The government has revealed a plan that could see the UK’s train passengers to benefit from a dramatic improvement in onboard mobile and Wi-Fi connections.
The rapid growth of mobile data requirements and the use of smartphones and tablets now means that consumers expect high quality, reliable connectivity everywhere.
As part of its 5G strategy, the government has committed to improving coverage where people live, work and travel – including on trains.
Minimum standards for mobile connectivity on new franchises already being introduced, but the new proposals set out how, working with industry, connectivity for passengers on all mainline routes could be dramatically improved by 2025.
Minister for digital, Matt Hancock, said: “We want people to be able to get connected where they live, work and travel.
“This means improving connections on Britain’s railways now, and making sure they are fit for the future.
“We’ve got a long way to travel but our destination is world-class signal for passengers.
“This will not only make journeys more enjoyable and productive, but will help improve the operation and safety of the railway and deliver economic benefits for the whole of the UK.”
The announcement has been welcomed by business groups.
Adrian Parkes, chief executive of GTMC, said: “We welcome the announcement from the department for transport on a new plan to install fibre optic cables and mobile masts alongside rail tracks.
“For several years the GTMC called on the government to invest in delivering reliable mobile and Wi-Fi services on all mainline routes to enable greater productivity when travelling.
“Our business travel research from earlier this year found that less than half of frequent travellers feel that the on-board facilities are adequate for allowing them to get work done.
“Free WI-FI was cited as the most important improvement required, proving its need for increasing productivity on the move.
“This announcement, building on the budget commitment to increase investment in 5G mobile networks and mobile communications for rail passengers, is encouraging and will make a real difference to the ability of business travellers to work on the move.”
Rail passenger connectivity is largely delivered through mobile phone networks operating from remote (non-trackside) masts, meaning coverage is patchy and in many places, non-existent.
To deliver the improvements, upgraded trackside infrastructure could be required for reliable connectivity in areas of high passenger demand and in hard to reach areas such as tunnels.
Delivering this will involve laying fibre along the tracks, mounting wireless devices on masts (and other trackside infrastructure) to transmit the signal to the train; and providing power supplies to these masts.
Bruce Williamson from Railfuture said: “Wi-fi has moved from being an optional extra to something essential for the 21st century rail passenger, so we welcome any improvements to capacity and coverage.
“It should become absolutely standard for all trains on the British railway network to have seamless connectivity, as it’s essential for attracting the smartphone connected generation to rail, as well as the business traveller working on the move.
“Very soon, trains without Wi-Fi will become unthinkable, and rail passengers will look forward to the day when the phone doesn’t cut out in tunnels.”
To help the government understand some of the technical and practical deployment challenges of trackside infrastructure, work has already begun on a trial on the Trans Pennine route between Manchester and York, in partnership with Network Rail.