European development to watch with interest is taking place on the German railway, which recently announced that it is replacing its first-generation GSM-R technology and has commissioned a consortium of Siemens Convergence Creators and Huawei to migrate the existing system in Northern Germany.

‘Naturally,’ Clarke says, ‘we will be watching very closely as this unfolds, as the German railway clearly has a migration strategy towards broadband technology in its GSM-R base station replacement plans and is preparing the network to realise broadband requirements. It is highly likely that what is happening in Germany will be reflected across the rest of Europe.’

Image Credit: Peshkova  / Shutterstock

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.