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Government May Cut Free WiFi Wireless Internet from UK Trains

Monday, May 22nd, 2023 (4:57 pm) - Score 4,144
South-Western-Railway-Train

The UK Government’s Department for Transport (DfT) has hinted that the ability of railway commuters to access free onboard public WiFi while travelling could be cut to help pay for the train service itself, which is said to be unsustainable in its current form.

At this point it may be worth highlighting that, back in December 2017, the UK 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, the government has not issued much in the way of a solid progress update.

Admittedly, onboard WiFi can be a fiddly and often unreliable experience, although experiences do vary depending upon the rail franchises involved and the route being taken – some networks and areas are a lot better than others. Furthermore, it’s a similar story for 4G and 5G mobile signals, which are arguably much more popular today than the risks associated with using public WiFi.

Nevertheless, yours truly has – from time to time – had to rely upon flaky WiFi during train trips in order to get some work done, and I would miss the ability to connect as a last resort. Not to mention that the same connectivity is often used by staff to perform various work related tasks while in-transit.

A DfT Spokesperson said (BBC):

“Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and 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 wi-fi is low on their list of priorities [EXAMPLE], so it is only right we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money.”

Placing the service under review doesn’t necessarily mean that the government will scrap it altogether and some train operators may have a different strategy, but a lot of the older WiFi kit was installed several years ago and is now due for replacement. Suffice to say, a decision on replacement and upgrades may have to be taken soon, before that kit starts breaking down with greater regularity.

However, the government is reported to have said that many people on short journeys did not connect to the on-train WiFi, and used their mobile broadband (phone) network instead. This is an interesting comment because some small cells can be used to relay both 4G/5G data and WiFi signals through the carriages, although we’re not sure how many trains use this particular approach (a lot of the time 4G/5G signals may also come from trackside infrastructure/masts etc.).

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Mark-Jackson
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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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Comments
35 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Ben says:

    “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and it is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reform of all aspects of the railways is essential.”

    We spend billions a year on building and maintaining roads which generate near-zero revenue and is entirely unsustainable, but as soon as the infrastructure involves steel rails and becomes far more efficient, it suddenly needs to become financially sustainable in isolation?

    In an era where we are spending a fortune on carbon capture and other environmental projects, surely a quick win would be funding public transport and taking more cars and HGVs off the road?

    1. Avatar photo anonymous says:

      I don’t know. Perhaps you could ask that question in a forum where there’s the interest. There’s an excellent Rail Forum that considers this very topic on a regular basis, but here we’re largely interested in ISPs and telecommunications issues rather than grand sweeping debates about net zero and transport.

    2. Avatar photo john says:

      Vehicle tax and petrol tax bring in £35 billion a year which is a long way from near-zero The government spends £11bn on roads and subsidies trains for £18bn which is 64% more.

    3. Avatar photo Rich says:

      I mean that’s a self evidently silly argument.

      VED, Fuel Duty, and VAT on Fuel and Cars more than covers road spending, which at its highest in the last decade+ was £12.95bn in a year, while VED alone makes £8bn a year, and fuel duties £24bn.

      Trains on the other hand? There isn’t even VAT on the tickets.

      Roads are also used by far more people than trains.

      Funding public transport also doesn’t take HGVs off the road (more passenger trains means LESS capacity for freight), and funding trains specifically is a vastly disproportionate giveaway to high earners and those living in London. Funding Busses helps poor and rural people far more.

    4. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

      Like everything else Ben, the government does not spend billions on repairing roads. It allows councils to close their own road repair teams and gives the contracts out to companies owned by they’re mates, who do a crap job and get paid regardless. The reason our services are crap is because those in power don’t care as long as they can continue to launder tax payers money into their own bank accounts.

  2. Avatar photo AndyK says:

    Do people actually use the (usually absolutely terrible) on train WiFi? It’s only using the same signals that the mobile phones everyone carries use anyway… strikes me as something of a waste of money. If having internet on the move is that important to you, you’ve almost certainly already got a better connectivity solution!
    Classic government approach – the solution to not making enough money is obviously to cut cost, not look at why people aren’t using the service and do things to attract more income from people who could be using it but don’t…if the price of tickets wasn’t utterly insane, they might find a lot more demand for them! (I’m not talking about the stupid Advance fares, almost nobody can realistically commit to a single train for anything other than the most leisurely of leisure journey)

    1. Avatar photo Jonny says:

      Usually on-board Wi-Fi is backhauled via multiple carriers with different antennas on different parts of the train so in theory should always be pulling a better signal than you can get sat inside the aluminium shell. So in theory at least it has the potential to be better.

    2. Avatar photo anonymous says:

      “look at why people aren’t using the service and do things to attract more income from people who could be using it but don’t…if the price of tickets wasn’t utterly insane, ”

      Other than some off peak trains, my reasonably wide experience is that people are using the service and trains are routinely overcrowded often with standing passengers even on long distance weekend routes. In terms of pricey tickets, you want some magic sauce that both lowers ticket prices yet attracts more income?

      Howsabout allowing more passengers to travel on the roof or hang onto the outside, and let them travel for half price?

    3. Avatar photo J says:

      We all know its unrealistic to ever expect a train company to kit a train out with networking gear that would let it reach it’s full potential.

      Also atleast on the Southeastern railway line your limited to 100MB/day data usage, and a speedtest seems to be capped to 2.5Mbps. I’m pretty sure the train only uses an O2 sim because when my friend on O2 lost service, the train wifi didn’t work for him either while EE was working great, in it’s current form no one is going to use the service when a Lycamobile sim can beat it.

      What’s needed is just masts all the way along the main railway lines

    4. Avatar photo GreenLantern22 says:

      I am on O2 and travel on Southeastern daily and use it every day. But only because O2 sucks. As soon as I can ditch O2 I wouldn’t need to use it much. But I still think it’s worth having as a service.

    5. Avatar photo Graham says:

      I don’t use free WIFI on peak trains as it’s normally slow.
      Usually find that on peak trains where there is free WIFI on a train. Everybody using it it overloads the nearby mobile networks so you can’t get a decent connection on your mobile either.

      I think it’s a waste of taxpayers money and it’s not something I look for when I buy a train ticket.

      If it valuable to passengers for their journey maybe they can be given the option to pay to use it like many of the Airlines do.

  3. Avatar photo Jonny says:

    It’s very easy to dismiss the availability of Wi-Fi hotspots and point to easy access to huge data plans, but this forgets the value that free Wi-Fi gives to tourists who might be trying to minimise their use of roaming data. A joined-up approach to thinking about this would probably decide that the value added is greater than the cost of providing it.

    I can’t imagine that it costs a huge amount to provide the Wi-Fi service, and I’m even more sceptical that removing it would provide savings worth making.

  4. Avatar photo Ben says:

    On my commute I use mobile data, because the on-train WiFi is so poor (speed limited to 0.5Mbps). It would be helpful if there were faster speeds and better coverage (as both mobile data and the on-train WiFi stop working at various points on the route).

  5. Avatar photo Patrick says:

    This has already happened in the London underground which is far easier to deliver station wifi

    For far too long the public especially people driving in a car have been subsidizing the failure that is the communist rail experiment, only for it to balloon in cost out of control

    Lift all the subsidies, stop the war on cars, ULEZ, LTN, climate lockdowns, etc and let the free market decide what is the best transportation. Hint: it is not going to be the failing rail, that’s why the steal from some to fund the vanity financial black hole projects like HS2

    1. Avatar photo Greg From Succession says:

      Are you stuck in 1970? The rail is already privatised and it’s been a disaster. Capitalism doesn’t work without competition.

    2. Avatar photo Ben says:

      As we’re no longer thinking of running transport for the good of everyone in the UK, will we be franchising roads out to the highest bidder? 🙂

    3. Avatar photo Jun Zintao says:

      @Ben Yes, they’re called toll roads which are a big thing in communist China who also happen to a have a world class, loss making, high speed railway network.

    4. Avatar photo Mike says:

      Its not really private, the government licenses it out.

  6. Avatar photo Ad47uk says:

    I don’t get it, other countries have a great train service, which is fast, reliable, clean, on time and cheap to use. We on the other hand have a train service that is not fit to use and yet fares go up all the time. stick Wi-fi, just get decent train services.

    1. Avatar photo Stuart says:

      A recent feature in ‘Rail’ magazine (an industry publication) debunked the myth that services were better in Europe, Germany and Belgium especially. Apparently both have issues with failing and ageing infrastructure. In Germany hundreds of thousands of sleepers had to be replaced due to a serious in service failure, the latest ICE stock is very unreliable etc etc…

    2. Avatar photo gg says:

      @Stuart
      As somebody who travelled extensively on trains in europe (including commuting on them in Germany) it’s largely a myth as you say.
      Generally there are far fewer services than the UK – far easier to run them on time as they are also generally much less busy.

      @Ad47 – as for ‘cheap to use’ – always great if you can get somebody else to subsidise your travel….

    3. Avatar photo John says:

      “cheap” is really masking the costs, they are subsidized by the taxpayer

      Even the TFL is so poorly managed that it regularly needs money injected into it. It only has the illusion of being cheap but reality is that the true cost is being absorbed by everyone rather than just the ticket buyer. They even put up a recruitment ad saying no white people, you can’t make this up they fully imported American wokeness

    4. Avatar photo Ben says:

      @John do you have a link to the “recruitment ad saying no white people”?

    5. Avatar photo Rick says:

      https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/careers/stuart-ross-communications-internship

      “What you’ll need
      You must be of Black, Asian and minority ethnic background, defined as having some African, Afro-Caribbean, Asian or other non-white heritage”

      Sounds pretty racist to me. There is almost no media outlet covering because it does not fit the narrative. Imagine if it read “you must be of any non black heritage”

      https://www.rt.com/news/576720-london-racist-internship-transport-outrage/

    6. Avatar photo Ad47uk says:

      @gg. not cheap, but cheaper, the prices are way above what they should be for a third world service. As for countries in Europe, it is not possible to be worse than ours.
      We should follow Japan, they apologise if it is a couple of seconds late. but then our train service have been naff for years, even when it was British rail and our bus service, well, disgusting and the government wonder why people use their cars.
      If i drove i would be using cars., not that I have used a train for a few years and going by what other people have said I am glad I don’t.
      I don’t use our local bus service either, walk or cycle, or shop with friends.

  7. Avatar photo No biggie says:

    Never works anyway so I doubt people will be too bothered. Thameslink trains have 500MB of free data (Yes there are ways around it) and it rarely works.

  8. Avatar photo Sam P says:

    They’ve gotta fund the truth ministry somehow (BBC Verify)

    1. Avatar photo Wilson says:

      Literal state propaganda telling people what narrative to believe, using ad hominem terms such as “x denier”/ phobic / far right in order to discredit any form of opposing argument

      There was a time when the news media used to report on news, nowadays its trust is at an all time low.

      Platforms such as twitter and substack and independent media allow the people to view news outside the state narrative, but they are now being threatened by the online censorship bill. If anyone is in the loop with the Mizzy tiktoker, you can already see articles being written saying that MPs need the online bill to censor Mizzy… When what he’s been doing is already illegal under the law

  9. Avatar photo Buggerlugz says:

    “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and it is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reform of all aspects of the railways is essential.”

    Not the case. A complete lie from the government for this day of the week. What is not sustainable is them allowing railways and operators to continue on as private companies for the very purpose of leeching every penny of profit out of it that they can for shareholders instead of providing the very services that railways exist for at a cost people using them can afford.

    Still, that’s secondary to making sure them dividends pay out isn’t it.

  10. Avatar photo MilesT says:

    Would the money saved be invested to make a measurable improvement elsewhere (is it even enough money)? No? Then it is just salami slicing cost reduction

  11. Avatar photo 4chAnon says:

    Happy for it to go providing they manage a TfL style concession agreement to install a network around Network Rail to then provide access to telecoms operators.

  12. Avatar photo Anon says:

    This topic primarily revolves around the government’s strategy, or the lack thereof, which has left many areas, including transportation, uncertain. Incompetence seems to prevail at the highest level, causing concerns and challenges.

    Let’s consider a specific example like HS2. According to Reuters, in March, the projected cost of HS2 ranged between 72 billion and 98 billion pounds at 2019 prices. This substantial investment raises questions, given the seemingly straightforward nature of a train line.

    What I would like to emphasise is the need for substantial investment to propel the UK into the 21st century. There is a wealth of knowledge and expertise worldwide that the UK can tap into to revolutionise its train system, making it highly efficient, convenient, and interconnected. In countries like Japan, I was impressed by how remarkably comfortable, user-friendly, and fast the trains were. For instance, I travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto, covering a distance of approximately 310 miles, in less than 3 hours. Similarly, the journey from Hiroshima to Tokyo took around 5 hours. The availability of constant and reliable Wi-Fi connectivity enhanced the overall experience, making it a relaxing trip.

    Therefore, it is surprising to see decisions such as cost-cutting measures that compromise the provision of Wi-Fi on trains. Such moves raise concerns and prompt speculation about the government’s commitment to promoting a shift towards train travel. It is worth considering whether the government’s reliance on revenue generated from VAT on petrol and car owners and additional taxes influences their lack of interest in prioritising and investing in train infrastructure.

    1. Avatar photo John says:

      Japan just seriously hiked the Shinkansen prices. It is now better to rent a car than getting the pass for most cases

      Rail is 19th century not 21st and when it inevitably becomes completely unaffordable then it will just collapse. In the UK it is postponed because it is being heavily sustained by taxes

  13. Avatar photo Andy says:

    Problem is some trains move fast and have thick cages with some thermal blocking films, so signal can be pretty bad considering higher frequencies proliferation needed for higher speed / good services.

    Lets consider perfect setup scenario: EE+Voda+O2+Three+Starlink at the front and end of train with APs throughout train with multipath loadbalancing to the datacentre i.e. of SASE providers. + Leaky Feeders in all tunnels.

    If bought at scale and standardised setup it would cost inc maintenance probably around £2000/month for a single train, plus possibly 10,000 equipment and setup.

    Now if we have average train of 200passengers, with half of them paying £25 ticket for a couple hour journey and that train does 5 such journeys in a day, then we have £12,500 revenue per single day, which is more then what this perfect setup costs for the first month altogether. Given such setup would last probably 10years..

    This is quite cheap and very high standard for truly digital society. As everything is still going further digital and requires constant high speed connectivity. I can’t see an alternative really.

    Unless UK, is ok to not be at the forefront of digital society.

Comments are closed

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