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Infrastructure Commission Slams Naff Mobile on UK Railways

Thursday, February 6th, 2020 (10:59 am) - Score 1,112
train wifi mobile internet connectivity uk

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has today warned in a new report that “inadequate” mobile (4G, 5G etc.) connectivity continues to be a big problem on the UK’s railways, which they blame on the government being “slow” to fix related gaps in connectivity due to a lack of leadership.

Back in December 2017 the Government pledged to make “uninterruptedWiFi and Mobile (5G) broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps (Gigabits per second) available on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025, but since then we’ve rarely seen this mentioned anywhere and it remains to be seen whether that target can even be delivered.

Mobile services are of course essential to everyday life, particularly business productivity, yet the current rate of progress on rail connectivity is, the Commission believes, “insufficient to ensure that even basic mobile services – voice calls and 4G data – will be reliably available throughout the UK’s network” by 2025. Ouch.

The NIC’s new report – ‘Connected Future: Getting back on track‘ (PDF) – highlights the main cause as being a lack of leadership from government, frequent ministerial changes, and split departmental responsibilities that have “halted any initial momentum in steps to improve passengers’ access to mobile services.”

Sir John Armitt, NIC Chair, said:

“We’re all used to having mobile access on the move but for many passengers, loss of coverage while on the train occurs with frustrating regularity. In too many areas our rail infrastructure seems stuck in the digital dark ages.

As coverage improves elsewhere, people will find it increasingly frustrating that it doesn’t extend to the railway. It would be like finding that the railway only accepts cheques for payment and not debit cards or contactless.

Government has dropped the ball on this issue and passengers will expect it to get a firm grip and find a solution. It must set out clear plans for delivering railway connectivity and giving passengers the reassurance they need.”

Perhaps the most damning aspect of all this is that the commission “found no evidence of an overall plan [existing] for rail connectivity.” Combined with the cancellation or de-prioritisation of a number of other programmes, the research suggests that rail will fall further behind roads in terms of progress towards seamless mobile connectivity.

The lack of progress was also affected by difficulties accessing Network Rail land, as well as some commercial barriers created by the costs of installation and associated potential risks, and the aformentioned failure of leadership. Naturally the report makes several recommendations to improve the situation.

The Six NIC Recommendations

Consistent data

Action 1: Ofcom should publish consistent mobile coverage data for roads and in car coverage to enable progress to be more accurately tracked on an annual basis. This data should clearly disaggregate motorways, A roads and B roads, and different types of coverage including 5G. This should be published by December 2020 for the next Connected Nations report.

Leadership and direction

Action 2: government should, before publication of the National Infrastructure Strategy, establish a single ministerial lead within the Department for Transport for improving mobile connectivity on the railway.

Action 3: the Department for Transport should publish a clear programme, timeframe and a set of standards for delivering mobile connectivity on main line routes and addressing the institutional and commercial barriers highlighted by the Commission. This programme should incorporate currently planned trials and should be published no later than December 2020.

Access to trackside land

Action 4: the Department for Transport should instruct Network Rail to clarify arrangements and facilitate access for third parties to deliver a trackside connectivity network on railway land, including access to trackside facilities and making use of planned railway possessions. These arrangements should be published no later than December 2020, in time for future competitive processes.

Commercial barriers

Action 5: government should set out plans for running competitive processes for delivering mobile connectivity improvements on specific main line routes (or sections of routes). These competitive processes should draw lessons from the active trials being undertaken on routes across the country. Competitive processes on at least four main line routes should begin no later than June 2021.

Filling evidence gaps

Action 6: Ofcom should report at least every two years on the extent and quality of mobile coverage on the railways to ensure that progress is accurately tracked. This data should clearly disaggregate different types of coverage, including 5G.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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4 Responses
  1. Andrew Campling says:

    On access to trackside land (action 4), this is quite doable if the railway operators worked with the networks and both parties applied some imagination. Currently, the need to operate trackside adds cost and delay due to the obvious safety considerations.

    It should be possible to locate most of the mobile kit in such a way that later access to it is possible without the need to go into areas where a trackside licence is required, greatly simplifying future servicing and upgrades.

    1. boggits says:

      There is a solution – create a split cabinet that is accessible from two sides., one trackside, the other not to get to the fibre running alongside the track itself. The wifi kit actually needs to stand off from the track a distance so it can be put “in a field” alongside the track outside of the pway boundary.

  2. Whyohwhydelilah says:

    I lose all connectivity 5 or 6 times on my 45 min train ride every day. It’s pathetic. And Thameslink / EMR onboard WiFi is useless, often delivering < 1mbit and generally not working at all so I end up tethering. But even when I tether, I've tried every network, yep all of them, and none of them can maintain a connection for the entire journey (i'm excluding when the train is inside a tunnel, obviously).

    Then I go to Sweden, and there's mobile service on the tunnelabana (underground) and I often get 120mbit or more on the trains, and I never lose the connection.

    Everyone always blames someone else for the failings. How about instead of pointing the finger, the government and the train companies and the telcos figure out how to fix it instead of squabbling amongst themselves.

    Mobile on the train … 2050

  3. gary says:

    It’s a disgrace that the government, telcos and the rail operators havent provided free fast wifi for rail commuters, after all it’s one of the biggest problems our society faces.

    Your article comments that ‘Mobile services are of course essential to everyday life’ I’d argue that high speed internet on a train is far from essential for the vast majority of passengers, convienient yes desirable also.

    If we were to log the site traffic from train wifi i wonder what that results table would look like.

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