When will wifi be available on all commuter trains?
Soon, predicts Peter Kingsland, Sales Director at Icomera, the leading provider of wifi on trains, buses and coaches.
In our humble view, the single most helpful thing that train companies could do to make commuting better is to provide wifi on every train.
Getting work done, shopping online and connecting with friends all depend on it.
Yet currently the wifi situation on the UK’s rolling stock is at best variable.
Of all the major train lines, wifi is currently only available on:
- East Coast Mainline: all services
- Chiltern Railways: services between London and Birmingham
- East Midlands: services between London and East Midlands
- Greater Anglia: services between Norwich, Ipswich and London (and some from Cambridge to London)
- Grand Central: services between London, York and Doncaster
- First Great Western: services between London and Worcester via Oxford
- First Hull Trains: services between London and Hull
- First ScotRail: services between Glasgow and Edinburgh
- Heathrow Express: services between London and Heathrow
- Virgin Trains: wifi available on the majority of services
That still leaves the vast majority of commuters having to rely on their own 3G devices.
“The problem that most passengers have when they use a 3G dongle is that they’re just on one network and so coverage is intermittent,” says Peter.
“Our wifi systems work by connecting to two or more (normally three or four) different networks, so that when one cuts out, we can still provide coverage to passengers.”
Are they still vulnerable to tunnels and mobile blackspots? we ask.
“Yes, there will still occasionally be some areas where all networks drop out, and tunnels are a problem, although our system uses technology to keep the connection going for as long as possible even in these not-spots.
“With our technology, we buffer connections so that you’ll only completely lose connectivity if you’re in a very long tunnel.”
The alternative solution, says Peter, would be to provide trackside mobile transmitters, but the problem is that this would require cooperation and coordination between Network Rail (who look after tracks and signals), the rail operators (who run the trains) and the mobile networks; that might take some time and a major investment.
“Increasingly you may see train operators offering some cached content that can be accessed even when the signal goes down,” he comments, “access to up-to-date journey information, plus video news clips from the BBC or ITN, perhaps.”
There are, of course, some challenges to providing wifi on the train even when it can get signal.
“At the end of the day there are still laws of physics and capacity limits on spectrum and bandwidth – our ongoing challenge is to divide that up between passengers fairly to deliver a consistent internet user experience.
“When you see people tweeting about wifi not working properly on their train, it’s because there are sometimes over 100 other users trying to access it too. Like train operators, an on-train wifi service is of course mostly judged on its performance during the busiest periods on the network.”
At what price?
At the start of the conversation, the Commuting Expert team had always assumed that the main issue preventing more train companies from implementing wifi was the cost of the technology, but Peter says this isn’t necessarily the case.
“The cost of wifi-enabling a train has reduced considerably in recent years. A typical 3-car train would cost around £15,000. An intercity train with 8 or 9 carriages would obviously be more.
“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge price.”
So why isn’t wifi more widespread?
According to Peter, the main issue isn’t the cost of the technology itself, but rather that of the operational challenge and cost to the operators of having to take trains out of service to install it.
With most trainlines running at almost 100% capacity, you can’t take rolling stock out of service without adversely affecting passengers.
“But it is very much on train operators’ agenda,” says Peter, “and all the companies assume that when they are retendering for the franchises for each line when they next come up for renewal, wifi will be expected as a standard part of the passenger service offering.
The good news for wifi-hungry passengers: ten of the UK’s 16 rail franchises are due for renewal before the general election, expected in 2015.
The future of train wifi
Peter is excited by the developments in the technology and believes that wifi will benefit passengers beyond simply being able to check their emails.
“Train companies will be able to make live passenger information available, and enable train staff to access real-time ticketing information.”
Anyone who’s ever left their season ticket at home and had fill in all the subsequent forms would appreciate being able to have their ticket details looked up on the database when the inspector arrives.
“We also use the train-to-shore broadband connection to enable train operators to monitor the performance of the trains themselves – highlighting technical issues and alerting staff before problems become serious.”
And is 4G changing what’s possible? we ask.
“Absolutely,” he confirms, “We use 4G on the First Great Western Cotswolds Service from Paddington. We’ve seen bandwidth speeds and data usage increase significantly since that was installed.”
In short – when wifi does come to your service, it’s only going to get better.
We ask Peter to comment on where the UK fits in with the wider world when it comes to wifi provision – are we behind the competition?
“We’re definitely at the front of the curve when it comes to installing wifi on transport.
“The USA is catching up fast though – particularly with Amtrack trying to appeal to a new set of customers – and they may overtake us soon.
“In the UK the competitive nature of the industry will mean that all operators will need to provide wifi to match their competitors. Bear in mind that many bus and coach routes also offer wifi now.”
Commuters can therefore be reassured that after a long wait, wifi is likely to be on its way soon.
And when you do finally get connected, the chances are good that you’ll be getting online thanks to Peter and the team at Icomera.
For more information about Icomera, visit: http://www.icomera.com