5G RailNext, a pioneering project to explore new 5G experiences for commuters, set up a unique private 5G network to connect passengers on an underground train on Glasgow’s historic Subway.

As part of the project, researchers from the University of Strathclyde installed a ‘pop up’ network using next generation technology to provide track-to-train connectivity between Buchanan Street and St Enoch stations.

The private and public sector consortium led by Cisco along with partners University of Strathclyde, Strathclyde Partnership for TransportGlasgow City Council, and SMEs Ampletime and Sublime, explored the potential for delivery of personalised advertising content using Augmented Reality (AR) mobile applications enabled by 5G connectivity.

The willingness of passengers to use mobile AR through wearable devices such as headsets was also examined by the project, funded by the Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS).

Challenging environments

The demonstrator project on the Glasgow Subway, the third-oldest underground rail system in the world after the London Underground and the Budapest Metro, was in partnership with a project running in the Seoul Metro system with South Korean partners ETRI. This UK-South Korea collaboration aimed to show the potential of 5G in some of the most challenging environments.

A custom 5G Standalone connectivity solution allowed the train carriage to connect to the trackside network, and an on-train Cisco Wi-Fi network was used to connect users, who were simultaneously served by the trackside network.

Two 5G infotainment service applications streamed AR advertising content to devices when the users scanned a QR code, while an AR application enabled passengers to interact with virtual objects overlaid on top of real-world objects.

The final live trials in March were carried out on a dedicated train which drove round the Glasgow circuit continuously during normal passenger service. Triallists used the infotainment applications on handsets and headset devices.

The applications allowed users to virtually try on and buy sports goods from fashion outlets while travelling in the tunnels, something that wasn’t possible before as the data connection didn’t exist. Bringing together the connectivity and the applications, the project was able to deliver and measure AR advertising experience in the mass public transit environment. Researchers say that with their dedicated private train network they successfully demonstrated the live operation and potential of infotainment in an underground rail environment.

Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Strathclyde, Professor Sir Jim McDonald, said:

The University of Strathclyde has vast experience of developing private 5G networks to create affordable connectivity solutions in both urban and rural locations, as well as hosting the Scotland 5G Centre in our Technology and Innovation Centre at Strathclyde.
We are delighted to be building upon our strategic relationship with Cisco, and our other industry and UK Government partners, on this exciting transport project. 

Digital Infrastructure Minister Matt Warman said: “Losing phone signal when hopping aboard an underground train can be a pain in our connected age, so I’m delighted that our £200 million 5G scheme has explored giving passengers superb quality connections to unlock new digital experiences, brighten up journeys and boost businesses.”

Technically challenging

Dr David Crawford, 5G Engineering Director from the University of Strathclyde, said: “5G RailNext has shown that 5G mobile technology is well-suited to providing track-to-train connectivity inside tunnels for underground railway systems.

“The deployed infrastructure created a unique test environment, and by testing 5G in these technically challenging contexts, we have a much clearer idea of what is feasible and how consumers can be reached with personalised and engaging information and entertainment content, delivered through new forms of interactive media.”

SPT Acting Chief Executive Valerie Davidson said: “SPT has been delighted to support this project in the Subway, and be part of this international collaboration to look at the viability of running 5G technology within our challenging Victorian tunnel system.

“Following the success of the trial, we are now keen to look further at the potential benefits for our passengers to enhance their journey experience on the Subway. With the majority of Subway commuters now using a smartphone, there is increasing demand and a growing expectation on good connectivity to be accessible everywhere, especially as 5G continues to roll out.

“There are also significant operational benefits to SPT, including the use of digital equipment for our maintenance teams and providing track-to-train connectivity.”

Revenue streams

Peter Shearman, Cisco’s Head of innovation for UK & Ireland, said: “The rail and metro environments present a market with limited penetration of advertising, marketing, and content services to date, but they have a high-volume, repeat-visit customer base, and our user trials have demonstrated that having the ability to explore and ‘try’ products could be appealing to passengers travelling on trains.

“Interactive media and AR-based advertising could help to improve passenger experience, enable new marketing channels, and create new revenue streams for advertisers, media owners, and operators.”

5G RailNext was part of the UK Government’s £200 million 5G Testbeds & Trials Programme, which aims to maximise the opportunities for UK businesses, including SMEs, to develop new 5G applications and services for both domestic and global markets.

Demand for data and connectivity in the UK continues to grow, with more than 80% of adults owning a smartphone in 2020 and spending an average of almost three hours a day online. Pre-pandemic, one of the most common times for doing this was when travelling to and from work.

This demand puts pressure on service and infrastructure providers to enable suitable connectivity. The majority of customers will use their 3G/4G mobile broadband, and as the rollout of 5G continues users will begin to make increased use of 5G connectivity as well.