An online seminar on the features and advantages of FRMCS (Future Railway Mobile Communication System) was organised by the ‘Smart railways working group’ of the Official Association of Telecommunications Engineers (COIT) on the 23 June (2021) as one of the activities to mark the “European Year of Rail”. FRMCS will replace GSM-R, setting the technological groundwork for decades to come, as rail transport heads into one of its brightest futures.
Introducing the event, Marta Balenciaga, Dean and President of COIT, referred to the fact that “this is a watershed moment for rail, because it is less polluting than other modes of transport, has an extensive existing network across Europe, and because it fits with the objectives in the European Green Deal and those of the recovery funds, that are aimed at digitalization and sustainability”.
Ms. Balenciaga added that, “rail is today being considered the major alternative to road and aviation”, and highlighted that “some countries are thinking of stopping short-haul flights in order to encourage a shift to rail, and are getting ready to reopen old sleeper services”.
The role of telecommunications experts
The Dean and President of COIT emphasized the fact that today trains not only needed to offer a better customer experience, and greater safety, but also needed to be able to communicate more effectively and efficiently. This, she said, “is where our profession plays a central role”. More specifically, Ms Balenciaga underscored the importance of FRMCS, “as an example of where information management in the railway system needs the safest and most advanced technological solutions”.
José Ignacio Alonso Montes, Coordinator of the ‘Smart railways working group’ at COIT, moderated the event and introduced the speakers: Luis Jorge Romero, Director General of ETSI (International standards body dealing with telecommunications, broadcasting and other electronic communications networks and services), Jean Michel Evanghelou, Deputy Director Rail Systems and Director for Telecommunications, Signalling and Digital Applications of UIC, and Carlos Rincón, Deputy Director of Network Engineering and Construction, Telecommunications Division at ADIF.
Each speaker presented their perspective on FRMCS, in the light of 5G.
Luis Jorge Romero, Director General, ETSI, gave an overview of the origins and history of GSM and how it was central to the spread of mobile communications across the world, and its successor GSM-R, which was developed specifically to meet the needs of railways, providing them with mobile radio services and data connections.
Following society, rail has also seen the arrival of different generations of mobile technology. Despite the reliability and quality of GSM-R, discussions have emerged over the past ten years about its future, given the fast pace of change in telecommunications technologies.
These discussions concluded that it was necessary to bring the system up to date, and given the fact that 4G was already obsolete, it was necessary to aim for 5G or even 6G to achieve this – albeit adopting 6G would perhaps be a little premature.
Luis Jorge Romero held the view that having a standard was not enough because it was also necessary “to achieve maximum quality and interoperability”. While all these elements were important, he emphasized that interoperability was paramount, to ensure that different pieces of equipment subsequently produced by the rail industry, could ‘talk to each other’.
For this reason, various interoperability tests had been carried out using prototypes provided by manufacturers, with a view to guaranteeing the new standard would work with all products. These tests were scheduled to continue over the next few years, and tests with real trains in France and Germany were forecast for 2023.
Transition to FRMCS
Jean-Michel Evanghelou, Deputy Director Rail Systems and Director for Telecommunications, Signalling and Digital Applications, UIC, reiterated that replacing GSM-R was only necessary because the system was becoming obsolete in the face of emerging requirements in the sector, and not because the system had shown the slightest weakness otherwise. Mr. Evanghelou said that GSM-R was scheduled to be phased out by 2030, although this date could be revised if necessary.
He underscored that, “GSMR already achieved an incredible level of perfection and quality for all operations, tried and proven in all the countries where it is used”.
Jean-Michel Evanghelou said he believed that “FRMCS will allow complete digitalization of trains, bearing in mind that over the next 20 years there will be demand for technologies to increase automation, capacity and transmission quality on board, to ensure we have the necessary tools to build the trains of the future”.
The first generation FRMCS should be ready to be brought into service in the second half of 2025. It would be a 5G system based on 3GPP R17, and UIC is working to ensure that all the anticipated services needed for operations will be ready by then. It is hoped that future iterations of the FRMCS system will include more functions, to reach a stage where only software updates are necessary, with no need to change the hardware.
Mr. Evanghelou’s presentation revealed the complexity of this transition, and illustrated how important it was for all parties (UIC, ETSI, 3GPP) to manage and coordinate functional requirements, standards related issues, applications, frequency band matters and radio spectra.
He also said that there was a parallel European project underway for 5G for the railways called 5GRail which involves companies from across Europe.
Mr. Evanghelou added, “right now it has been necessary to harmonize frequencies on a European level, so that all countries can use the same band on the spectrum: trains need to be able to continue crossing borders as they have always done”.
The difficulty of this transition lays in the fact that changes would have to be introduced in four different areas: the interior design of trains, the radio spectrum, signalling systems, and temporary co-existence of GSM-R and FRMCS during the transition.
Roll-out across Spain and advantages
Spain, like other countries will also have to make this transition. Carlos Rincón, Deputy Director of Network Engineering and Construction, Telecommunications Division at ADIF, said that first and foremost this shift was a huge opportunity to modernize railway telecommunications.
Many conventional lines (covering a distance of 8 000 km) were still using track/train communications, which is basically an analogue radio telecommunications system which allows contact to be made between trains and traffic control. A further 1100 km of lines were equipped with PMR. Both these systems were obsolete and would first have to be upgraded to GSM-R before making the change to FRMCS.
GSM-R was in use across the whole high speed network plus on 950 km of conventional lines.
Carlos Rincón highlighted a few of the advantages of FRMCS, “broader bandwidth, a potential to introduce millions of objects in an IoT, through massive sensor installation across the infrastructure, and low latency”. He also highlighted “numerous maintenance and safety operations which today require physical intervention, but which could be automated, significantly improving efficiency and safety”.
Mr. Rincón added that the roll-out would call for investments to install new equipment (nodes and antennae), localized energy services, and installation of optic fibre, and that ADIF already had a clear timetable for the transition. Installation and roll out of FRMCS was scheduled to commence in 2027 and continue through the 2030s to reach completion in 2040. Spain’s plan for ’recovery, transformation and resilience’ would contribute to these objectives.