Rail Industry Focus

01.07.12

Wi-fi is the way forward

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Jun/Jul 2012

As London Underground launches a summer of free wi-fi, Cor van der Coop, business consultant of IT operations at NS (Dutch Railways), the state-owned railway operator in the Netherlands, speaks to RTM about an ambitious onboard internet project.

On Board Information Services (OBIS) is the world’s largest project for wireless internet on trains, with 200 trains so far upgraded in the Netherlands. Before the end of 2013 NS (Dutch Railways) will have equipped 365 intercity trains with the platform.

IT operations business consultant Cor van der Coop said the project’s original aim was to develop real-time travel information, with free internet for passengers considered an ‘extra’. But with one million internet sessions per month and growing, it is clear this part of the scheme has been fantastically successful.

TfL is trialling free wi-fi at London Underground stations this summer, in what could be the first step along a similar road in the UK. Since the OBIS project started in 2008, and has been used so regularly, Dutch Railways can provide a huge breadth of experience on how to achieve this.

The success of the project is such that it sometimes presents a challenge, van der Coop said, as the original infrastructure was not developed to manage such large numbers.

“They [passengers] are making a lot of use of it, more than we can handle once in a while! A million is a lot and there is steep growth every month.”

The percentage of passengers using the service is around 30%, according to latest statistics and this is only increasing. This can be partly attributed to the popularity of smartphones, he suggested.

Future-proofing

The IT infrastructure is open and ‘futureproof’, but continued improvements are now necessary to support the service. Van der coop said: “We have to work on it. We have our own services too on the train and we need a quality of service.”

Dutch Railways operates communications on the system, including maintenance monitoring and real-time travel information, and this must be considered the primary data stream, he added.

“We have to take some measures to handle that situation. It can be handled but we have to install this.”

In terms of lessons learned, this underestimate of actual internet usage could provide a useful warning to other countries looking to implement a similar system.

Van der Coop said it would be vital to ensure the connection and bandwidth used was sufficient to cope with a high volume of traffic with controls in place to protect their services.

He described one measure that was put in place to support the system and how it might have been done differently based on the knowledge of today.

“We have two providers; one main provider and a back-up. We anticipated that we might need more than one provider and that comes in handy now. Maybe if we had known at the start, we might have taken on an extra provider.”

Lessons learnt

Of course there are many differences between the railway in the UK and in the Netherlands, but some crucial points about the business case are applicable to both countries. For example, Dutch Railways invested in a platform that supports multiple applications to boost business as well as passenger satisfaction. Van der Coop said: “In our experience, there are several challenges for a project that implements internet on trains. From a financial point of view, a business case can only be made if the internet service for customers is combined with other business uses for the internet connection.

“Our vision is about having an open, multipurpose platform on the train. That’s the basis for us, mainly because it makes us able to have a business case that’s okay; putting infrastructure in a train is quite expensive, and internet has to stay free.”

If this is the case going forwards, “you need another way to make earnings or cost saving applications to get your infrastructure investment out of the way”.

In the London Underground scheme, Virgin Media has launched a trial which will cover 120 stations over the course of the summer. The wi-fi connection will allow passengers to use the internet on laptops or smartphones, so they could check travel information, or access online entertainment like music and films.

The trial will be free over the summer for those who register, and following this period, will continue to be free for Virgin Media customers. Other passengers wishing to use the service can subscribe on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Future developments for the Dutch Railways solution are focused on a broader use of the internet connection, with applications being developed for monitoring purposes, tracking and tracing trains and services for seat availability. Additional content for the OBIS in-train screens includes the possibility of providing content such as films, advertising and news.

The quality of the internet connection remains “an important issue” for improvements, van der Coop concluded, as does upscaling IT components in the platform to deploy these additional applications.

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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