Freight rail operator brings trains onto Telstra Next G

James Hutchinson | Mar 7, 2012 11:45 AM
Telstra backfills Nullarbor communications blackspot.

The government-owned operator of Australia’s freight rail network has started replacing the disparate communications systems used in 704 privately owned trains in a bid to remove one of the few remaining obstacles to interstate shipping.

The new system, based on Telstra’s Next G network, will unify the six UHF and VHF radios previously required by train operators to communicate with control centres in each state, due to differences in technology standards and systems.

It comes at the tail-end of a 12-year project by the Australian Rail Track Corporation to outsource its communications to Telstra and utilise mobile, rather than satellite or radio technologies for communication across the network.

ARTC technology and infrastructure manager, Steve Bogdanov, said the communications project echoed the company’s initial mandate to standardise the physical rail track gauges used between states.

The corporation has begun retrofitting 200 trains with the new communications systems which will provide 3G data and voice along with GPS, GSM and the existing radio capability to train operators.

An Iridium satellite transceiver will act as back-up, should 3G connectivity fail.

The remaining 500 trains will receive the equipment in coming months

The project, first explored in 2000, had moved in various stages from using Telstra’s then-nascent CDMA network to its Next G 3G network, which was seen as more capable.

But the project required Telstra to build 88 new mobile towers specifically for the project, in order to fill in blackspots along portions of the 10,000km of track operated by the ARTC.

Bogdanov said the network had since provided opportunities for surrounding communities and users on the track to hook into the mobile network.

“One of our operators, while we were going through our project, overheard the move to Next G, rang us up and actually queried that because he was currently having all his rolling stock fitted with satellite receivers... costing him mega bucks,” he said.

“It’s just an added bonus - we obviously need it for our train comms but we’ve passed that on and Telstra have let others use it.”

Train tracking

The network will also ultimately form the backbone of a separate project that seeks to replace the traditional train signalling system with a new method aimed at tracking trains at each point on the network.

The Advanced Train Management System, designed with military contractor Lockheed Martin, would allow 15 trains, each measuring 1.8 kilometres, to pass any given point on the track within an hour block, while travelling at speeds of up to 110 kilometres per hour.

The company has spent $90 million on a pilot of the system to date, which uses a gyroscopic system initially developed for tracking submarines and US Navy vessels without satellite technology.

Bogdanov told iTnews it would primarily rely on a mixture of GPS and Next G triangulation to track the trains where possible, but would fall back to the gyroscopic technology to provide more detail on the trains’ location.

A business case for continuation of the project could see the ARTC spend as much as $500 million outfitting the trains with the technology.

“The rest of the world is actually looking at ARTC on how we go with this and what we do with it,” he told the Gartner Data Centre Summit in Sydney this week.

“We’re probably the first country to adopt this where we’ve outsourced the comms edge-to-edge in the country, this is a different method of managing and controlling trains and I a lot of people are actually after that but they’re too scared to invest in it.

“It’s been a huge investment from ARTC’s point on this.“