UAE sets standard for rail technology

27 January 2013

From smart-card ticketing to fourth-generation mobile networks, railways in the UAE are incorporating the latest technologies in their designs

According to US technology analysts ABI Research, the global contactless ticketing smart-card market is set to grow by an average of 13.2 per cent a year between 2013 and 2018. For the Middle East, however, the average is even higher, with growth of 20 per cent a year forecast during the same period, making it one of the world’s fastest-growing regions.

New transport schemes in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are all expected to contribute to this growth, and there will be further demand from existing networks as they update their technologies, such as Egypt’s rail and light rail systems.

This is good news for the smart-card ticketing industry, including companies such as Dutch semiconductor firm NXP, which makes silicon chips that carry smart-card data. NXP is the world’s leading provider of identification integrated circuits (ICs), having supplied more than 5 billion chips using its technology platform to 650 cities around the world. According to ABI, it has 73 per cent of global market share. The company developed Dubai’s ‘Nol’ smart card, which can be used across various transport modes, including the metro, buses and water taxis, and for payment in authorised retail outlets.

Smartphone functionality

The next step for Dubai is to be able to use Nol as a smartphone application (app). Trials have already begun and the emirate’s Roads & Transport Authority (RTA) expects this to be ready in the next few months.

“NXP and Sony invented near-field communication (NFC) technology 10 years ago, where you can basically use your phone instead of a card,” says Rainer Lutz, senior global marketing manager at NXP. “The same functionality and security in a card can be in the phone. More than 200 smartphone models today feature NFC ICs from NXP. [Financial information] can be stored securely in the sim card or in an embedded secure element.”

To enable this, the RTA is working with network providers Etisalat and Du to ensure they offer the functionality with their sim cards. Once this is rolled out, public transport could undergo a further revolution in the emirate as customers are able to link travel information with buying tickets using a dedicated smartphone app.

You can go from travel information straight into ticket purchase; then you can immediately board

Rainer Lutz, NXP

“The vision is that, in the future, the customer selects the destination, then the app indicates the nearest metro station and when the next train leaves, and gives the opportunity to buy a ticket. You can go from travel information straight into ticket purchase; then you can immediately board the metro,” says Lutz.

Such initiatives are making Dubai a world leader in smart ticketing technology, he adds. The multiple ways the Nol card can be used, combined with its pioneering use of disposable smart cards, are cutting-edge. The RTA has also partnered with the local Emirates NBD bank to provide Nol functionality through its credit cards.

But as the technology evolves, so must the efforts to ensure the systems remain secure. NXP says its chips are protected using certified crypto-algorithms, with keys defined by the client. “NXP provides the security mechanism and the customer selects an electronic key that is securely stored on the card and in the reader to make a secure transaction,” says Lutz. “With a card from Dubai, you cannot use it in London; even though it is exactly the same chip inside, the keys are different.”

Lutz says NXP is regularly developing new-generations of chips with higher security. “We bring new technologies in on a regular basis and, most specifically, we do evolving platforms, which means you start with one generation of a product and then at some point in time you go to the next generation, which is backwards-compatible but is more secure and has more advanced features,” he says. “Then, five years later, you issue the next evolution of the product. Once a product is not secure, you are already one stage further on.”

As the technology develops, so does its popularity. Ahmed Harb is the business development manager for NXP Middle East and Africa. He says plans are afoot throughout the region to introduce or expand smart-card ticketing, with Egypt being the country closest to rolling out a new programme for its metro and railway networks. The scheme there should be under way within the next two years.

GCC integration

MEED understands that other states including Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also considering a smart-ticketing system, and Qatar already has its ‘Karwa’ smart card for its bus network.

As the public transport network in the Middle East develops, Lutz says, there is no reason why the systems could not be integrated, so the same card can be used on Dubai’s metro, Abu Dhabi’s light rail network and the GCC railway.

“If they politically agree on this, technically it is possible. They would have to agree on a tariff scheme and key management. This technology is helpful, as you know exactly where someone is entering and exiting the system, so you can calculate which parts of the service have been provided by Dubai and by Abu Dhabi. Then a clearing house can be created to share the revenues.”

[With every element of equipment], you duplicate it, so if one fails the other one will take over

Rabii Ouadi, Huawei

Integration is also an objective of Chinese information and communication technology provider Huawei. In December, the firm won the contract to provide telecoms infrastructure for the 266-kilometre first phase of the Etihad Rail line between Shah and Habshan in the UAE.

Huawei is working for Italy’s Selex Elsag, part of the Finmeccanica Group, which has the contract to install the technical infrastructure. Huawei will deploy the infrastructure to support the wireless mobile network that carries the train communications equipment, known as GSM-R.

Systems safety

This is a version of GSM, the global system for mobile communications, adapted for rail use and certified by the European Railway Agency. It allows the driver, operators and staff to be in constant communication, and also carries data between the train and the track to tell the control system where the train is and how fast it is moving at any given time.

This, in turn, feeds into the signalling and safety systems, which ensures trains on the line are kept a safe distance away from one another. Huawei says the redundancy built into the system – the provision of additional or duplicate back-up equipment to ensure reliability and safety in case of failure – is one of the reasons it won the UAE contract.

“We have created the network in a redundant way,” says Rabii Ouadi, head of business development for railways Middle East and North Africa at Huawei. “Every time you have one element, you duplicate it with another piece of equipment, so if one fails the other one will take over. The switch-over mechanism between the active and standby equipment is automatic and that is very important as well. Train operation is critical. The driver has to be available 24/7. The intelligence has to run always.”

Ouadi says he hopes this is just the start of the firm’s involvement with the GCC network. “The countries will all be connected to each other and need a reliable telecoms system for conveying voice communication and signalling across borders, so with the system we are implementing in the UAE, we intend to provide it to Saudi Arabia, to Qatar, Oman and Kuwait and the other railways,” he says. “We are quite happy to start with the UAE, but we want to give all other GCC countries the benefit of our GSM-R and provide a unified solution to all railway operators.”

Etihad Rail has not yet announced whether it will implement onboard passenger data services, but if it does, Huawei says it will be ready for the challenge. Because such systems do not affect the running of the train, the information they carry is often described as non-vital data and is supported through a separate system. Telecoms providers can employ a high-speed wireless standard known as long-term evolution (LTE) technology. These systems work just like fourth-generation (4G) mobile phone networks, providing much greater bandwidth and enabling larger quantities of data to be shared more quickly, which could include onboard internet, mobile coverage, information updates and monitoring equipment.

“LTE for railways is based on the same kind of GSM-R and it can be co-located. In some very specific situations, one antenna can support both GSM-R and LTE at the same time. We don’t do it everywhere, as there are lots of variables that have to be analysed, such as frequency and interference, but when it is possible then one antenna can be dual-mode,” says Ouadi.

Intensive research

Looking to the future, communications providers say networks will eventually use 4G technology for all railway communication systems. “We think this is the future,” says Ouadi. “Most public phone operators are 3G or 4G. At Huawei, we are pushing our research and development to develop more and more features based on LTE. Our vision and research is to merge and ultimately have only one system.”

If the industry goes down this route, it will take time. Creation of the GSM-R standard took eight years back in the 1990s and was only finalised in 2000. Creating a similar standard for LTE will also require intensive research and development, and Huawei is currently working with the European Railway Agency to develop this. But for now, GSM-R remains the industry standard for communications technology and will continue to be used on the Middle East’s railways.

Key fact

Dubai’s ‘Nol’ smart card can be used across various transport modes, including the metro, buses and water taxis

Source: MEED

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