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Railroads were among the early adopters of electronic communication, beginning with the telegraph, then radio. An early attempt dates back to 1913, when Guglielmo Marconi tested the possibility of transmitting telegraphic signals to moving trains along the Lackawanna Railroad system in the U.S. Northeast. But it wasn't until after World War II that technology enabled VHF radio equipment to become practical for industry use.
Today, two-way radios are used by train crews, dispatchers and other railroad employees. And there's an array of technology providers that offer state-of-the-art equipment to help railroaders remain in the communication loop.
For example, TESSCO Technologies Inc. offers communications equipment from a variety of mobile, portable, and interoperable two-way radio system and component providers. TESSCO serves as a "one-stop shop" for any wireless communication deployment, such as a positive train control (PTC) upgrade, says Glenn Frame, market development manager-rail.
"We have about 30,000 products from about 350 different manufacturing partners, which gives us the depth and breadth of product offerings, including hardware, mobile devices and accessories, to allow us to be a sole source for our customers," he says.
Having the ability to facilitate rapid radio equipment replacement was key for TESSCO following a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate that required all public safety and business industrial land mobile radio systems operating in the 25 kHz bandwidth to convert to 12.5 kHz bandwidth by January 2013. Known as narrowbanding, the effort enabled the creation of additional channel capacity within the same radio spectrum and supported more users.
By replacing old radios with new, state-of-the-art equipment, railroads are using digital technology that's helped make communication more efficient and reliable than ever, railroaders say. Given the volume of data that's transmitted, PTC and "machine-to-machine communications and signaling" are well suited for digital, says Hal Herron, vice president of North America Radio Channels for Motorola Solutions Inc., which serves the rail industry via "channel partners" or authorized dealers/resellers Diversified Electronics Inc. and Railcom Inc.
Railcom's offerings include Motorola's digital MOTOTRBO, which is designed for users who require a "customizable business-critical communication using licensed spectrum," according to information posted on Railcom's website. But absent an FCC mandate, railroads will "stay with analog," says Railcom President John Focht.
Kenwood U.S.A. Corp. also supplies digital and analog (and portable and mobile) two-way radios to railroads. The company's NEXEDGE® "G Series" portable radios now have a standard internal Global Positioning System (GPS) functionality. The radios, NX-200G/300G and NX-210G, use the NXDN® Digital Air Interface; are capable of 6.25 and 12.5 operation; and feature a built-in GPS module for NEXEDGE (digital) or FleetSync™ (analog) location applications.
The 5W, VHF/UHF digital/analog operation G Series also feature new antenna options to support GPS and RF voice communications, and are available with a 12-key keypad. All models feature a bright display for low-light situations and meet military standards C/D/E/F/G for durability as well as IP54/55 for water and dust intrusion, the company says. The radios also are available with an immersion (IP67) option.
In the meantime, innovation in the radio technology realm will continue. And railroads' technology wish lists will lengthen accordingly.
"The industry is seeking equipment with the greatest life possible but also with technological advances such as a noise-canceling microphone, which filters out background noise and allows clearer conversations," says Mike West, who handles large account sales for Motorola channel partner Diversified Electronics.
Denver-based freelance writer Walter Weart contributed to this article.