The UK National Infrastructure Commission has produced a damming report on the lack of government progress in improving mobile and Wi-Fi coverage on the national rail network.

The commission claims that progress on fixing gaps in connectivity alongside train tracks has stalled since the government accepted the findings of the commission’s 2016 Connected Future report.

Its latest report, “Connected Future: Getting Back on Track,” points to lack of leadership from government, frequent ministerial changes and split departmental responsibilities as the main barriers to progress. In contrast to rail passengers, the report points out that road users have benefitted from ‘clear, continuous progress’ on connectivity, with UK motorways now offering near-universal coverage for voice and data calls.

The National Infrastructure Commission exists to offer the government impartial expert advice on infrastructure projects. Its chairman, Sir John Armitt, 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.” 

Sir John laid the blame squarely at the feet of the current administration. He said: “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.”

In its original 2016 “Connected Future” report, the National Infrastructure Commission recommended rail passengers should be able to access ‘high capacity wireless connectivity.’ It suggested that the necessary trackside infrastructure for an open and accessible telecommunications network should be in place by 2025 at the latest, to take advantage of emerging 5G technologies.

The report recognises that there has been limited, if piecemeal, progress made in the UK, with a range of trials across the network.

These include:

  • Trials of 5G technology on South Western Railway
  • Network Rail’s proposed connectivity procurement on the Brighton Main Line
  • London North Eastern Railway’s plans to improve coverage on the East Coast Main Line
  • Testing technologies at Network Rail’s Rail Innovation Development Centre
  • Transport for London’s work to deliver mobile connectivity on the London Underground network, starting with trials on the Jubilee line.

The commission’s research found no evidence of an overall plan exists for rail connectivity. Combined with the cancellation or deprioritisation of several other programmes, the research suggests rail will fall further behind road in terms of progress towards seamless mobile connectivity.

With few technical barriers to delivering rail connectivity, it found the lack of progress is largely down to difficulties accessing Network Rail land, commercial barriers created by the costs of installation and associated potential risks and a failure of leadership.

The momentum that developed in government in 2017 to improve mobile connectivity has been lost due to multiple ministerial changes and a lack of clear leadership for the project across the two departments responsible, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and the Department for Transport.

In response, the commission has identified four areas in which government must improve progress on rail-mobile connectivity. This includes:

Leadership and action: The commission recommends the appointment of a ministerial lead and the publication by the Department of Transport of a clear plan of action by December 2020.

Access to trackside land: Network Rail must put in place arrangements for third party access to trackside land to deliver the trackside connectivity network by December 2020.

Commercial barriers: The government should set out plans for a competitive process for delivering connectivity improvements on specific routes, building on lessons from the active trials currently taking place. These processes should begin no later than June 2021.

Filling evidence gaps: Ofcom should regularly report on the extent and quality of mobile coverage on the railways, to ensure progress is tracked and to build consumer awareness.

The roll-out of track-side networks, on-train Wi-Fi services, the growing market for passenger Wi-Fi and on-board entertainment will be the main subjects of BWCS’s Wi-Fi on Trains Conference later this year. The 2020 conference is sponsored by Icomera, Nomad Digital, Xentrans, Fluidmesh and RADWIN.

For wireless suppliers who may be interested, BWCS has launched a brand new conference on the growing market for private wireless networks and 5G services at ports.