Substantial challenges for 5G deployment on rails

5G is vital to foster further development and digital transformation of the rail sector. European rail manufacturers appreciate this communication technology in implementing new signalling solutions and Automatic Train Operation (ATO). However, railway undertakings and infrastructure managers should get ready to tackle several substantial challenges.

“European rail manufacturers consider 5G not just a new technology on its own, but rather a key tool to enable the digital transformation rapidly and effectively in rail transport. In fact, a digital rail system would demand high-quality, high-availability and high-capacity Information and Communication (ICT) solutions for several applications: train operations, the control or signalling and infrastructure management – including predictive maintenance,” the Association of the European Rail Industry (UNIFE) stated in its vision paper. At the same, the umbrella organisation highlighted some important concerns regarding the 5G deployment on rails.

Three challenges

“In fact, fifth-generation networks allow multiple IoT applications to communicate faster, creating an expanded sensors network which also exposes the connected devices to a multidimensional cyberattack vulnerability,” UNIFE noted. It defined three main challenges for 5G technology. The first issue is that the 5G-based software networks are much vulnerable compared to hardware-based network infrastructure. According to UNIFE, it is “very complex to allow the deployment of “choke” points to be used for security inspection and control”.

The second point is also dealt with technical features. “For critical rail services, the use of 5G infrastructure provided by public Mobile Network Operators (MNO) would bring higher cybersecurity risks than relying on private network infrastructures – as it was the case for the GSM-R networks,” the association stated. Therefore, the European Commission should clarify this issue to the Member States and railway undertakings.

The third challenge is rather economic than technical. UNIFE highlighted that the implementation of every new technology requires huge investments, and 5G is not the exception. “This would bring in risks which may not be contained using the traditional security means and may require considerable investments from companies – a scenario which some SMEs may find challenging to tackle,” the umbrella organisation emphasised.

EU Toolbox

To meet the mentioned challenges, the EU-based and coordinated approach is required. In this regard, the EU Toolbox of risk mitigating measures, which was launched by the European Commission in January 2020, could significantly contribute. The toolbox is dedicated to identifying a common set of measures capable of mitigating 5G networks’ main cybersecurity risks at national and EU-level. “Prospectively, a robust framework of common measures would be able to adequately protect 5G networks across the EU through a coordinated approach among Member States,” UNIFE summed up.

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Author: Mykola Zasiadko

Mykola Zasiadko is editor of online trade magazines RailTech.com and RailFreight.com.

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