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Now that we know how to communicate to trains in motion, the next issue is what do we want to communicate to them?  Why do we want to communicate to them at all? See the previous article from the Transportation category, entitled, Passenger Trains: How Can We Talk to Them?

Enhanced Train Control

The first consideration is safety.  There is a desire to communicate to trains to provide computer assistance for control of the train.  With computers, we can prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, and interact with trains if they are about to move through switches left in the wrong position.  We can also slow trains that are about to enter temporary work areas where normal speeds much be reduced to protect rail workers operating on the tracks.  For passenger trains, we generally call this communication strategy “Enhanced Train Control” or ETC.  It is similar to the Positive Train Control (PTC) program currently being deployed in the United States by the Federal Rail Authority (FRA) for freight trains and for passenger trains that meet certain categorization and classification.

This technology must work across all railroads, since freight trains need to traverse other railroads to provide cost-effective, efficient service.  Similarly, freight and passenger trains often share the same tracks, making PTC interoperability necessary between the many freight and commuter railroads.  While PTC and ETC are not regulated in Canada at the time of this writing, legislation is expected to impose these capabilities upon rail operator soon.


Wabtec Corporation

In addition, the data communications network needs to be interoperable, allowing trains to operate on any railroad, anywhere in the country.  The challenge is to design and implement a data communications network that supports interoperable PTC.  Technology is needed on board the train, all along the wayside, and at the control centre.  Some additional ETC capabilities include:

  • Train Movement Authority Information (Track Warrant or Signaling)
  • Dynamic speed control
  • Electronic fence functionalities
  • Conservation (fuel efficiency)
  • Knowledge base for continuous improvement

Customer Service

The second consideration is customer service.  If we can communicate to the train, then can we provide enhanced services for passengers?  Many passengers spend one or more hours on the train every day, and in a week that adds up to 7 to 15 hours.  These passengers sleep, read, talk, and relax enjoying the ride.  At rush hour times, they may need to stand and hold on.  So, the question is, how can operators enhance the experience and make this commute time more productive?  One high demand solution is to provide internet access.  Most passengers use their cellular phones and tablets to interact on the web, read email, text messages, and perform work before getting to the office.  When using cellular data connectivity, it can get costly and the services can be poor along the rail routes.  With a high density of passenger all competing for the same cellular connections, even if the service is available at the wayside, it is sporadic at best and passengers are frustrated by this inadequate performance.  By adding a trusted and reliable internet access service, passenger needs can be better serviced.


Hulls Train, UK

Customer service can go beyond basic internet access.  It can include

  • Enhanced high speed Wi-Fi internet access
  • Schedule and arrival information – live updates
  • Ticket purchase
  • Destination information – things to do, event information
  • Digital signage
  • Moving map
  • Station information and advisory information (construction, station bypass, etc.)
  • Interconnection information to other transportation systems (subway, bus, etc.)

Operational Services

If we have connectivity to the train, then rail operations can leverage this communication channel to interconnect workers, including the engineer and the customer passenger agent to the company.  This connectivity permits important and real-time interactions that might be performed today using paper reports submitted at the end of a shift.  Now, reports can be made instantly and corrective actions can be started within the same day of the event, rather than one or more days later.

CCTV on train


Crew safety can be enhanced too with the use of video surveillance cameras to record and transmit event via a proxy video stream to headquarters or to the Transit Police.  Passenger counts for ingress and egress and be correlated to the ticket sales and pass scans to ensure that all passengers are paying.  Passengers with special needs may be able to access important details in advance to facilitate seating or wheel chair access; this prepares crews to attend to these passengers as a priority if they have arrival awareness.  Here are a few ideas that might work to help rail operations perform better and more efficiently if a broadband connection is available to them during the work day.

  • Preventive remote maintenance
  • Reporting and logging
  • Inventory management and asset management
  • Remote diagnostics and trouble shooting
  • Automatic vehicle location (AVL)
  • Train parameters and assembly information
  • Video surveillance and security alarming
  • Metadata analytics for passenger counting


Once the connections are in place, the opportunity to leverage these connections and provide a safer, richer, and more efficient transportation service exists.  The applications will evolve and new ideas and uses will rise up.  A train control system poses high demands on positioning with respect to availability, reliability and integrity.  These requirements can only be fulfilled by means of integrated positioning systems, which combine GPS with other sensors.  But, the customer experience and the worker job satisfaction can also be improved with these new rail solutions.

Enhanced Train Control brings additional safety to railroad operation by implementing dynamic speed control and electronic fence functionalities.   It is also an important productivity tool that allows supervisors to set specific transit time and fuel consumption goals to each session on a track.  Finally, through its ability to store and audit all train trips performed in a certain period, it creates the conditions for a continuous improvement of the railroad’s performance.


About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies. He is a Senior Executive Consultant with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 11 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN:TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO:TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX:TSX.V).  He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of four different Colleges in Ontario as well as for 16 years on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section.  He holds three Masters level degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.