GSM-R (GSM-Railway) is the standard wireless communications platform for railway communications and applications.

Diagram of a GSM-R Network Setup

Diagram of a GSM-network

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Most high speed trains (TGVs) in Europe could not attain their speed without the use of GSM-R radio communication for railways

GSM-R: What is it, and why does it matter?

At the end of the last century, all national railways had their own incompatible analogue systems for railway communications. The GSM-R standard was not only meant to take a leap into the digital age; equally important was the goal of interoperability between various railway companies. A group of manufactures came together to define a universal standard for railway communication, which resulted in the GSM-R standard. Specifications were laid down by EIRENE (European Integrated Radio Enhanced Network) and were validated by MORANE (Mobile Radio for Railway Networks in Europe), and were eventually adopted by the relevant standardization bodies.

In Europe, where cross-border interoperability is particularly important, the European Commission mandated the European Railway Agency to implement GSM-R (http://europa.eu/) on all so-called TEN (Trans European Network) routes. Being de-facto the only standard for advanced digital railway communications, GSM-R is used today throughout Europe, Asia, North-Africa, and Australia, replacing dozens of legacy standards.

GSM-R is used for voice communication with the traffic controller and for data communication between the train and the RBC (Radio Block Centre). This works as follows: when a train passes over a transponder (balise), its exact speed and location are automatically transmitted to the control center. The control center then sends back to the train a permission to enter the next track, as well as the allowed maximum speed. This makes trackside signals redundant.

For more on the uses of GSM-R, see the overview of features in the GSM-R framework.

Why a GSM standard Specifically for railways?

As GSM-R consultant Martijn Kuijpers of the telecom consultancy Clear CinCom explains in his interview with us, planning a GSM-R network is quite different from a regular GSM network: "Normally, a network planner tries to cover a two dimensional area with as little base stations and antennas as possible. But GSM-R doesn't cover a wide area; a train route is rather a long, almost one-dimensional line. That in itself makes GSM-R unique from the perspective of a radio planner. On top of that, requirements are much stricter for GSM-R. Quality of Service must be guaranteed at all times, otherwise rail travel wouldn't be safe. This impacts everything: from the initial network design, to the way of validating and optimizing the GSM-R network - because this needs to be done at very high speeds. That is why even expert companies like Nokia Siemens Networks still call on small, specialized agencies like ours to help them face GSM-R challenges".

Why switch from an analogue system of railway control to GSM-R?

For many railway operators, the switch to GSM-R is simply necessary. If they are not required by law, such as the European companies, their old analogue systems will age. It becomes harder and harder to find the right replacement parts, as all new system will be digital. For most railway operators, the question is when to upgrade, not if. Luckily, provided the GSM-R network is set up properly, GSM-R can be quite efficient. This is likely to be even more so in the future, as GSM-R networks and providers are expected to shift to LTE/SAE technology.

LTE/SAE - Is it the future of GSM-R?

GSM-R is built on the proven GSM standard for cellular wireless communication. This means that all sorts of existing hardware can be easily modified by vendors and manufactures in order to work on the GSM-R platform.

The current GSM-R standard is based on second generation GSM (2G). The upcoming adoption of LTE/SAE technology is set to improve quality and lower costs of GSM-R networks. As the third generation of GSM evolves towards LTE/SAE, GSM-R is expected to evolve as well. That means that GSM-R networks will be able to work with LTE/SAE based equipment. This has the potential to greatly reduces costs while improving reach and reliability (less latency, higher data speeds).

Read more

Read a short history and brief technical overview of GSM-R

Read an interview with GSM-R network planning expert Martijn Kuijpers, on why GSM-R radio network planning is different from all other types of radio planning.

View a glossary of important GSM-R related terms and concepts