Q&A: Using Formula One technology to boost rail connectivity
British tech company McLaren Applied recently announced that it will use its Fleet Connect connectivity solution – initially developed for Formula One racetracks – to upgrade Avanti West Coast’s fleet of 99 Pendolino trains.
“I’m proud that McLaren Applied can deliver Fleet Connect to such a crucial route for UK rail as we look to further develop our offering in this space. as we look to further develop our offering in this space,” commented McLaren Applied transport director Paul Bebbington.
“We are pleased to be pioneering the future by delivering best in class connectivity and an enhanced passenger experience, not only to Avanti West Coast’s newest trains but also the existing fleet.”
McLaren Applied will provide service to Avanti West Coast, a joint venture between Italian railway operator Trenitalia and FirstGroup until 2023, as part of a £45m investment to upgrade its mobile coverage and connectivity.
Bebbington talks about the project’s origins and why Formula One communication systems can make Wi-Fi aboard trains faster, more efficient, and reliable.
Credit: McLaren Applied.
Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): When and how did the project come about?
Paul Bebbington (PB): The Avanti West Coast franchise commenced in December 2019 and, to win a franchise, you’ve got to have new ideas and commit to obligations with the Department of Transport. Part of the differentiators was to improve passenger connectivity on board, so the idea was put into an obligation in December 2019, and we won the contract in the summer of 2020.
What drew you to collaborating with Avanti West Coast?
Avanti West Coast is a partnership between FirstGroup and Trenitalia. We have worked with Trenitalia before on [UK train operating company] C2C but we haven’t worked with FirstGroup before, and they are their major shareholder. They went out to the market to see if they could procure the best onboard solution with the ideas, they had in Q1 of 2020, and we bid for that work against other companies that have been there for many years but fortunately, we won.
What does the project entail?
Part of the obligation and work that Avanti West Coast wants to do is to completely refurbish the Pendolino fleet – a high-speed train on West Coast – and I think it’s the largest refurbishment ever done in the UK.
As a part of that refurbishment, Avanti is carrying out developments such as ripping all the seats out and putting new seats in, as well as developing a new cafe bar and new passenger information systems. Wi-Fi is a key part of that and [the company wants to] make sure it’s the best it can be, so our job is to upgrade the onboard networks so that they become faster, more reliable and have more capacity for people to connect. We’re replacing equipment inside each carriage as well as at the heart of the train and the antennas mounted on the roof of the train.
Let’s talk about Fleet Connect. When and how was it developed?
Its roots come from Formula One, where it’s extremely important to have real-time data coming from the cars to make sure that all decision-making is data-driven. If you can think about where Formula One goes, some of the countries it visits don’t have the networks and connectivity that others do. Therefore, you could end up with a different experience at each track when it comes to what data you can pull from the vehicle, and that has weight when it comes to winning a race.
McLaren realised that if it could manage whatever network was available, it would get a competitive advantage over its rivals. It, therefore, started creating software and telemetry solutions that consumed whatever networks were available, and as the years went by, McLaren serviced that technology to all teams.
We had been playing with connectivity and radio frequencies for a very long time when, ten years ago, we saw that the UK needed to have better connectivity on trains. We realised that [connectivity] problems [on trains] were not too dissimilar from [connectivity issues in] Formula One, so we talked to the rail industry and found that our software to aggregate and optimise networks would fit well and we built it from there.
What benefits does Fleet Connect bring, especially compared with other railway Wi-Fi systems?
Called Mflare, the aggregation software is patented and is very high performing, managing self-handover from networks and aggregating them in a very well-optimised way. It also converts Wi-Fi for the onboard systems and passengers to use.
Fleet Connect is very efficient and quick, optimising what is available to the train as well as being highly configurable. We can change its deliverables to the train based on the operator’s requirements, putting in classes of service that prioritise certain types of data traffic over others.
The system is also very flexible in its integration, as we can provide it as an end-to-end turnkey solution, or we can work with companies that are already aboard trains and have networks.
Lastly, [through the system] we provide service level agreements as well as measure our own key performance indicators (KPIs) in real time to our clients and provide our own roadmaps.
How important is Wi-Fi and railway connectivity when it comes to drawing more customers to the railway sector?
Rail connectivity is probably more important in rail than it is in our normal lives, but you know how important it is in our daily lives. Once you get into a train or in the rail sector, the situation is exactly the same as we can’t function without it.
Onboard we need to be connected to our work, our social and family lives while the operator needs to make sure they are connected to all the back-office functions such as stations and operational centres.
Depots [need connectivity] to make sure that systems are reporting on the train’s health, predicting when it might suffer and making sure they have the most effective way of either predicting when things might fall apart or optimising the recovery in the best way possible.
If you add all those things up, you have multiple stakeholders relying on connectivity to give the best possible service, and they are all enabled by connectivity. Passengers are drawn to rail because of its speed, convenience and the reliability of services, which in turn rely on connectivity to deliver the service needed.
In your opinion, will rail replace flying and cars as the main mode of longer-distance transport in the next few years?
Rail will certainly become more important globally, as it is the most environmentally-friendly form of transportation and connects well with other modes of transport.
All [governments] are saying that rail is their way of hitting the targets that are set in terms of sustainability.
I think that it will only accelerate in terms of its usage over the coming year, transforming in its own right into other forms such as the Hyperloop or the maglev.
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