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ICT fast-tracking efficiency on Africa's railways

ICT fast-tracking efficiency on Africa's railways

Global ICT company Huawei has stressed the importance of formal investment in telecommunications solutions in order to achieve higher capacity systems to boost revenue streams in the railway industry.

The technology company is one of 250 exhibitors at the two day Africa Rail conference taking place in Johannesburg.

Dr Norman Frisch, Chairman of the eLTE Industry Alliance and Global Director for Business Development of Railway Solutions at Huawei Enterprise says the rollout of ICT solutions that can enhance efficiency across Africa's economies is yet to reach its maximum potential.

"We've been very busy around the continent and it is a very challenging sector to serve. We were awarded a contract in Zambia two years ago to rollout a system based on GSM-R standards and train management systems. Similar systems are being rolled out here in South Africa for Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa and in Kenya we got the contract for GSM-R roll out for over 470 kilometres as part of a new line which is scheduled for completion in 2017. This will be a line providing voice communication GSM-R in addition to train signalling. When you have that sort of combination the infrastructure automatically has an increased amount of traffic throughput. With the same amount of railway track investment you actually increase the efficiency of that track. The result for investors, for example, is that they can derive 150% of traffic from 100% of track."

Dr Frisch emphasises that a railway running trains between two points is not enough for businesses and smarter railways - that allow efficient communication by making it possible to share details on arrival times, management of breakdowns and safety communication, will be a positive development for the sector. Some of this information, he adds, could also be shared with end customers.

"What we have done on the Mombasa-Nairobi railway line is that we provided an Hybrid MSTP network which allows one to do STH and IP in one network. The customer can then connect computers, their VoIP system and the GSM-R system all on one transmission network. We have also worked with a signalling supplier to fully integrate the signaling solution into the rail operation so that the safety and efficiency of the system is realised."

Dr Frisch says customers could benefit from the increase in capacity by upgrading parts using ICT solutions.

He says upgrades to small portions of a railway system can have a positive impact on a country's economy as a whole and the value of the investment should be calculated with this wider benefit in mind.

A tailored and intermodal approach

According to Dr Frisch, upgrades to railways in Africa will have to be done in a phased and tailored approach in order to achieve efficiencies that are enjoyed in other parts of the world like Europe where Huawei provides UPS and other solutions for railways that include the London Tube.

"In Zambia we had to modify our approach because there were concerns about security of the assets. We have adapted our solution in that country by reducing the amount of infrastructure on the ground by substituting the optical fiber and copper cables for wireless solutions. That kind of solution is not normally used in the railway sector because the amount of information you can transmit is limited but the benefits are high if you consider that the cables could be stolen and you don't have to dig. In Kenya we have are laying the optical fibre along with the civil works along the track because it is a new track."

An integrated ICT solution for the railway sector requires open interfaces in order for partners like terminal suppliers, control and dispatch centres, as well as data processors to have access to information on the network, and that can improve productivity, according to Dr Frisch.

"An integrated telecommunications system means that you have to have partners in order to achieve the desired outcomes. I think we also have to look into organic growth because we cannot just build a high speed line from A to B. It needs to be connected and intermodal especially for passengers. It has to be phased and cannot happen overnight. Railways in Europe are getting challenged by individual transport as cars move to self driving. This sort of challenge will eventually be seen here in Africa and we need to have better infrastructure because there shouldn't be much difference between a self driving car and a train."

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