The Connected Train Comes of Age

This is the first in a series of articles about Wi-Fi for public transport and the convergence of Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, and WiMAX technologies.

In May 1844 Samuel Morse sent the world’s first telegraph message over an experimental wireline between Baltimore and Washington; the telegraph masts that carried the message were erected beside the tracks of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad in an area known as the “right-of-way”. Almost 170 years later trackside right-of-way, or ROW, is playing an equally important role in the delivery of wireless Internet connectivity to trains around the world, along with cellular and satellite networks. At this week’s Train Communications Systems 2010 conference in London, train operating companies, integrators, and equipment vendors gathered to share their experiences and look to the future in this rapidly growing market.

Demand Grows for Internet On-Board

2010 has been a record year in the number of train operators issuing RFPs for on-train and in-station broadband systems. The EU has set a growth target to raise the percentage of passenger rail travel from 6% to 10% by the end of 2010 in an effort to shift travelers away from cars and onto public transportation. Free or paid Wi-Fi hotspots for passengers has been a primary requirement of rail Internet RFPs, in an effort to make rail travel more attractive by improving the customer experience. There are also a range of operational applications such as CCTV, remote systems monitoring and GPS-based real-time positioning that create a more compelling business case for the train operator. According to Graeme Wilde, CEO of conference host BWCS, the greatest challenge facing the successful deployment of rail connectivity is the availability of sufficient bandwidth to the moving train, particularly for CCTV and the demands it places on uplink capacity. BWCS estimates that in the UK alone an investment of up to £3 billion in telecoms infrastructure – much of it trackside – will be required to meet the demand of rail Internet applications between now and 2018.

Backhaul Capacity Challenges

Delivering sufficient bandwidth to trains has been the main preoccupation of solution vendors over the last five years. Before the advent of high speed 3G/HSPA and 4G cellular networks, trackside and satellite systems were the only real contenders. Trackside networks, requiring base stations along the right-of-way every few kilometers are inherently expensive and thus unattractive to CAPEX-adverse rail operators, especially on intercity or long-distance routes. Satellite has the advantage of working where terrestrial networks are not available, but suffer from bandwidth limitations and increased latency due to round trip signal delay. Many commercial deployments have relied on a combination of these technologies, employing multiple link aggregation and seamless switching between providers to create the fattest pipe possible and attempting to maintain an always-on connection. But the bandwidth challenges are not necessarily getting any easier. In early 2010 Softbank Mobile, the number three operator in Japan, reported that revenues from data services exceeded those from voice, becoming the first major operator to do so and signifying a dramatic increase in load on networks designed primarily for voice traffic.  According to a report1 by market analyst Chetan Sharma overall data traffic in the US is expected to increase by seventy times by 2014. This growth is putting enormous demand on the network operators and performance is already suffering. Network upgrades to HSPA+, LTE and WiMAX will increase capacity but experience has shown that giving customers more bandwidth only leads to greater demands by a new generation of bandwidth-hungry applications. With on-train entertainment systems featuring live news and on-demand movies firmly on the roadmap, faster connectivity solutions with intelligent quality-of-service are already coming to market.

Case Study – Amtrak Acela

Leading the charge in the United States is Amtrak, which in early June announced it would expand the AmtrakConnect on-train Wi-Fi service to cover national routes. An initial deployment of free Wi-Fi hotspots on the Acela service between Boston and Washington DC had been an enormous success, said Lenetta McCampbell, Senior Director On Board System at Amtrak, who gave the opening keynote on the first day of the BWCS conference. Amtrak revenues have been growing at double-digit rates in 2010, thanks to the largest ever Federal infrastructure investment and a general shift to rail as gas prices increase. That said, Amtrak was losing business on the Acela route to Wi-Fi-enabled bus services and considered free Wi-Fi essential to recapture those customers. According to Amtrak, Wi-Fi is the most important technology amenity required by passengers; 89% of those polled said Wi-Fi influenced their decision to choose the Acela service, while an astonishing 35% of all passengers use the Wi-Fi network every day with an 80% satisfaction rate. To put this in perspective, European train operators consider a 15-20% uptake of Wi-Fi by passengers to be very good.

The Amtrak Acela deployment was managed by Virginia-based GBS Group with technology from UK-based Nomad Digital, and covers twenty train sets. Each train has a central system housed in a ‘brain car’ comprising up to eight data modems using all four major US cellular carriers; Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. A 5GHz wireless network connects the brain car to the rest of the train, providing speeds of 12-22Mbps between carriages with approximately 3.5Mbps total bandwidth available for passenger Wi-Fi connections to the Internet.  The bottleneck in any train-bound system will always be the backhaul, so AmtrakConnect uses a quality-of-service system that segregates passenger traffic from on-board system traffic, and uses content filtering to manage bandwidth on a per user basis and block certain material including streaming video. The on-train system is augmented by multi-megabit trackside and in-station wireless broadband that offloads traffic from the cellular connections to platform-based infrastructure when a train is at the station.

The Acela experience had been a great success, said McCampbell, but Amtrak and its partners had learned an enormous amount about the challenges of providing such a service. Streaming video must wait for faster 4G networks which are currently under testing, and the staging of a nationwide roll-out will depend greatly on the availability of sufficient data-capable cellular network coverage. McCampbell explained that while Amtrak would love to deploy trackside networks if budget allowed, it does not own right-of-way along the tracks; this remains in the control of the freight companies such as Union Pacific and BNSF who are highly protective of their trackside assets.

Free vs Paid Wi-Fi

Several major European rail operators have deployed Internet systems using a similar model to Amtrak; SJ Trains in Sweden is one of the world’s first, using a multi-network cellular solution from Icomera, and now serves 80,000 Wi-Fi users per month with an average 1.5 hour session length and 35MB of traffic per user per session. Johan von Porat of SJ says that Wi-Fi is only free in first class while standard class passengers must pay for hourly access. SJ contends that this adds value to first class ticket sales while also helping self-regulate Wi-Fi quality of service, as speeds tend to degrade noticeably after around concurrent 50 users are online. Virgin Trains in the UK has seen similar growth in the popularity of its Wi-Fi service. Originally launched in April 2009 there are over 100,000 users per month across its fleet today. Like SJ, Virgin charges for access outside first class at T-Mobile hotspot prices of £5/hour or £10/day. With an average train journey of between two and two and a half hours, the average Wi-Fi session is 70-80 minutes with 17-21MB of user traffic. Virgin defends its position of charging for Wi-Fi access as a way to protect the value of a first class ticket, although it conceded that it is examining the possibility of free usage in the future, following other UK train operators such as East Coast, and almost all major UK intercity bus services including Greyhound, where Wi-Fi is free.

Passenger Wi-Fi Comes to India

The case studies from UK and Scandinavian rail operators highlight the relative ubiquity of data-capable cellular networks along rail routes in these countries. Indeed, Sweden has one of the greatest wireless broadband penetration rates in the Western world, while the UK has no less than five major 3G operators competing in a country of only 94,000 square miles. Among countries that don’t benefit from this level of terrestrial wireless infrastructure, India has some of the most mind-boggling statistics you’ll ever encounter. India has a population of 1.2 billion over 1.3 million square miles – that’s a density of 931 people per square mile compared with just 83 people in the US. The country has a staggering 600 million mobile subscriptions growing at a rate of 20 million every month. Rail travel is a key part of India’s social fabric; Indian Railways run nearly 14,000 trains, and carry 14 million passengers every day. Anshul Gupta is Head of Strategy and Marketing at RailTel, the telecom division of the Indian Ministry of Railways, and he explained that while over 200 million mobile phones in India are data-capable, there are less than 4 million wireless data subscribers due to the immaturity of nationwide infrastructure. Until now cellular infrastructure has been exclusively GPRS rather than 3G, severely limiting the data capability of the telecommunications network. This will change rapidly, as 3G auctions were concluded in May 2010 with additional auctions for 2.3GHz WiMAX-capable 20MHz spectrum slots following in June as this article is being written.

RailTel has an ambitious plan to roll-out Wi-Fi services on short-haul trains in India by the end of 2011. This follows technical trials conducted last year with vendors including Nomad Digital and 21Net, a leading proponent of two-way satellite broadband systems that has deployed satellite-based Internet for customers including VIARail (Canada), Thalys (EU) and NTV (Italy) . Gupta asserts that for on-train broadband to work in India, where even short-haul routes traverse deeply rural areas, a hybrid approach utilizing two-way satellite and terrestrial WiMAX is the only viable solution. An initial pilot will equip three full luxury train sets, with a longer-term target of eighty-three trains. In addition to Wi-Fi, the systems will accommodate CCTV, e-ticketing, real-time GPS location and public information kiosks for health and education. The project is concurrent with a larger $20 million initiative called SIMRAN (Satellite Imaging for Rail Navigation) that aims to track rolling stock and provide real-time passenger information across 8,000 trains by the end of 2012. Gupta estimates that the combined roll-out costs would be around $500,000 per train set.

A survey conducted among passengers on the Chennai to Bangalore route suggested that more than 50% of passengers would surf for up to two hours per journey and that 61% would pay a fee of up to 80¢ per session. On short-haul journeys, trains are crowded and laptop usage is not easily accommodated, so passengers would want Wi-Fi access primarily for smartphones. On longer distance trains, 57% of respondents said they’d use laptops if Wi-Fi were available and they would be willing to pay around 50¢ per trip for access. RailTel has made no decision on whether to charge for Wi-Fi service, but the indicators are that while there is money to be made, it is fairly insignificant in terms of underwriting CAPEX or ongoing costs.

The overall tone of the Train Communications Systems conference was extremely upbeat, with further real-world success stories from China, Switzerland, Dubai and Ireland that underlined the belief that wireless broadband networks have matured enough to deliver passenger Wi-Fi and a host of mission-critical applications, but that more data intensive applications such as live TV streaming need the 4G networks arriving over the next few years. Muniwireless will return to this topic in the future with a series of articles that take a closer look at specific projects delivering Internet for passenger transport.

1Managing Growth and Profits in the Yottabyte Era (PDF format): research and analysis done by Chetan Sharma Consulting on the growth of mobile data traffic in over 45 countries (with a detailed look at the US market) and how the ecosystem can apply some strategies to manage growth and profits.

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About the Author

Jim Baker is an technology entrepreneur and seasoned veteran of the wireless broadband industry as both a service provider and hardware vendor, having founded and served as CEO at Telabria (a UK-based wireless ISP) and Moovera Networks (a manufacturer of cellular gateways for vehicular connectivity). Most recently he was Chief Marketing Officer at Icomera following its acquisition of Moovera in 2008. He is currently a partner at Xenventure, a private equity company based in London and San Francisco, and a non-executive director of several technology companies.