Finland will phase out the National Train Control System (JKV) used in railway communications at the turn of the 2030s. It will be replaced by the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), for which Finland is developing the utilisation of commercial radio networks as the communications network solution. Janne Hauta, Senior Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of Transport and Communications, explains how Finland’s solution could benefit rail traffic throughout Europe.

Throughout the year, the Digirail project team has actively communicated with the European Commission and the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) that the solution developed by Finland to utilise commercial network connections should be incorporated into EU regulation. The Ministry of Transport and Communications has also been involved in the communications. The purpose of communications from various actors has been to show how important this issue really is for Finland and the EU, and to ensure that the message is heard as effectively as possible.

“The Ministry is a natural counterpart to the Commission in Finland. We have wanted to communicate to them our concern about the current development of the radio network solution for rail transport in the EU. Finland’s strong view is that future regulation is not in the interests of Finland or any other European Member State,” says Janne Hauta, Senior Ministerial Adviser at the Ministry of Transport and Communications

Currently, EU regulation only recognises the use and construction of dedicated frequencies for rail transport. Finland’s objective is that regulation in the EU would enable Member States to either use a dedicated communications network, rely on commercial networks or combine the two.

“Building a designated 5G-level communications network for rail traffic only would cost hundreds of millions of euros. The opinion in Finland is that there is no point in building a new radio network when the use of commercial networks has proven to be just as safe as a dedicated network during the testing of Digirail. The experience of Digirail’s radio network experts is that not everyone in the EU railway world has fully understood the development of radio networks or is aware, for example, of how different the 5G network is from the GSM-R network, which is based on 2G technology currently used in rail traffic,” Hauta explains.

Increasing understanding breaks down the resistance to change

According to Hauta, the biggest challenge in communications is that for many parties, a designated communications network appears to be the only possible option, because it is considered the most secure. In his opinion, the best way is to broaden the listeners’ understanding of the possibilities of the current network technology and to provide as comprehensive counter arguments as possible to address the most common concerns.

“We have encountered a lot of rather conservative thinking that rail transport is a world of its own and the systems used should be separate from others. Once we have explained the benefits of the solution and how the connections are as secure and stable as in a designated network, opinions have gradually started to change. Colleagues have come to me personally to tell me that they hope that Finland’s solution would be a pilot,” Hauta says.

Hauta is hopeful that as understanding increases, Finland’s solution will be seen as a generally valid alternative.

“It is important that we are able to demonstrate through testing that the Finnish solution is equally secure and compatible in rail communications, and significantly more inexpensive and faster to implement. This will make it difficult for those doubting the solution to justify why it would not be feasible to implement.”

Hauta describes the co-operation with Digirail as very effective and praises especially the open discussion and exchange of ideas between the different actors. According to him, the massive project requires a culture of working together between the different fields. The Digirail project develops solutions not only for the railway networks in Finland but also for the entire European network.  

“Geographically, Finland is like an island, and we only have cross-border rail traffic with Sweden. As the world becomes more and more digital, the physical borders of states no longer impose similar restrictions, which means that the solutions we develop must at minimum cover the entire scope of Europe. We cannot afford to opt out of the European market. For this reason, it is important that the use of commercial radio networks is included in EU regulation. Finland strongly believes that this solution will improve the competitiveness of rail transport throughout the EU and promote the goals of sustainable mobility,” he emphasises.