"Edge technology will be very attractive to TOCs, as lack of connectivity on trains is one of the largest complaints received from both operators and passengers alike. By reducing requirements for data connectivity, the backhaul problem is significantly reduced."
Today’s consumers expect ubiquitous connectivity, and when it is lost or intermittent the results are frustration and complaints. And few places is this more prevalent than on trains, with even the most modern rail networks and rolling stock still suffering from dropped connections in tunnels or patchy coverage. Doing so is a challenge, though as attempting to provide connectivity on-board trains presents a technical problem owing to data bottlenecks from train to shore and a reliance on cellular connections that are intermittent, congested and expensive. David Rose explains.
Beyond simply enhancing the passenger experience, there are a host of tools that train operators can deploy – ranging for engineering monitoring to on-board staff tools using standard smartphones – which are being held back by this lack of reliable internet access. However, there is new technology that can help rail operators solve this perennial problem and enter the IT age – Edge Computing.
The standard Internet model relies upon having continual connection to the cloud – where services are typically hosted, in giant server farms run by the likes of Amazon, Microsoft or Google. However, the past few years have seen a growth in a complementary model called Edge Computing, whereby processing and storage shifts to computers located at the very edge of the network – as close as possible to the end-points and devices they are servicing. This offers a number of benefits including allowing services to continue to operate when there is no connection to the Internet – making it an ideal model for use on trains.
Edge Computing allows applications to be built which can operate independently of an Internet connection, and by networking a number of these boxes together, can create a distributed computing resource and Wi-Fi network spread throughout the train. Typically, multiple Edge servers span the length of a train, and mesh to form a network. Based on open-source software the solution enables applications and services normally run centrally to run on board. This enables:
- Autonomous operation when backhaul coverage is lost;
- Lower latency because applications are nearer to the source of information;
- Reduced demand on backhaul links as more data is being processed locally;
- An open platform enabling third-party developers to create applications for use on Edge servers, reducing integration costs that can be a barrier to new innovations.
In the UK, which operates around 14,000 rail vehicles, Edge Computing technology would be suitable for installation onto all of them. New rolling stock can be built with features similar to those proposed, but they lack the flexibility to be upgraded later and the typically cabled solutions are too expensive to be incorporated into existing vehicles. The technology will be very attractive to TOCs, as lack of connectivity on trains is one of the largest complaints received from both operators and passengers alike. By reducing requirements for data connectivity, the backhaul problem is significantly reduced and an entire host of future applications are expected to improve both passenger journey and safety. The technology is also attractive to rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs), such as Angel Trains or Eversholt Rail Group, as it will protect existing revenues by reducing the risk of vehicles going off lease. In the long term, it should reduce engineering overheads by providing an open source platform to allow simple future upgrades to train systems.
Example rail applications and services
The applications and services that Edge Computing can enable for rail operators are extensive, with services including:
Messaging services: Secure high-bandwidth messaging service running on the Edge Computing Platform. Smartphones, tablets or other related devices on can be used on the train, enabling text, audio and video communications.
CCTV and security: Operator-focused applications for staff on trains where live video from CCTV can be monitored on smartphones.
Predictive maintenance: Sensor data on the train can be monitored and processed locally. Many Internet of Things (IoT) devices currently have their own cellular backhaul which is inefficient and costly. Data can be processed locally, vastly reducing backhaul bandwidth required.
Mobile PA: Train staff can make live or pre-recorded PA announcements from their smartphones while moving about the train. Local content delivery network: Passengers can access cached content provided via on-board Edge servers, removing the curse of buffering content. This includes audio and video entertainment streams and journey information.
Destination alerts: GPS positioning enables passenger-focused applications where a user sets their destination station and is alerted when the train approaches the chosen station.
Catering: Applications make it possible to browse and order items from the restaurant and bar while seated, avoiding the need to queue.
Edge Computing allows the deployment of a range of applications providing services for both rail staff and passengers. The system can be easily extended to support on-board sensor networks for improved running and operation of rail assets.
The capabilities offered help to increase operational efficiencies, reduce costs and improve passenger experience and safety. The example applications described here are only a limited illustration of those already identified. Providing applications for rail staff and passengers through a familiar interface (a smartphone) can make their experiences more enjoyable and efficient.
David Rose is a senior vice president at Veea.
This article has been taken from the SmartRail World Industry Guide: How mobile technology can deliver for operators and passengers. Download it for free here.