Is it time to kill off Wi-Fi on the railways?

Prepare firms may be instructed to cease offering Wi-Fi on trains in an effort to chop prices whereas prepare revenues are nonetheless beneath pre-pandemic ranges. Unsurprisingly, this has provoked many column inches of concern, however there’s extra to the difficulty than appears.

Sure, the Division for Transport (DfT) is reviewing the case without spending a dime Wi-Fi provision in trains and has cited a survey by the passenger watchdog, Transport Focus which suggests onboard Wi-Fi is a decrease precedence amongst travellers than worth for cash fares, reliability, punctuality and private safety.

Though Transport Focus has pushed again since then noting that “Entry to wi-fi is one thing many passengers now count on as commonplace. It helps individuals use their journey time productively and is one thing which might encourage extra individuals to make use of rail over different modes.”

If the DfT is reducing prices, then reducing Wi-Fi ought to be thought-about within the record. However that assumes that the DfT is returning to the pre-privatisation mind-set about railways, which is to have a look at them as a price that must be managed.

For all the varied issues that privatisation induced, one of many many advantages was trying on the railways as a service to be offered not a price to be reduce, and the non-public firms pushed onerous to extend passenger numbers — and succeeded — as a result of they knew a greater service attracts passengers and which means more cash within the until for the prepare firms. Rail use is now vastly larger than when it was state owned, but when the lifeless hand of the DfT is returning to the unhealthy previous days of worrying about how a lot a factor prices than how good a service might be, then that may be a very unhealthy backwards step.

As Andy Bagnall, chief government of Rail Companions stated: “Whereas there’s a want to manage prices, the consideration of this proposal is a symptom of the present disjointed administration of business funds the place income and price are checked out individually and operators are unable to innovate in response to buyer wants.”

Is killing off a function that’s anticipated to be offered, particularly on lengthy journeys actually what the DfT is considering of doing? The menace to coach Wi-FI was initially reported by railway author, Christian Wolmar on his Calling All Stations podcast, after which picked up elsewhere as a foul factor.

Nonetheless, mockingly, the DfT is doing the appropriate factor for one, only for the unsuitable purpose and on the unsuitable time.

When you consider it, it’s ridiculous that in 2023, when you’ve received settled into your seat on a prepare, just about the very first thing you must do is determine which web service supplier you’ll use. Do you hook up with the station’s Wi-Fi, the espresso store on the platform accidentally, the in-train Wi-Fi, or stick with your telephone community?

We nonetheless generally tend to consider Wi-Fi as higher than cell knowledge, and in locations it nonetheless is. Nonetheless, more and more cell knowledge is best than Wi-Fi, and that is notably true on the railways. It varies wildly, however there are a lot of occasions the place I’ll flip off Wi-Fi on my telephone to cease it attempting to connect with the prepare service as a result of the cell community is quicker and extra dependable.

That will likely be all the way down to a variety of things, however keep in mind that the Wi-Fi connection contained in the prepare carriage itself has a radio hyperlink to the close by radio towers to offer the connection — and very often these close by radio towers are the cell networks themselves. So by utilizing Wi-Fi, you’re nonetheless connecting to the cell community, solely by way of a Wi-Fi connection as an alternative of direct.

So why are we nonetheless deciding to make use of Wi-Fi in any respect?

Partially, it’s a legacy behaviour. When cell knowledge first began taking off with 3G providers (it had been potential on GSM, however ugh!),the 3G networks had been noticeably slower than dwelling web speeds, and far slower than the newly fashionable Wi-Fi providers that had been additionally beginning to arrive on the similar time.

Espresso retailers discovered rapidly that offering Wi-Fi lures in prospects, and it wasn’t too lengthy earlier than the railways caught on as effectively.

There’s additionally a component of captive viewers satisfaction. If you happen to sit in a espresso store after which uncover the telephone sign is poor, you’re caught there till you’ve drunk your espresso. And it’s fairly troublesome to swap prepare providers in the midst of a journey — so the trains are a captive viewers that will likely be rightly aggravated if their telephones don’t work correctly in the event that they’re on a prepare for a number of hours.

There’s additionally a price ingredient, Wi-Fi tends to be cheaper (particularly when its free) than utilizing up cell knowledge allowances, however typically venues that lack a free Wi-Fi service is appeared on as inferior to 1 that gives it.

So, even when the cell knowledge service is best than the Wi-Fi service, we generally tend to enroll in the Wi-Fi service.

With ever bettering cell knowledge speeds, is it time to kill off railway Wi-Fi for good?

Sure – however solely when the cell knowledge is extra dependable alongside prepare traces.

Actually, that’s taking place.

Earlier this yr, it was introduced that the London to Brighton mainline is to get a devoted cell community improve aimed toward bettering providers in trains. The cell networks ought to be inspired — if not pressured — to concentrate on upgrading their service alongside the railway corridors. They recurrently inform us their annual above inflation charge worth rises are wanted to fund upgrades, so let’s see a few of that cash spent alongside the railways.

When HS2 trains begin working, they’re going even additional – there received’t be any Wi-Fi in any respect within the trains. As a substitute, they’re being fitted with small cell community boosters in every carriage that may guarantee 5 bar sign power alongside your complete route.

So, the prepare firms are already on a path that we must always all be taking anyway, to cease needing to determine which web supplier we are going to use when sitting in a prepare.

That the DfT is trying on the problem in the present day as a result of it needs to shave a number of tens of millions off the price of working the trains is the unsuitable purpose to kill off the Wi-Fi service. Particularly as in locations the cell networks aren’t ok — you don’t need a repeat of Vodafone’s inane choice to kill off London Underground Wi-Fi a number of years earlier than the cell community alternative is prepared (choice reversed two years later).

Nonetheless, if the DfT had been to be extra revolutionary, and inform the cell networks to fill within the gaps of their service alongside the railways, and fund the {hardware}upgrades wanted to spice up the sign contained in the carriages  — will we’d like Wi-Fi in any respect?

In all probability not.

This text was printed on ianVisits


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