UK Government Promises ‘Vast Improvement for Wi-Fi’ in Digital Rail Strategy

Amid much fanfare and hullaballoo, Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, and Network Rail CEO, Mark Carne, stood together at York Station to formally launch Network Rail’s Digital Railway Strategy.

Reading from the same hymn sheet, the pair promised that all new trains and signalling in the UK will be digital or ‘digital-ready’ from 2019.

Amongst a slew of ambitious targets, the strategy promises to “Enable vastly improved mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity, so that passengers can make the most of their travel time and communities close to the railway can connect more easily.”

However, it was not made clear how much money might be available for investment to help achieve this lofty goal, nor who might be willing to help foot the bill.

It’s not as if there isn’t much money being poured into, or at least promised to, Britain’s railways. In total, some £48bn will be ploughed into NR’s ambitious plans to maintain, modernise and renew the rail network between 2019 and 2024.

According to Grayling, the introduction of digital rail technology will help ensure that ‘the best use’ is made of this investment, which includes new and replacement signalling. The government says it has also earmarked £450m specifically for digital railway schemes.

In one of the few bits of detail surrounding the pledge to ‘vastly improve’ mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity, £5m has apparently been set aside by Network Rail to “develop proposals for embedding digital technology between Manchester and York, as part of the £3bn upgrade of that route starting next year.”

So far, no white smoke has emerged following the Department for Media Culture and Sport’s December 2017 “Call for Evidence” on how best to improve Wi-Fi and mobile signals. The paper called for ideas to eradicate the problems of not-spots and hot-spots along the UK’s mainline train network and asked for suggestions as to how best to make Wi-Fi and mobile (5G) broadband speeds of “1Gbps available on-board all UK mainline train routes by 2025.”

At the time, the DCMS talked about delivering a ‘dramatic improvement in on-board mobile and Wi-Fi connections’ and they claimed this could ‘allow everyone on-board to stream videos simultaneously’ (roughly qualified later as ‘several hundred passengers’).

The DCMS proposal stated that fibre-optic cables, mobile masts (as well as any necessary power supplies and any on-board kit) could be rolled out alongside tracks to provide Gigabit speeds to trains, although they didn’t specifically reference this as being a ‘per passenger’ expectation and thus it may reflect shared capacity between many users.

Nevertheless, today’s launch in York was significant. The station is connected to the Transpennine route, which Chris Grayling will say he wants to be the country’s first digitally controlled intercity railway.

Speaking at the launch, he said: “Investing in a railway fit for the twenty-first century will help the UK become a world leader in rail technology, boosting exports and skills.”

He went on to say that ‘this is a chance to show young people how digital innovation is opening doors to careers that will shape the future of travel’.

The Department for Transport pointed out in a statement: “The roll-out of digital signalling on the UK network is already underway. The technology is assisting drivers as part of the Thameslink Programme upgrades and the rail industry will fit 200 trains with digital signalling technology by the end of 2018. Crossrail will use in-cab signalling to deliver more trains and seats east-west through London.”

Not all have welcomed the move though. The Association of British Commuters issued a statement claiming that the government’s “rhetoric about innovation and technology is something that better resembles a relic of the ‘Victorian age’, or perhaps, going back further, a superstitious practice like praying for rain. We are in the fourth industrial revolution, not the third, and this kind of technocratic PR-speak just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Following a similar line, the general secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) Mick Cash called the plans a ‘PR stunt’ and a ‘smokescreen’, saying: “To drag ourselves into the digital age will take more than a PR stunt. It will require real investment in staffing and technology ‎and an end to the bleeding away of the cash required to make it happen by the greedy private train operators.” Time will tell if their criticism is justified.

The problems of intermittent mobile coverage, proposed trackside solutions and improving Wi-Fi on Trains services in the UK and across the world, will be discussed at next month’s Wi-Fi on Trains Conference in London on 6-7 June.

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