As the railway industry anticipates the arrival of the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS), Axians is deeply engaged in delivering the most effective methods to assist its customers throughout this transformative transition.

Indeed, FRMCS will replace the current and obsolete Global System for Mobile Communications-Railway (GSM-R) system, which is a 2G+ -based system deployed 210,000 kilometers worldwide and 130,000 kilometers in Europe.

In this interview, Francesco Abbascià, International Business Development Manager at Axians, delves into the transition from GSM-R to FRMCS. He discusses this shift’s challenges and opportunities, focusing on technical advancements. Additionally, Abbascià examines funding considerations and underscores Axians’ pivotal role in navigating this transformative journey.

How would you define Future Railway Mobile Communication System?

FRMCS embodies the future of railways. The “F” for “future” is centered around forward-looking principles and technologies. The term “Mobile Communication” refers to facilitating communication between moving trains. This communication happens not just when the train is stopped but also while moving along the tracks. FRMCS isn’t just antennas or base stations; it’s a complete ecosystem that includes software solutions on board trains and everything needed for future railways.

What steps will be taken to transition from GSM-R to FRMCS?

Trains currently use the GSM-R standard to communicate with control centers. This stands for Global System for Mobile Communications for Railways. However, GSM-R is becoming outdated as technology advances. We’re now moving towards adopting the new 5G standard. While GSM-R was suitable in the past because it’s based on existing technology, it’s now nearing the end of its life. By 2035, GSM-R will be fully discontinued, meaning all equipment using this standard will no longer receive support. Losing connection in remote areas might not matter for things like YouTube or WhatsApp, but it remains a challenge for train signaling between trains and control centers. So, it’s crucial to make sure it works reliably.

Why is the rollout of FRMCS planned for 2030, and what factors are considered in this decision?

The current GSM-R network is extensive and migrating it all will require a significant amount of time. Therefore, the plan is to begin rolling out FRMCS in 2030. Why 2030? Because the standard is currently in its initial version, and the process of defining subsequent versions is ongoing. Each new version of the standard will introduce new services and features. The goal is to have a period where both systems are operational, lasting from 2030 to 2035. Currently, efforts are not only focused on defining the standard but also on radio engineering and coverage studies. This is necessary because FRMCS deployment needs to begin before 2030 to allow for this overlap of standards, leading to the final switch-off of GSM-R in 2035, according to the official roadmap.

What are the key considerations regarding the implementation of FRMCS, and how are these challenges being addressed, particularly regarding funding the transition?

In real life, there are always two sides to consider: technical challenges and business challenges. We often find ourselves balancing between these two perspectives. From a technical standpoint, implementing FRMCS presents challenges like needing more bandwidth, enhanced capabilities, additional services, and new equipment and infrastructure. However, we’ve made progress and can now deliver this technology. On the other hand, providing such services comes with costs; it’s not free. Currently, there’s a significant discussion about how to fund this transition. Various ideas are being considered, such as a shared investment model between private and public sectors. The concept of private-public financing (PPF) has been mentioned, and it’s expected to be a model for the future. However, given the deadline of 2035, it’s imperative to find a solution.

What is the urgency behind onboarding Axians at this moment?

In the market, there are drivers and passengers. Firstly, it is crucial for Axians to remain close to our customers starting now, as waiting until the end might result in someone else taking our place. Secondly, transitioning to a new standard entails significant challenges for railway operators including infrastructure changes and investments. At the outset, operators need guidance to ensure their investments align with market trends and transition smoothly. As a trusted partner, we offer insights as system integrators, remaining impartial to vendors. We can collaborate on defining radio coverage, strategy, and implementation without claiming expertise but providing valuable support.

What are the primary technical distinctions between GSM-R and FRMCS, and how does Axians leverage its expertise to support the transition between the two systems?

This is a crucial point because we are not just talking about a technology change but about a new approach to technology. In GSM-R, you relied on one vendor to provide everything – antennas, base stations, connectivity, and so on. However, with FRMCS, you can mix and match equipment from different vendors. This different approach, which is much more focused on software, requires installing and understanding new expertise. For instance, knowledge about cloud computing, data centers, IP networks, MPLS, and edge computing is necessary. GSM-R isn’t based on IP but on fixed circuits, not packet switching. But with FRMCS, it’s a whole new ball game here at Axians, we have a solid understanding of all these aspects.

Could you provide us with a concrete example?

Currently, with a standard GSM-R network, the base station is connected to the antenna through a fixed SDH connection, not an IP connection. A single vendor could provide the entire solution. But with FRMCS, things change. You can mix and match components from different vendors. For instance, you might have the antenna from one vendor, the base station from another, and MPLS from a third vendor all connected through IP. Moreover, you’d have the FRMCS software stored in a local data center. As you can see, it’s much more open. The role of an integrator like Axians has also evolved. Instead of just installing equipment, we now help integrate all these systems. We have expertise in MPLS, radio technology, 5G, and more. Our challenge at Axians is to merge all this knowledge and apply it effectively to the railway market.

What additional services and benefits does FRMCS offer beyond being a communication standard, and how does it utilize features like 5G to enhance railway operations?

FRMCS can provide passenger connectivity, real-time CCTV for security, or even predictive maintenance for trains by collecting and analyzing data in real-time. Within the FRMCS standard, there are dedicated parts for safety and signaling information, but there’s also room for other services to enhance functionality. With 5G, part of the FRMCS standard, there’s low latency, high bandwidth, and precise localization, allowing us to know exactly where a train is at any given moment. Furthermore, trains today travel at 320 km/h speeds, whereas trains using FRMCS will operate at speeds ranging from 400 to 450 km/h.

The obsolescence of GSM-R will make the next few years a time of high opportunity for FRMCS, unlocking possibilities.

“FRMCS is open to the future because of its flexibility, allowing an onboard of the 6G and maybe, the 7G. The objective remains the same: smarter, safer, and faster commuting for passengers,” concludes Francesco Abbascià.