Commuters are seeking greater wireless connectivity aboard trains
Commuters are seeking greater wireless connectivity aboard trains
( Source: Public Domain / Unsplash)

RAILWAY USERS AND 5G Train travelers seek greater network connectivity

Author / Editor: Cate Lawrence / Florian Richert

Trains are a critical component of the mobility mix. Recent research into commuters and mobile connectivity reveals the desire for greater quality wireless communication, connected mobility options, and a blurring between the office and the train carriage.

Railways have long used wireless connectivity as a means to communicate. 5G wireless communication will provide new capabilities, higher reliability, lower latencies, and ultra-broadband connectivity to support critical applications. While people may be looking to multimodal mobility options, they center around a rail commute; the need has increased for seamless mobile connectivity across all modes of transport, from train and buses to car-sharing and, in the future, autonomous vehicles.

BAI Communications recently undertook a global study that surveyed over 2,400 rail users across five cities: Hong Kong, London, New York, Sydney, and Toronto to determine the opinions and attitudes of rail users around the world regarding mobile connectivity, smart city infrastructure, and data-driven services in public transport.

From a transport operator's perspective, deploying advanced network technologies – such as 5G wireless and Wi-Fi 6 – is critical. It enables the expected continuous connectivity for customers above and below ground as well as smart city solutions to streamline operations and improve public safety, further enhancing the customer experience. Fast, high-capacity mobile networks make it possible – and cost-effective – to implement services such as contactless ticketing, passenger tracking, environmental monitoring, platform management, and live service updates.

Technology to ease the commute

Critical to the transport of the future is connected mobility. Commuters want to access to:

  • Real-time service information (49%),
  • Apps that make route planning easier (45%),
  • Contactless payment systems (39%),
  • Safety-related systems (such as surveillance and communication (32%)
  • Apps that make bookings easier (30%).

Mobile communication options are failing respondents, with just short of half (47%) of rail users using their devices on the way to work. It's unclear how many respondents use underground rail where blackspots are more common than above ground, but only 9% rate the quality of reception on their rail network as excellent.

Mobility as a service also has an essential role in commuter journeys. 50% of respondents rate better connections with trains and other transport types as the biggest incentive to increase public transport use.

The blur between the office and the train

While more people may be working from home, commuters still see the benefits of the train carriage as a place to work. 78% of rail passengers surveyed would use public transport to get to meetings if they could reliably work on documents on the train. They also suggested it would mean "I could shift the start and end times of my in-office hours, as I am more contactable" and "I would be able to earn more money by working longer hours or taking on a more senior role."

Dean Bubley, technologist and analyst, notes that the interest in the train as a workplace relies on "adequate space, security and power outlets are available in-carriage. Public transport operators also need good connectivity for their applications and travelers' mobile devices and preferred mobile network provider. A mix of cellular and Wi-Fi is optimal – with a clear path to supporting next-generation 5G mobile and Wi-Fi 6 technologies."

Anyone who's traveled on urban trains in most cities would most likely also suggest that security is a priority, as theft of laptops/iPads and pickpocketing of mobile phones is common in many cities on trains.

Rail users welcome infrastructure advancements

Rail users want to see advancements in infrastructure. According to the survey, 91% of current rail users say they would support government authorities investing in new and reliable wireless and fiber networks and 83% say they support their city investing in 5G.

However, a persistent thought emerged while analyzing the survey. It's easy to support the greater use of technology to add convenience to our lives, but usually, this requires the reallocation of funds earmarked for other infrastructure. The survey failed to measure how respondents rate their transport priorities over healthcare or other funding priorities.

Are commuters more willing to forego privacy for convenience?

The issue of customer data privacy has emerged in the public consciousness over the last few years, with investigations into platforms such as Facebook and location tracking apps. However, people are willing to compromise privacy when it provides beneficial information. 91% of rail users surveyed are at least somewhat comfortable with the idea of receiving tailored alerts about problems or delays on their normal route.

Perhaps the most surprising finding from the research was that 73% of survey respondents expressed interest in the use of surveillance systems with facial recognition and behavior-monitoring for crowds. It would have been beneficial to know the responses of Hong Kong train passengers specifically. In this city, protestors have destroyed CCTV cameras in opposition to facial identification technology, which can alert the authorities if a wanted criminal walks past a camera.

Network infrastructure has a role beyond subways and transit corridors

The relationship between cities and transport is clear to commuters, with 80% comfortable with their anonymized data used to aid city planners and transport authorities in designing new roads or bike paths. A further 73% of rail users would use an app alerting them to environmental conditions along their journey (such as temperature, pollution, or poor air quality).

Leveraging rail users' data to create transport efficiencies in the age of COVID-19

This study was conducted in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus, didn't ask questions specific to traveling during the pandemic. However, COVID-19 has created significant challenges to rail operators including a significant reduction in commuters, managing passenger and service flows, and rebuilding public trust in transport systems.

Justin Berger, Chief Strategy Officer, BAI Communications, suggests that:
"Citizens certainly expect public services such as transport to adjust to their new usage patterns and changing circumstances in real-time, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Advanced communications networks and their applications can help authorities and public transport operators to respond to rail users' new ways of traveling, working, and living more efficiently."

He further asserts, "On a positive note, some transport operators are already starting to leverage anonymized mobile data to understand users' dynamic behavior better and to respond with different frequencies and availability of trains. Real-time mobile data can also help operators better estimate platform crowding conditions, improve passenger flow management, and uncover new origin and destination patterns to deliver a service that prioritizes safety and well-being.