Railways 101

Unity, Saskatchewan (population 2600) is like many towns that dot the landscape of the Canadian Prairies. It’s located at the intersection of two highways. It’s also at the junction of two rail lines.

The telecommunications tower at Unity’s rail station is serving as a test site for a concept seeking to support the continuous improvement process of rail reliability and efficiency. In this case, the focus is to improve advanced rail communications in rural and remote Canada.

CN, with its vendor Nokia, outfitted the Unity tower with special equipment to leverage 700-MHz Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN) spectrum. On January 15, 2021, CN Rail and several partners began a proof-of-concept (PoC) live test using an LTE Public Safety Band 14 experimental license.

CN believes the network can support improved wireless communications for rail operations while also supporting public safety communications. It hopes the PoC’s results will help make the case to federal regulators, who will need to approve any additional uses for the PSBN.

“Untapping LTE capability for operational needs is a leap forward, and full-fledged operational technology capability can only be unlocked with access to broadband wireless,” says Antonio Aranibar, senior solution architect at CN.

The Railway Association of Canada’s spectrum manager, Enzo De Benetti, says European regulators have already greenlit a plan for rail operators to use broadband spectrum “for enhanced train control and other reliability-enhancing systems” in the context of Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS).

With its Unity experiment, CN hopes to showcase a wide array of potential benefits of public-private partnerships involving infrastructure-for-spectrum agreements.

“Frequency spectrum is a natural resource,” says CN’s Aranibar. “We hope to help Canada make the most of this valuable resource for the benefit of our communities.”
The Unity tower test is one of several avenues of inquiry Canadian rail companies are pursuing to improve operations in parts of the country where telecommunications coverage has traditionally been spotty and slow.

Better broadband coverage would be a game-changer for rail companies. It is a win-win proposal of spectrum access for rail, in exchange of enhanced PSBN coverage for First Responders into rural and remote communities.

The Unity PoC will run for six months to a year, and the findings will help CN hone its pitch to those who will give thumbs up or down to this example of rail innovation in action.

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