Last week saw the 6th annual Train Communications Systems conference held in London, where train operating companies (TOCs), integrators and vendors gathered to discuss the latest developments in wireless communications on passenger rail. Organized by rail consultants BWCS, the event has quickly become an important one, high profile enough to attract participants from all over the world, including Amtrak and San Francisco’s Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority (CCJPA).
The venue was the stunning $1.3 billion redevelopment of St. Pancras Station in North London, a Victorian Gothic masterpiece resplendent in brick, steel and glass, and surely one of the world’s most impressive rail terminals. Passenger Wi-Fi drove the two-day agenda; with an estimated 34 major TOCs around the world planning on-train Wi-Fi. Wireless Internet access drives ticket sales and keeps passengers happy, according to Ross Parsons of BWCS, while a modal shift to trains of between 2% and 4% has been reported where free Wi-Fi is offered. More importantly it provides a springboard for cost-reducing applications, such as train diagnostics, condition monitoring, wireless ticketing and service information.
While this mantra has been regularly recited in prior years, it is only now that the market is reaching maturity with equipment standardization, wider availability of 3G and 4G wireless broadband networks, proven business models, and customer uptake.
CCJPA’s Jim Allison was quick to point out that the TOC is much more interested in the service than the box, something vendors too close to their products fail to fully understand when pitching. CCJPA recently received $3.75 million in funding towards the deployment of wireless Internet aboard the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin fleets servicing the Bay Area, Sacramento and the Central Valley – the third busiest service in the Amtrak system. The technology, supplied by UK-based Nomad Digital, will roll out during 2011 and satisfy the demand for free Wi-Fi, the No. 1 amenity requested by passengers.
Allison emphasized the fact that the potential uses of a wireless network to the train are multi-disciplinary and require a TOC to engage people across its organization such as Marketing, Operations, Engineering and Maintenance who can assess and plan how to leverage wireless connectivity for their specific needs. That same cross-section of expertise will also help in the procurement process and evaluation of solutions.
CCJPA has conducted in-depth modeling of backhaul bandwidth demand along the Capitol Corridor route between San Jose and Sacramento, estimating the average and maximum demand based on passenger count and service uptake (see Figure 1). Figure 1 – Bandwidth Demand on Amtrak Capitol Corridor Service [Source: CCJPA] This modeling enabled CCJPA to plan the minimum backhaul required for connecting a train to the Internet, higlighting the kind of capacity needed for passenger Wi-Fi before taking into account other operational uses.
The result was a system design by Nomad that utilizes multiple concurrent cellular connections, aggregated at packet level into one fat pipe capable of meeting CCJPA’s requirements. While delivering 3-4Mbps to a train in the era of 4G may seem trivial, but like many intercity services the Capitol Corridor route passes through distinctly rural areas including wetlands and farm land where 4G is not present; multiple, slower 3G WCDMA and CDMA networks need to be combined to deliver the necessary capacity.
The system will use per user rate limiting and other methods of traffic shaping to share the available bandwidth fairly between passengers. CCJPA expects the free Wi-Fi service to be hugely popular with its customers, and initial research that predicted a 1 to 2% inducement of ridership – i.e. increased ticket sales due to the presence of free Wi-Fi – has been born out by live deployments. Allison believes that ultimately the business model that would work for most TOCs will be a hybrid of induced sales, advertising and operational savings.