Mobile phone technology will be used to support the advanced safety system being installed on Britain's newest high speed train line and could eventually be used to bring wireless multimedia to passengers.
Railtrack will use the system on the West Coast main line. Its high safety level will permit Virgin Trains to increase its maximum train speed to 140mph, slashing journey times between London, Manchester and Glasgow.
The network, based on a modified version of GSM - dubbed GSM-Railway or GSMR - will support an advanced safety system that experts said would prevent train crashes and reduce train failures.
"It's fail safe," said railway technology consultant Les Giles, who said the automatic train control system could override the driver to get a train out of trouble. "If the train driver doesn't respond to the message, then the train will automatically do it."
Train drivers will use the system to receive information on train speed, signalling and distance to stations and other trains. The system will also relay technical information to maintenance staff at the depot.
For passengers, the network could be used to provide on board information such as information on late running services, arrival times, station names and a realtime seat reservation system.
Railtrack is also planning to use the network to provide advanced information services by upgrading the network's data capacity using GPRS (general packet radio system), a technology that boosts wireless bandwidth from 9.6Kbps to over 100Kbps.
"That's the aim, we're just waiting for the products to appear on the marketplace," said Mike Watkins, project manager for Eirene, the body that developed GSM-R. "It would certainly add a lot of value."
But Watkins, who works at Railtrack, said increasing train safety is the primary goal of the project.
"Principally GSM-R will be used to support train protection. Other services will be secondary," he said.
Virgin Trains is considering using the mobile network for Internet type passenger information services, such as news, weather and sport broadcasts.
"We're still looking at entertainment systems, including an interactive seat based system at some seats," said a Virgin spokesman. "It will include some sort of Internet, ecommerce, shopping, interactive movies and videos."
"The GSM links could be used for credit authorisation, updating systems remotely and ordering products," he added.
Railtrack is spending around £1 billion replacing signalling and communications systems on the West Coast main line.
Deputy prime minister John Prescott early last month announced regulations that require train protection systems to be fitted throughout the UK rail network by the end of 2003, including advanced train protection on the West Coast main line.
"The regulations we are announcing today will save lives," Prescott said, making the announcement. "The measures they contain would have prevented almost every major crash in recent years where signals were passed at danger."
GSM-R has been selected by the European Commission as the standard communications platform for automatic train control on European railways. In addition to data, the system will also support voice communications between drivers and other personnel.
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