From coverage in underground tunnels to autonomous trains

Cellnex becomes a key player in the digitalisation of rail corridors in Europe

Any basic description of Cellnex Telecom‘s activity would be incomplete without two words: infrastructure and connectivity. The terms also underpin the digitalisation with which European governments hope to modernise railway corridors and power a decarbonised and connected economy.

The rail network in Europe is among the world’s densest, linking citizens, transporting goods and generating economic growth across thousands of kilometres of metro and train lines and a significant portion of the European Union.

“The railway environment deals with many infrastructures and systems that require connectivity to keep the ecosystem safe, efficient (both technically and from a cost standpoint) and sustainable”, explains Sergi Alsina, Head of Business Strategy at Cellnex, in an interview.

By leveraging its neutral operator status and expertise deploying critical service networks, Europe’s largest operator of wireless telecommunications infrastructure has found one of its expansion niches in processes of railway digitalisation.

“Corridors are environments with a great deal of space restrictions and technical complexity due to overlapping networks and radio frequency systems and multiple competing actors”, explains Sergi. “We are a natural provider for these types of services requiring an independent actor to help solve the various issues before, during and after deployment”.

Cellnex’s neutral operator model has helped the company to be chosen for some of the largest underground and rail digitalisation projects in Europe, where deployment of a single infrastructure for all operators avoided duplication, while minimising costs and ensuring a secure environment between passenger communications and operations.

In 2004 Cellnex entered the complex management of underground and overground rail networks with a section of the Barcelona Metro. Following its 2016 acquisition of CommsCon, a company with expertise in DAS & Small Cells signal coverage solutions in high footfall areas and spaces that had proven its worth in large underground projects in Italy, Cellnex saw the clear potential of this market.

After the COVID-19 crisis, the sector demonstrated its strategic role as guarantor of the transport of people and essential goods and today, as we celebrate the European Year of Rail amid institutional support for railway liberalisation and modernisation, Cellnex manages and has projects in its European portfolio to provide connectivity for 7,700 kilometres of metro and train lines and more than 500 stations in five countries.

In 2021 alone, newly awarded large concessions in the United Kingdom, France and Netherlands are broadening Cellnex’s reach as an industrial partner.

Additionally, Cellnex develops its research projects and public-private collaboration in the sector with leadership in projects like the cross-border road and rail corridor between Figueres and Perpignan (5G-Med) and participation in the RESILTRACK project for railway maintenance and repair.

Sustainable and innovative trains 4.0

Other concepts that speak volumes about Cellnex’s mission, vision and values are sustainability and innovation. These ambitions also come together in the rail projects it is currently working on to automate services. Grade of Automation (GoA) 4, for example, includes developments like fully autonomous trains and automatic carriage coupling in future.

“Our model goes far beyond guaranteeing complete and secure connectivity”, explains the engineer, “our end-to-end proposal covers everything from investment and financing for design, deployment, testing and operation to third-party commercialisation of the entire infrastructure during the concession.”

Identifying business models in infrastructure installation and operation is another area where value is added by Cellnex, which designs offers with a 360-degree concept.

“Corridors are huge ecosystems. More than just the track, they are the platform, stations, adjoining buildings, the transport hub and intermodality for passengers and goods, etc. Corridors are infrastructure that can be shared beyond the railway line, from the fibre network to technology for private environments in companies or factories close to the area of influence”, explains Sergi.

In a business in which talk no longer focuses on transport but on mobility, and where user experience has become absolutely crucial, 5G development is the main facilitator of the technological revolution that will push predictive maintenance and data analysis- and AI-powered decision-making and solutions to make railway services efficient and fast.

And all of this is thanks to that highly sought-after sustainability. Indeed, transport may consume one third of the EU’s final energy, but with just 0.5% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions, rail has emerged as the most sustainable alternative.


Carlos Ruano

Journalist and Founder of Newsbub

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