5G is set to revolutionise Automatic Train Operations: Jochen Apel, VP-Transportation, Nokia

Fifth-generation (5G) wireless communications will revolutionise telecommunications generally, and for the rail industry, 5G will be at the heart of Future Railway Mobile Communications System (FRMCS), the successor to GSM-R. As Jochen Apel, Vice President-Global Transportation with Nokia Enterprise explains, 5G is also an enabler for Automatic Train Operations (ATO). 5G promise to shape the future of the railways by offering ultra-low latency and ultra-high reliability. Apel talks about the digital revolution, the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) rollout and 5G projects worldwide.

For almost two decades, the rail industry has acted in unison regarding the GSM-R communications standard. It has proven to be a cross-industry success story with GSM-R now in use in 38 countries worldwide.

However, the ‘basic’ mobile technology that underpinned GSM-R’s introduction back in 2000 has moved apace, particularly regarding its ability to transport data and multimedia information.

As we have moved from generation to generation in mobile standards, asset-intensive industries such as railways are increasingly looking at the opportunities created by mobile broadband as an enabler of their digital transformation. With this goal in mind, the railway industry is now actively developing the Future Railway Mobile Communications System (FRMCS) to replace GSM-R as soon as 2025.

The proof-of-concept will test whether 5G technology is mature enough to be used as the connectivity layer for future, digitalised rail operation.

Featuring super-fast speeds, ultra-low latency and multiple simultaneous connections via Massive Mimo*, 5G is an obvious candidate to play a central role in the new standard. With the technical scope to deliver a range of efficiency, cost effectiveness, productivity and security benefits, 5G’s core attributes provide the gateway to IoT sensor technologies, CCTV, high-definition video, machine-to-machine communications and advanced train control systems. Attributes that have led the International Union of Railways (UIC) and the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) to indicate a preference for 5G as the technology underpinning FRMCS.

Nokia has been involved in the development of mobile communications for the railway industry for more than 30 years. It contributed to the GSM-R standard; so, it is a natural progression for it to become involved in the evolution of FRMCS. Central to this is ongoing work with rail operators in early trials of 5G-based FRMCS proof of concepts, trials and early implementations.

Automatic Train Operation

For example, Nokia is working with German Rail (DB) to deliver the world’s first standalone 5G system for automatic train operation in Hamburg as part of DB’s highly automated S-Bahn operation project. The proof-of-concept will test whether 5G technology is mature enough to be used as the connectivity layer for future, digitalised rail operation.

As part of the Digital S-Bahn Hamburg project, automatic train operation with train drivers onboard who maintain responsibility for safety, is expected to be operational by 2021. Part of the demonstration will include fully driverless shunting of empty trains in an area near Bergedorf station, based on the transmission of train control information over the 5G network.

In France, Nokia is collaborating with French National Railways (SNCF) to create a 5G Lab that explores a range of rail and non-rail use cases. In this project, SNCF will evaluate FRMCS applications both in the lab and in the field, which will help facilitate 5G adoption and prepare for the transition to FRMCS. France’s infrastructure manager, SNCF Network, which is responsible for signalling, has also joined forces with SNCF Innovation and Research to explore and analyse 5G’s potential.

Important work also needs to take place on frequency definition for FRMCS. To this end, Nokia has recently completed a proof of concept trial with Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) carrying out LTE 1900MHz Time Division Duplex (TDD) radio frequency testing in the cantons of Fribourg and Neuchâtel. Central to SBB’s SmartRail 4.0 initiative, FRMCS will help SBB deliver new levels of productivity and service efficiency, such as improving the capacity of its existing track.

From a Nokia perspective, we will continue to participate in new initiatives with rail operators that will help to build the foundation for 5G deployment within FRMCS.

At the technical end of things, active participation in standards bodies such as 3GPP (third Generation Partnership Project), the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations-Electronic Communications Committee (CEPT-ECC) and ERA is somewhat less glamorous, but an essential part of the equation to deliver a resilient, effective and future-proofed standard.

At this point, it is worth highlighting that in its own way, 5G is an evolving standard. 3GPP is the overarching body responsible for driving the 5G specification, which it does via a series of planned releases. These releases provide developers with a stable platform for the design and implementation of technical features at a given point in time, but which also allow for the addition of new functionality in subsequent releases.


3GPP Release 16, which was delayed by three months due to Covid-19 and is now due in mid-2020, will address a package of technical standard specifications for mission critical communications across public safety, civil defence and, relevant here, for railways within FRMCS.

However, the road to FRMCS implementation is not without challenges.

With support for GSM-R due to cease in 2030, a 5G-based FRMCS system will need to operate with and alongside GSM-R for years. This requires deep understanding of both GSM-R and FRMCS functionality to ensure service integration and continued reliable communications.

This will create a situation where a huge variety of on-board systems are deployed simultaneously. There will be pure GSM-R, pure FRMCS and a mixture of each. And, with one eye on cost, many parts of GSM-R systems will be re-deployed within a 5G FRMCS environment.

In turn, this creates a skills availability question. Major rail operators already face challenges around sourcing the necessary skills to manage migration and run both networks in parallel. For these operators, the main priority for a smooth migration is technical capability, with an urgent need for experienced people who know GSM-R and FRMCS/5G intimately.

From a Nokia perspective, we will continue to participate in new initiatives with rail operators that will help to build the foundation for 5G deployment within FRMCS. In doing so, a range of new, innovative use cases will come onstream.

The Digital S-Bahn Hamburg project should result in ATO

These will reflect that 5G has been specifically designed to address industrial use cases, especially with a focus on automation and IoT sensors, which will comprise the focus of near horizon projects. Sensors provide embedded intelligence that will play a key role in the maintenance of trackside and rolling stock resources, creating the possibility of predictive maintenance, which will increase the availability and productivity of rail assets.

5G’s higher bandwidth will also enable greater use of high-quality video for security, enhanced communications between operating personnel, improved situational awareness during emergencies, aerial inspections, and a host of other data-hungry applications.

Beyond its obvious suitability for FRMCS, 5G will play a larger role as the connectivity platform for all aspects of rail services, as operators digitally transform and address future passenger and freight demands.
So, as we move to establish 5G within FRMCS, we can carry forward many of the lessons learned in the creation of the enduringly successful GSM-R, which was also the outcome of much industry-wide collaboration, trial and improvement.

*Massive Mimo technology is a core component of 5G and is a wireless network that allows more than one data signal to be transmitted and received simultaneously over the same radio channel. Standard Mimo networks typically use two or four antennae, while Massive Mimo has multiple antennae.

Interview with Jochen Apel, Heal-Transportation, Nokia

Jochen Apel is responsible for Nokia’s business in the transportation segment, including the development of significant business in emerging industries moving into the Industry 4.0 domain, such as rail, automotive and logistics. Apel has more than two decades of experience in the industry, having previously led Alcatel-Lucent’s CTO team for Central Europe.

RailNews: What is the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS)?

Jochen Apel: FRMCS is intended as a single global standard for railway communications. It will replace the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM-R), which will be sunset [or terminated] by 2030.

FRMCS is an umbrella standard covering all future rail use cases requiring a mobile communication system. Prominent examples include the European Rail Traffic Management System, where FRMCS will replace GSM-R, as well as internet of things (IoT) based maintenance or passenger information over the internet.

The latest thinking of the International Union of Railways and the European Railway Agency shows a clear preference towards 5G as the basis for FRMCS, a choice supported by many major European railway operators.

RailNews: What are the main challenges of upgrading GSM-R systems to 5G wireless communications?

Jochen Apel: There are three main hurdles. The first involves phased transition. The new FRMCS/5G system will need to work with, and alongside, GSM-R for several years. This requires deep understanding of the functionality of GSM-R as well as new FRMCS systems to ensure continued smooth operations.

Second is the huge variety of onboard systems. Technologies deployed will be pure GSM-R, pure FRMCS/5G, and a mixture of both. All need to be supported, and Nokia has developed its FRMCS/5G systems to support both. In doing so, we are taking into account that a significant part of modern GSM-R systems can be reused in the 5G world.

Finally, there is the skills issue. The main priority for a smooth migration is technical capability, with an urgent need for experienced people who know GSM-R and FRMCS/5G intimately. Already, major rail operators face challenges around sourcing the necessary skills to manage migration and run both networks in parallel.

We anticipate that skills are a key priority needed for the next three to ten years and through our services capability, we are already providing expertise to deliver proof of concepts and network planning to rail operators worldwide.

RailNews: What specific advantages will 5G technology offer the railways and passengers?

Jochen Apel: 5G opens up a huge variety of use cases. With new spectrum available for rail, both operators and customers will benefit from its low-latency and high bandwidth. Most importantly though, passengers will benefit from a much higher quality of service within the rail system.

Of course, today’s and tomorrow’s railway passengers expect to be connected at all times. 5G will provide a quantum leap forward in infotainment services such as multimedia passenger information systems and streaming services.

The new technology will also allow passengers to use apps that integrate onboard video content that provides real-time situational awareness. For example, real-time video of train station locations or rail carriage occupation levels.

Ultimately though, 5G is about delivering a more reliable service, at reduced cost and better safety. For example, benefits to commuters and freight operators also include automated train operations, potentially removing all signals along the track and driving higher utilisation of assets.

RailNews: How will 5G help the railways to improve services, as well as maintenance and safety procedures?

Jochen Apel: 5G is not just about providing more bandwidth to users – it is also designed for industrial uses, especially automation and sensor communications.

Sensors will be employed for monitoring tracks, rolling stock, power systems and environmental conditions. 5G will enable all this data to be connected in real-time. When combined with software analytics and machine learning, this will enable railway operators to carry out preventative maintenance, predict failures, and anticipate floods and other events that could interrupt services.

The higher bandwidth made possible with 5G will allow much greater usage of high-quality video for security, communications between operational personnel, improved situational awareness during emergency events, drone inspections, and a host of other applications that generate video and/or high amounts of data.

Using IoT data to predict maintenance requirements will increase the availability and productivity of rail assets, as well as [facilitate] higher standards of protection, not only from cybersecurity attacks but also physical threats.

For example, 5G will enable analytics that identifies potential incidents at rail crossings before they happen. Nokia is doing this in collaboration with Odakyu Electric Railway in Japan, using Scene Analytics to identify obstacles and potential events to enhance safety at rail crossings. This helps Odakyu to protect its track [and] rolling stock and safeguard citizens.

RailNews: What other key 5G projects is Nokia working on railways worldwide?

Jochen Apel: In December 2019, Nokia announced it had been selected by Deutsche Bahn to deliver and test the world’s first 5G-based network for automated rail operation.

The proof-of-concept will test if 5G technology is mature enough to be used as the connectivity layer for future, digitalised rail operations. It is a first of a kind worldwide and will help validate important use cases for the FRMCS standard as well as progressing standardisation and early development.

As part of the Digitale S-Bahn Hamburg project, highly automated trains – with onboard drivers responsible for safety – are expected to operate on a 23km section of the S-Bahn Line 21 by 2021.

Nokia is also working elsewhere on evolving FRMCS standardisation, trials and proof of concepts. In the cantons of Fribourg and Neuchâtel, Switzerland Nokia and SBB recently carried out LTE 1900MHz Time Division Duplex (TDD) radio frequency testing to help define frequency for the new standard.

In France, Nokia has established a 5G Lab with SNCF to explore rail and non-rail use cases that prepare the transition from GSM-R to FRMCS.

RailNews:  Has China stolen a march on the rest of the world when it comes to implementing 5G throughout the transport network?

Jochen Apel: It is true that China was quick to adopt 5G in the consumer market. However, to date, Chinese authorities have not yet publicly announced which technology will succeed GSM-R locally.

RailNews: Are commuter apps keeping pace with the rapid development of 5G, and what innovations do you see emerging in the 5G transport space?

Jochen Apel: Commuter apps will leverage 5G once it becomes broadly available on devices in the consumer space. Railway operators will be able to model in software across almost all of their operations from end to end.

This will lead to a cascade of new applications that build on top of this digital platform. It is hard to predict what innovative applications will ultimately be developed, but easy to predict that there will be huge advances in the digital transformation of the transportation sector.