Commentary | Supply Chain Technology

The Rail Networks of Tomorrow Will Ride on Satellite Connectivity

Tags: Logistics I.T., Rail, Transportation

Railways are critical in supporting the global movement of goods in remote areas. However, today’s railway operators face many challenges, including optimizing network capacity, carrying out vital maintenance work, and improving health and safety.

In their ambition to achieve greater control over their assets, transport leaders are now deploying more advanced technologies across their networks, ranging from innovative train control systems and next-generation signalling, to distributed power and intelligent cruise control. For this digital transformation to be successful, rail operators need access to a reliable communications infrastructure with a resilient connectivity backbone.

The Connectivity Challenge

Reliable connectivity enables both data transfer and voice communications between locomotives and control centers, and is vital in helping maximize safety and efficiency. Whether you are deploying intelligent cruise control or maintenance crew communication across your network, a robust, stable internet connection needs to be in place.

However, the challenge faced by many rail operators is that large areas of their networks have coverage “dark spots” where terrestrial networks fail to provide reliable connectivity. For example, there are about 18,000 miles of railway in Brazil alone, with as much as 50% of lines operating in regions where locomotives are invisible to control centers.

Dark spots tend to appear at the limits of terrestrial connectivity, where coverage is either weak, unreliable, or completely non-existent. These are usually very remote or isolated environments, where emergency communications or efficient location tracking from the control center can be extremely difficult to maintain. Not only does this leave transport managers unable to track locomotives as they traverse these regions, but staff safety may be at risk if they cannot get support to solve urgent issues when they need it most.

Why Choose Satellite?

To address this challenge, one option is for network operators to build their own private network, although this can be extremely expensive. Another method is to adopt terrestrial 5G networks. Again, while this is a great option for consumer rail networks, for a remote rail operator in the middle of South America, 5G is likely to be a non-starter at the moment.

In contrast, satellite is often the simplest, quickest to install, most reliable, and most cost-effective option, particularly for remote rail operators. In the past, satellite-enabled solutions that provide “always-on” connectivity for rail operations were deemed cost-prohibitive or overly reliant on unreliable hardware. This perception is beginning to change.

Building the Connected Supply Chain

In Europe, satellite is being considered as an important component of the forthcoming Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS). The FRMCS will ultimately replace the existing GSM-R network and will need to provide highly reliable, ubiquitous connectivity, which satellite services can deliver cost effectively alongside terrestrial services.

Across the Atlantic, Rumo Rail – the largest railway operator in Brazil and integral to the country’s economy – has recently deployed a satellite-based solution. Prior to adopting satellite, connectivity dark spots in certain locations were preventing drivers, railway engineers, and control centers from communicating in real time.

By fitting more than 300 of its cargo trains with a satellite-based, telemetry, and push-to-talk (PTT) communications system, Rumo now has access to uninterrupted, high-quality connectivity to facilitate the transfer of telematics, voice, and video data. This allows accurate real-time tracking of each train and communication between drivers, maintenance staff, and control centers.

A Safe and Sustainable Future

Today’s railway operators are welcoming the advantages of satellite connectivity as a reliable and cost-effective way to build safer, highly efficient, and more sustainable rail networks. As new networks such as 5G are rolled out, satellite is set to play a key role in filling the gaps in communications capabilities and building more resilient supply chains, without the need to invest in costly land-based infrastructure.






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