Full Steam Ahead for Railroad Market
Ruggedness and durability are mandatory requirements in the railroad market, but Ethernet and other commercial technologies see an expanded role as riders demand services like WiFi
The global train control and management system market is growing steadily as more digital equipment is deployed on trains and infrastructure sites, creating a solid market for connectors that have extremely long sales lifetimes. Reliability and ruggedness remain key parameters for success, although some commercial connectors are being used inside rail cars.
Signals Indicate Market Growth
A recent study by Transparency Market Research predicted steady 8% per year growth in the train control and management market, rising from $2.5 billion in 2015 to $5.01 billion in 2024. The market for connector suppliers is highly fragmented; four major global corporations hold less than half the market, according to TMR. Connector suppliers must adapt to meet both changes in technology and in the markets.
“The railway market is on a global growth trend — public transportation is now a prerequisite for economic growth, especially for emerging countries,” said Detmar Saalmann, Weidmuller’s global industry development manager for transportation. “Consequently, the Chinese railway manufacturer CRRC Corp. Ltd. has become a giant in the market, challenging the traditional global players. This competition is creating increasing demand for innovation on both sides, using advanced technology for better, more efficient, and greener solutions to differentiate in the market.”
Markets are changing rapidly as rail providers install WiFi and other customer-driven features while also adding controls like positive train control (PTC) systems, which are now mandated in the U.S. to improve safety. At the same time, legacy connector usage remains steady.
“This tends to be a conservative market. We’re still selling products introduced decades ago,” said Lorenzo Bonadeo, transportation market director at ITT Interconnect Solutions. “In heavy-duty applications, typically located between cars, on top or under the train, the primary requirements are reliability and durability. For applications inside the train, there’s a tendency to go more to light-duty products, often with plastic bodies instead of metal.”
Rugged Connectors Are Wanted Inside and Outside the Train
Many suppliers split the connector market into two broad segments: external connectors that must withstand vibration, snow, and direct hits from rocks, and connectors used inside locomotives and cars, which must also satisfy tough requirements since passenger safety is a key concern.
“In passenger rail, there is a need to install cable assemblies that meet stringent smoke and fire approvals. Low smoke zero halogen (LSZH) cables are now required for cable assemblies to protect passengers from toxic smoke should a fire occur within the enclosed space,” said Nate Owens, associate product marketing manager for industrial field connectivity at Phoenix Contact USA.
More Bus Architectures Are Coming On Board
Once rail suppliers find connectors that meet all these conditions, legacy products become securely ensconced. Nonetheless, manufacturers note that changing demands are opening new growth areas.
“The expanding use of passenger information systems, security and safety systems, and communications based train control (CBTC) are a few of the advancements that lead to new challenges and opportunities for connectivity solutions,” said Steve Loyal, transportation industry segment manager at HARTING Inc. of North America. “As transit authorities work to increase ridership, they need to provide a lot of data and data bandwidth to their customers.”
Rail industry developers are adopting more bus architectures, borrowing from industrial applications as well as commercial markets. That’s helping to reduce the size of wiring harnesses and simplify connections.
“We see a requirement for more bus-related systems like Profibus and CANbus,” said Paul O’Mahoney, export sales manager at Provertha. “They’re using more and more Ethernet systems in infrastructure and rolling stock applications.”
Other standards are being utilized in other areas as design teams search for off-the-shelf solutions. “Inside the boxes that run the systems on the train such as the engine control unit, there are primarily traditional backplane connectors like DIN and CompactPCI, though high-speed products are creeping into newer products,” said Jon Homan, GE key account manager at Amphenol Industrial. “PTC is a feature coming to all rail cars and locomotives. There are onboard and trackside boxes that communicate with each other through a wireless system.”
Making the Connection in Modular Designs
In this fragmented market, vehicle components from various suppliers are typically manufactured at different sites; then, the components are installed by the end system provider. Modularity accelerates the initial commissioning process while shortening maintenance time.
“Connectors can play a very important role in a modular design,” said Malte Hofmann, industry segment manager, transportation at HARTING Electric. “Because they can easily be plugged in and out, connectors make it possible for electrical systems to be swapped out quickly. The efficient plug-and-play capability allows you to save time during commissioning or re-commissioning. The complex process of wiring up the connection cables is a thing of the past.”
While many of the connections designed decades ago are disappearing, there will be a long transition phase. For example, aging surveillance cameras are slowly being replaced by modern cameras connected to digital video recorders (DVRs). When older cameras are connected to DVRs, bridge products will be needed.
“As legacy systems are coupled with higher-bandwidth connectors, we see an ongoing need for adapter cables,” Owens said. “One example is that leading camera manufacturers for transportation incorporate D-code M12s on their cameras. Meanwhile, many DVR products that capture these video feeds come standard with an A-code M12 interface. This incompatibility between hardware can be corrected by partnering with a strong cable manufacturer with a responsive solutions engineering team.”
Along for the Ride: RF and Fiber
Train developers are also employing radio frequency and fiber optics. Often, these technologies are used to communicate between trains and infrastructure equipment.
“On board and trackside, there’s more RF and data communication for applications like traffic management,” Bonadeo said. “Trackside, there’s a lot of fiber optic cable or coax to connect antennas and communication devices. On the train, there are also antennas, wired with both fiber and copper. An increasing number of train and equipment manufacturers ask for RF and Ethernet on the same connector.”