Harmonization of railways is an important task for the further improvement of European infrastructure. Harmonization of telecommunications in railway operation, with the goal of full interoperability, is a key element. And a harmonized interoperable system in Europe is expected to open the way to global harmonization.

The European authorities have selected GSM-R as the radio transmission technology. This is defined in the European Directive on High Speed Train Interoperability and by other forthcoming European Directives for railways (including the European Directive on Conventional Lines interoperability), with standardization being a key to achieving an harmonized solution.

GSM-R is part of the ETSI/3GPP GSM specifications, but the specialized requirements for harmonized railway operation, in particular for high-speed trains, means that applications have specific Quality of Service requirements. In addition, it operates in the ER-GSM band.

European railways

Within Europe, GSM-R is now being combined with the General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) to form the basis for an Intelligent Transport System that will give railways the means to improve the efficiency of rail operations and offer new services to users.

ERTMS, the European Rail Traffic Management System, is the new rail management system which combines the European Train Control System (ETCS) with GSM-R. As a unique European train control system, ERTMS is designed to gradually replace the existing incompatible systems throughout Europe. This will bring considerable benefits to the railway sector as it will boost international freight and passenger transport. Moreover ERTMS is arguably the most performant train control system in the world and brings significant advantages in terms of maintenance costs savings, safety, reliability, punctuality and traffic capacity.

Beyond Europe

The GSM-R system continues to spread to even wider geographical areas. Beyond all European countries, it was adopted, among other places, in Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Middle East. In the Far East it has extended into India, China and Australia, where networks are implemented. This is also the case for South Africa as well as all North Africa countries. By the end of 2016, 56 countries in 5 continents selected GSM-R for their Rail operation.

Beyond GSM-R: the future radio communication system

The GSM-R Industry Group has indicated that support of GSM-R products and services are guaranteed until 2030. Based upon this information, the railway sector has to mitigate the risk of non-availability of GSM-R as radio system for train operation after this date.

Replacement of GSM-R equipment (on-board and trackside) by new equipment offering potential new services (which cannot be provided by GPRS) while maintaining interoperability has to be considered in a global timeline. For this reason the evolution of the GSM-R is currently under discussion and the UIC (International Union of Railways), in cooperation with the European Union Agency for Railways, commenced discussions on the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) already in 2013.

In 2015, ETSI’s Technical Committee for Rail Telecommunications (TC RT), home of the GSM-R standard, started to work on the Next Generation Radio for Rail while 3GPP which develops the standards for mobile communications systems, has created a study item on Future Railway Mobile Communication System. Beyond the technology (or technologies) of choice, one of the main challenges in the future radio communication system for railway is the spectrum and there are currently lots of discussion in this regard. Apart from the spectrum availability at European level, the final choice is likely to be heavily conditioned by the required additional investment in terms of new radio sites with respect to the installed base of GSM-R radio sites whose rollout in Europe is still ongoing.

Our Role & Activities

The standardization work is carried out by a dedicated ETSI Technical Committee (TC), Rail Telecommunications (RT). In addition, TC RT works in cooperation with TC ITS for the investigation of the shared usage of 5GHz frequency band for Urban Rail and ITS and a task force (JTFIR) has been created in this regard.

We are progressing a Technical Specification defining a technical solution and related minimum requirements for shared use of the 5 855 – 5 925 MHz frequency band by ITS and urban rail applications.

ETSI's standardization activities for GSM-R within TC RT focuses on the application of GSMTM for railway telecommunications. This includes numbering and addressing, configuration and system aspects as well as any additional features and services sought by the railways including the usage of GPRS/EGPRS for ETCS operation and IP-based protocols such as SIP. It does not include the specification of the GSM technology itself (that is the task of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, 3GPP). TC RT is the basis for proposal of revision needed to operate the rail system while ensuring complete interoperability. Safety aspects are standardized by CENELEC.

These applications can be easily extended to PMR Networks based on GSM-R Functional Requirements Specifications.

TC RT has also an ongoing liaison with 3GPPTM on the definition of requirements for the future railway mobile communication system.

In the area of spectrum usage, we expect to complete a Technical Report on Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP™) LTE™ radio performance simulation and evaluation in the rail environment.

In the context of the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS), we are studying the next generation end-to-end system architecture for rail transportation supporting multiple access technologies. At the same time, we continue to work closely with 3GPP, as well as the International Union of Railways (UIC), on the introduction of use cases for FRMCS within the normative specifications related to Mission Critical Communications.


A full list of related standards in the public domain is accessible via the RT committee page.