UK targets better rail onboard connectivity

The UK Government has revealed an ambitious plan that could see train passengers 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 a raft of proposals set out how, working with industry, connectivity for passengers on all mainline routes could be dramatically improved by 2025.

Each train could get speeds of around 1 Gbps. This would future proof the connectivity, and in practice could allow several hundred passengers to stream uninterrupted video content at the same time.

“We want people to be able to get connected where they live, work and travel,” commented Minister for Digital Matt Hancock. “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.

“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,” added Bruce Williamson from Railfuture, a UK advocacy group that promotes better rail services for passengers and freight. “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.”

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.

To help 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. This will ensure the Government knows how best to make use of existing trackside infrastructure and utilise Network Rail assets, as well as testing suitable track-to-train radio systems to deliver services to passengers under real-life conditions. This pilot is part of the government’s £31 billion (€35bn) National Productivity Investment Fund, which has already earmarked £1 billion specifically for improving Britain’s digital infrastructure, ensuring the UK is match-fit for the future.

“We are investing record levels delivering the biggest rail improvement plan since Victorian times to improve services for passengers – providing faster, better and more comfortable trains with extra seats,” noted Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. “Improved mobile connectivity will help passengers to keep up with work, connect with friends or even check the latest journey information online while on the move, as we continue to build and develop a railway fit for the twenty-first century.”

A call for evidence has now been launched on the different ways the improvements could be delivered to support the Government’s ambitions to have a digitally connected railway that meets customers’ expectations and cements the UK’s place as a world leader in 5G technology.

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