Industrial Automation

Industrial Cable – The Unsung Hero of Railway Communication

Richard Weatherburn
The transportation industry, unlike many other mission-critical industrial operations, has the unique position of directly engaging with its customers (the passengers) and keeping them happy and safe. Any delays or downtime in a transportation system not only lead to lost revenue, but a trickle-down effect of annoyed travellers, who can choose to spend their transportation revenues somewhere else.


Do you have nightmares about train delays, safety issues or interrupted passenger services? Customers are easily frustrated by issues, like inaccurate travel information, missed connections or lack of Wi-Fi on board.


Whether you oversee the overall operations of a railway system or you’re in charge of specifying a new or upgraded application– the reliability of the railway communication network rests on your shoulders. No matter your role in building out a proper Ethernet network, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focusing your attention on the “shiny” or more exciting components, like switches and routers. The roles those devices play can be exciting to discuss and debate – trust us, we get it!


But, if the last thing that comes to mind is your cabling – you need to reconsider your priorities. After all, cabling is the critical component that links everything together. Without it, even high-end switches or routers won’t be able to communicate.


Building out the Ethernet network for a railway is similar to building a railway system itself.


Imagine you’re introducing a new high-speed train. You spend the bulk of your time and budget on the train stations where you indulge in every amenity possible. However, in order to keep your costs in control, this leads you to buy lesser quality steel for the new tracks being laid. I think we can all agree in this (slightly) exaggerated scenario; your priorities may be out of sync.


Similarly, without the proper cabling selection and network design, even the most expensive switch may not be able to transmit data at its specified rates. Ultimately, poorly performing cable will impact the overall performance and reliability of your transportation system.


The Importance of Quality Industrial Cable for Railway Communication


High-quality cable is especially important in transportation, which has its own set of challenges. To withstand these challenges, the industry must meet many standards simultaneously. Accomplishing this within a single product is tricky, especially with cables – they’re not all created equal.


Even the best Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) products are not made to handle harsh conditions over time. Rugged conditions call for ruggedized cables and only industrial-grade Ethernet system components are built tough enough to withstand the hazards and risks in transportation applications.


Here are some challenges to consider:


  • Fire and smoke. With cables often placed in the driver’s cab or engine room, they’re more likely to be exposed to high temperatures and possibly even fire or smoke. Make sure your cables have jackets that resist flame propagation. Find cables that meet IEC45545-2 or ECE R118.02 approval, meaning that in the event of a fire, the jacket burns slowly, does not produce any harmful substances when burning and won’t reignite later on.
  • Extreme temperatures. To ensure your cables are tested and approved for use in varying temperatures in the transportation industry, look for an IEC50155 rating. Extreme cold can make COTS cables stiff and brittle, while elevated temperatures can degrade and weaken the plastic used in the cables’ construction.
  • Exposure to rodents. Oftentimes cables are installed in exposed outdoors situations. This increases the odds that pests or rodents could find their way to the cables. Be sure to select cabling with rodent-proof jackets and connectors.
  • Difficult installation and maintenance. In a factory setting, the Ethernet infrastructure is installed in more easily accessible locations, such as cabinets. On a train, however, easy access for installation or updates is rare. Replacing an old or worn-down cable might require removing the entire roof. Between replacing the cabling itself and the process to get access, this is a very costly job. A high-quality industrial grade cable is one you can “fit and forget” – lasting up to 20-30 years before a replacement is needed.

  • Excessive vibration. Vibration is a frequent occurrence in transportation settings, especially as trains constantly move from point A to point B. This means your cables are constantly pulled or stretched with excessive force, resulting in degraded electrical performance. Look for cables that meet or exceed the IEC50155 and EN50082-2 standards.


Choosing Cable for Railway Communication – Don’t Fight a Fire with a Garden Hose


Many commercial cable manufacturers will try to edge their way into industrial applications by having their cables meet the bare minimum requirements for certain standards.


Even if a cable appears to meet the standard, the reality is that a transportation setting requires cable that not only meets, but far exceeds, minimum standard requirements. In other words, just because a garden hose may carry water effectively, it doesn’t mean that it will provide the amount of water needed to put out a fire in a three-story building. The same goes for cables.


Too often, choosing cheaper – and likely inferior – cables to save money on the front-end of installation ends up costing more in the long run. This manifests both in increased downtime due to failure and the logistical issues that come with opening train cars for removal of failed components and replacement. Industrial cables are built to last longer and that alone makes them worth the investment.


When choosing cables for your transportation system, quality isn’t your only consideration. Make sure to choose the appropriate cable (or combination of cables) for your application. For example, while high quality copper cables represent the industry standard, the future of transportation is also heading towards fiber optic cables. Today, many transportation systems utilize both. How can you choose? Consider the following:


Fiber Cable


If you need a future-poof cable available for both indoor and outdoor use and can be buried underground, look for fiber cable. With fiber optic cable, your system will operate with gigabit Ethernet light sources and be protected against moisture and chemicals or abrasion.


Do you know what ratings you’re looking for in your cable? Ratings for fiber cable include:


  • UL Type: Optical fiber, nonconductive riser (OFNR)
  • cUL Type: OFN FT4
  • IEEE 383-2003 Flame Test

Copper Cable


Copper Ethernet cables are the more traditional industrial option. They are available for Cat 5e, Cat 6 or Cat 6a applications.


How do you know which application makes sense for you?


  • Cat 5e cables are still widely used, however new installations favor Cat 6 cables to meet gigabit speeds and increased bandwidth.
  • Cat 6a cables are helpful for future proofing.

The appropriate, high quality cable is essential for efficiency and safety in your transportation system. That’s why Belden designs industrial-grade cables specifically meant for transportation settings.


Whether you’re building an entire transportation system or simply trying to identify the right train car to add to your system, we recommend using cable that is actually designed to meet the rigorous standards of the transportation industry.


What cables do you currently use in your transportation system? Have you ever experienced issues with using inferior cabling? I look forward to hearing from you.


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