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How is Deutsche Bahn preparing for the future as it moves towards 5G for future rail operation?

Ahead of his participation at Global Railway Review’s Digital Rail Revolution conference being held in London on 7 November 2019, Patrick Marsch Senior Project Manager for Digital Rail at Deutsche Bahn (DB), explains how DB plans to utilise advanced sensing, high-precision localisation and artificial intelligence as it moves towards introducing 5G for future rail operation.

5G

Why is 5G important for Deutsche Bahn (DB) in the context of Digital Rail?

In the context of ‘Digitale Schiene Deutschland’, DB is striving towards a large extent of digitalisation and automation in future rail operation, enabled through the introduction of technologies such as machine learning, advanced sensing and high-precision localisation into the rail sector. This major technology leap will lead to substantially more stringent connectivity requirements than today’s rail operation, in terms of required data rates, latency and reliability. For this reason, and due to the upcoming obsolescence of today’s GSM-R technology after 2030, DB plans to initially complement and later replace GSM-R with the novel Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) based on 5G. More precisely, first deployments in confined areas are expected around 2025, while large-scale roll-out will start around 2028. The choice of 5G is in this respect rather straightforward: On one hand, 5G is expected to be a well-established cellular communications technology by the time of the planned network roll-out. While on the other, 5G offers various architectural benefits, such as a better native Cloud implementation support and a novel Quality of Service management framework.

What are the key challenges that need to be overcome to introduce 5G for future rail operation?

An essential prerequisite for introducing 5G for future rail operation is sufficient dedicated spectrum, as most railway safety authorities mandate that connectivity for safety-related applications is provided via railway-operated networks using dedicated spectrum. Based on the large data rate requirements for future rail operation, it is typically assumed that the railways need to keep the (E)R-GSM bands at 900 MHz, while obtaining additional spectrum at, e.g., 1.9 GHz. A further challenge is to ensure that FRMCS is maximally realised via off-the-shelf, mainstream cellular technology – different from GSM-R, being a rail-specific standard –, while still accommodating the railway needs. For instance, it is for DB and other railways essential that FRMCS can coexist with GSM-R in the 900 MHz spectrum, especially during migration and in rural areas, where deployments at 1.9 GHz appear economically infeasible. However, the 5G standard currently does not foresee the usage of system bandwidths smaller than 5 MHz, which would render such coexistence difficult. It is hence essential that the railways push their specific needs into 3GPP standardisation, while ensuring that the resulting technology remains mainstream.

What is DB doing to address the potential industry skills shortage and making the organisation an attractive workplace for a new generation of employees?

The ambitious plans of DB with respect to the digitalisation of rail operation require a broad range of competences related to, e.g., advanced sensing, high-precision localisation and artificial intelligence, which are typically not available in the railway sector itself. In addition, the need for future-proof connectivity and compute platforms for future rail operation requires that DB builds up substantially more competences in the field of 5G and Cloud technology. To achieve this, and to attract personnel with the required skills from other industry sectors, DB is currently ramping up a highly international and diverse Digital Rail organisation. A key ingredient here is that this is based on a flat hierarchy and highly agile and self-organised teams, where also newcomers can quickly take over responsibility, and where individuals and teams are empowered to take a wide range of decisions themselves. In addition, DB actively engages with external partners in the form of R&D collaborations and innovation partnerships, with the aim to jointly develop cutting-edge technology, while further fostering the expansion of related competences within DB.

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