The UK Government announced today that it has decided to ditch part of its £35 million trial of 5G-based mobile and fixed line fibre technology on the Trans Pennine rail route. The train tracks running between Manchester and York had been designated as an important trial area for new trackside wireless systems, supported by the Department for Culture Media and Science (DCMS).

The Trans Pennine Initiative (TPI) came into being to support ambitious proposals from the Government aimed at bringing ‘uninterrupted’ Wi-Fi and Mobile (5G) broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps to all UK mainline train routes by 2025. The initiative is a joint effort between the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) and 5G Testbeds and Trials programmes, with Network Rail as the delivery partner.

Following last August’s Call for Information, the Government had hoped to select some the winning bidders by the end of last year and to begin the work from March of this year. Unfortunately, an update posted on 30 January included a ‘Notification of Discontinuation of Radio Infrastructure Delivery’, which noted that the plan to construct passive infrastructure including masts along the Trans Pennine route, to enable radio trials of high quality passenger connectivity on trains is to be discontinued.

On the plus side, the two remaining parts of the project remain firmly in place.

These are:

  • Network Rail’s fibre cable deployment along the Manchester to York route has started, and is reportedly ‘on track’ to complete in May of this year. Over 50% of the fibre is already laid (65km of 116km). Splicing has also started, and planning requests for connections to internet exchanges in Leeds and Manchester are nearly complete. According to the DCMS this will provide a trial commercial model for fibre deployment on the railways
  • An upgrade to the existing Network Rail test track (the Rail Innovation and Development Centre, RIDC) at Melton Mowbray, to enable it to trial new technologies, including 5G

DCMS Statement on Trans Pennine Initiative

“The Call for Input (20 August 2018) sought feedback on, and interest in, testing passive infrastructure, including masts, along the Trans Pennine route, to enable radio trials of high quality passenger connectivity on trains.

“Although there was interest in the concept of the trial, the market was not prepared to participate on the basis of the available funding (covering equipment provision only) and that following the trial a supplier could be required to remove their equipment.

“In parallel, it has become clear, following the completion of a detailed site survey and planning work by Network Rail along the route, that the construction costs and complexity of the radio infrastructure required along the Trans Pennine route are significantly greater than expected.

“The timetable for delivery of the radio trial would also be significantly impacted by these factors. Having assessed alternative options, DCMS has concluded that there are no credible means to deliver the planned passenger trials to a suitable standard within the available budget and within a reasonable timeframe to inform wider policy development.

“As a result of these factors and the results of the CFI, DCMS has taken the decision not to pursue the planned build of radio infrastructure along the Trans Pennine route.

“Apparently, the costs for this specific aspect were more than double (around £25m) what had actually been allocated and the deployment would have taken up to four years to complete. Suffice to say there was a legitimate concern that this effort might not deliver value for money.”

According to figures from BWCS’ database, the current level of penetration of Wi-Fi in the UK rail market stands at 65.4% (end 2018), but this is expected to grow rapidly over the coming two years.

BWCS is constantly monitoring developments in the WiFi on Trains sector within each national market. For more information about how to access our international database of interviews and market developments, please contact us via the Enquiry Form.

On-board WiFi, trackside networks, the growing market for passenger WiFi services and on-board entertainment will be the main subjects of BWCS’s Wi-Fi on Trains Conference 2019 on the 4-5 June.