Nokia’s head of global transportation Jochen Apel

Rail pastor Phil Norton. Image credit: Phil Norton.

The fifth element: how 5G is set to revolutionise the railways

Fifth-generation (5G) wireless communications promise to shape the future of rail transportation by offering ultra-low latency and ultra-high reliability. Julian Turner speaks to Nokia head of global transportation  Jochen Apel about the digital revolution, the Future Railway Mobile Communication System rollout and 5G projects worldwide.

All image courtesy of 42 Technology

Nokia’s head of global transportation Jochen Apel


ochen 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.

Julian Turner: 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.

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

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.

With new spectrum available for rail, 5G offers operators and passengers low latency and high bandwidth. Image: Flickr | Christoph Scholz

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.

What specific advantages will 5G technology offer rail passengers?

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.

How will 5G help rail companies to improve services, as well as maintenance and safety procedures?

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.

Japanese company Odakyu Electric Railway is trailing Nokia’s AI-based SpaceTime scene analytics for railway crossing safety. Image: Credit: Cassiopeia_sweet

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.