All Aboard the Connected Train

June 16, 2011
Unwired reports how train communications systems and business models have matured, and how rail operators are responding.

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.

Amtrak confirmed Allison’s expectations of Wi-Fi popularity; Lenetta McCampbell, Amtrak’s senior director of Onboard Systems with overall responsibility for their national Wi-Fi program, made clear that Wi-Fi was considered a central part of Amtrak’s product offering. The technology would, she said, place Amtrak in a more competitive position and contribute to increasing incremental revenue and ridership, while providing a communications backbone on trains for future passenger and business applications.

Since the launch of free Wi-Fi on the Acela service between Boston and Washington, D.C., in March 2010, Amtrak has seen an astonishing 47% uptake among its passengers; that’s up from 35% in 2010. More than 130,000 users access the system from more than 250,000 devices every month, illustrating that many passengers have more than one IP-based device with Wi-Fi – be it smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Thanks to effective marketing, 80% of Acela customers were aware that Wi-Fi was available prior to traveling, while 89% of Acela customers said that onboard Wi-Fi service added value to the Amtrak trip experience. This is despite the fact that some passengers had found ways to bypass built-in blocking mechanisms to limit video streaming and large downloads, said McCampbell, and Amtrak is implementing a fair usage policy to tackle this.

To cater for demand, Amtrak is also augmenting available bandwidth by adding Wi-Fi at stations backhauled over wired networks with throughput of up to 100 Mbps. This will enable a true broadband experience for passengers at locations with high boarding volumes, and where cellular signals are restricted inside buildings such as Penn Station.

Figure 2 – Wi-Fi Benefits [Source: Amtrak] Learning from the Acela experience, Amtrak now has a better long-term view of service improvements such as a move to LTE for backhaul in some regions by 2013, and of leveraging the wireless service for generating advertising revenues and delivering passenger information.

The national Wi-Fi roll-out commenced in 2011 with systems being installed on a further 621 rail cars, which will lead to coverage of 70% of Amtrak’s ridership with a common experience on every train. Ultimately, said McCampbell, it is Amtrak’s desire to help establish a North American Wi-Fi Usage Policy that create a common standard for reporting of key performance indicators, system functionality such as fair usage and rate limiting, and “a shared set of priorities [among transportation agencies] to help vendors focus their efforts and resources.”

It’s clear that while free Wi-Fi is a driver, many TOCs are looking far beyond basic Internet connectivity for passengers. Cor ven der Hoop of Dutch railway provider NS Trains shared the progress his company is making with its On Board Information Services, or ORBIS. The GPS-based system delivers real-time information via multimedia, including in-train screens, the Wi-Fi hotspot landing page, and on train-side displays (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 – ORBIS System Topology [Source: NS Trains] The system is deployed on around 100 trains today serving more than 225,000 passengers daily, with a goal of equipping almost 400 trains by the end of 2013 and reaching NS’s daily ridership of more than 625,000 passengers. NS has been providing Internet access to passengers for some time in partnership with T-Mobile and has seen a 7 to 10% uptake among passengers, with an average session time of 40 minutes and around 10MB download traffic per session.

Henry Hyde-Thomson of on-train systems provider 21Net announced a recent $10.5 million round of funding for his company led by Innovacom, the VC arm of France Telecom. Net21 outlined their IPTV service for high speed trains using a combination of cellular and satellite technologies, and which is being deployed by new Italian TOC NTV to deliver real-time news, sports and TV from SkyItalia. The solution will be integrated into 25 all-new Alstom AGV trains that will feature an impressive Cinema Car with multiple 19” screens, in-seat audio and personal 9” touchscreens. 

SJ, Sweden’s state-owned rail provider, also plans to offer infotainment services onboard its trains, although using server-based media located on the train rather that using satellite-based TV services. Paul Brindley, commercial director of Heathrow Express (HEx), provided a compelling holistic approach to the use of digital media to drive business. HEx is a rail service between London Paddington Station and Heathrow Airport. At just 15 minutes the journey is short yet the TOC has been offering free (originally paid) Wi-Fi to its 5.5 million annual travelers since March 2007, and sees almost 250,000 users a month.

Despite such amenities, the TOC had seen declining ridership from 2006 to 2009. To turn this around, HEx embarked on a radical rethink of how to understand, communicate with, and sell to its customers through service innovation and technology. By combining traditional and digital marketing with focused customer relationship management (CRM), HEx was able to decisively reverse the trend, resulting in rapid ridership growth from 2009 to the present. Putting this in perspective, HEx has seen earnings (EBITDA) go from 5% average year-on-year growth between 2004 and 2008, to 49% growth between 2009 and 2011. Brindley puts this down to understanding the effectiveness of what he calls ‘integrated digital communications,’ and of which passenger Wi-Fi is a small but key element.

Figure 4 – Integrated Digital Communications [Source: HEx] This year’s TrainComms conference not only benefitted from the spectacular surroundings of the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel but also from the maturity that the wireless rail sector appears to have reached. Rather than this being a green field market in which the naturally cautious TOCs are tiptoeing toward pilots, there was a distinct feeling that it’s over the hump and into a deployment expansion phase with business models validated and technologies improved. Smaller rail and mass transit operators should take heed that now may be the time to join the party. -- Jim Baker is CEO at Xentrans Inc., a wireless project management consultancy based in San Francisco and London. A C-level wireless industry veteran, Baker has been involved in many deployments of wireless technologies on passenger transportation worldwide and is a recognized industry expert on Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G convergence. He is chair of the Technology Committee at the Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications that is developing a strategic plan for implementation of wireless technologies in mass transit. Contact Baker via LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.