UK government threatens to turn off on-train wifi

According to the Department for Transport, there are imperative reasons behind the announced intention.2014, Erk / Flickr.com

No trains, late trains and cancelled trains. The British commuter is prepared to put up with a lot. Then the government said we’ll cancel your wifi. That has proved to be a signal passed at danger for the travelling public. A radical cost cutting programme has hinted that trains in England could lose wifi provision because the Department for Transport says wifi is a low-priority for passengers, and it wants to deliver the best possible value for money on the tracks. That may be a huge misjudgement, and the ministers in Westminster may be forced to make that most awkward of manoeuvres – a railway u-turn.

Despite claiming that it was a low priority for travellers, the news that the UK government may roll back the on-board experience to the late nineties, and switch off on-board wifi. If business-suited executives were expected to be the only ones annoyed by the prospect of no more Zoom as they zoom from city to city, then the DfT underestimated the derision of the leisure-suited masses back in standard class, who streamed to social media to make clear their opinion of no more streaming.

Weaken the appeal of travelling

According to the Department for Transport, there are imperative reasons behind the announced intention. “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable”, claimed a widely reported DfT statement. “It is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reform of all aspects of the railways is essential. Passenger surveys consistently show that on-train wifi is low on their list of priorities, so it is only right we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money.”

Operator's hand at a high tech touch screen display
The operation of the railway may be going digital, but the DfT says passengers are going analogue. Image: Network Rail

That conclusion is however refuted by on-board technology specialists evo-rail, who are currently working with train operating company partners to develop a much more reliable and robust wifi service, tailored to delivering the sort of seamless wifi experience that passengers can access at home. “In an environment where we should be encouraging people back to the railways, cutting access to on-board Wi-Fi will only weaken the appeal of travelling by train, especially for commuters”, said Simon Holmes, the company’s managing director. “This is a short-term view which will further leave the UK’s railways behind its global counterparts and struggling to deliver the modern, appealing rail service passengers expect and need.”

Lose the younger audience

Taken out of context, it is hard to understand the reasoning behind the DfT decision. Board any UK train, and the majority of passengers can be seen, wedded to their phones. Almost every operator makes a lesser or greater virtue of their wifi provision and, like the well with no water, hardly anyone notices the wifi – until it’s not there. The trend has been towards universally free wifi for all passengers. It should not be forgotten that the government has made great capital of its HS2 high-speed rail project as an office on wheels for busy workers, growing the UK economy has they hurtle between London and Birmingham. If the curtailing of wifi provision extend to failing to install any bandwidth at all on the new line, then that rolling office might as well be stuck in a siding for all the business that can be done in today’s digitally connected environment.

Young woman looking out of a train window
Well, who needs wifi. There’s always Windows. Image: Renfe

“Removing or reducing WiFi on trains has the potential to damage the industry as many people value connectivity during journeys, such as relying on it to work or study during a commute or keeping up to date with real-time travel updates”, said David Pitt, the vice-president for the UK at SilverRail, another hi-tech supplier to the railway industry. He backed that up with figures from evo-rail which show that 64 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds are likely to switch to rail if they had access to improved on-board wifi.

Control, alt, delete

“One of the great advantages of rail travel is that passengers can use their travel time productively and enjoyably, whether for work or relaxation”, said Paul Tuohy, the chief executive of the influential lobby group, Campaign for Better Transport. “Faster and more reliable Wi-Fi on trains would strengthen this advantage, encourage more people to travel by rail, and contribute to a cleaner, greener transport future.” His observations were backed up by the independent watchdog Transport Focus. “For passengers to see rail as an attractive choice their priorities need to be met,” said their director David Sidebottom. “Reliability, value for money and the provision of Wi-Fi are all important. We know from our research that only three in ten passengers were satisfied with the internet connection they usually receive on trains. Almost three quarters of train users also told us that they think it is important that internet connectivity on trains is improved.”

With the pandemic bringing a rapid end to the era of franchised operations on Britain’s railways, the government has been letting train operators continue on a management contract basis, or in some cases taking direct control of routes, with administrators at the Department for Transport calling the shots. It has been reported that all train operators have been told to make a robust case for investment in wifi provision, or they will be obliged to log-off permanently when their current digital contracts expire. The government has taken control, altered the rules, and is about to delete the service.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

1 comment op “UK government threatens to turn off on-train wifi”

Joachim Falkenhagen|26.05.23|20:57

The alternative is of course online access via the smartphones directly. To improve that, train operators would have to install microwave-transparent windows. But even then, passengers would still be able to access only closer masts than with antennas of a centralized wifi-linked antenna on the train’s roof. That would mean less bandwidth (shared by all passengers) und more masts.

So that would end up with a worse service at higher costs to society and probably also to users.

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