Digital connectivity fit for the 2020s

Raj Sivalingam, executive director for telecommunications and spectrum at techUK, makes the case for pan-industry collaboration in order to deploy the countless benefits of strong digital connectivity across the rail network.

The UK is a success story when it comes to the growth in rail usage over recent years. Yet we still lag behind our counterparts when it comes to the availability of consistent on-board mobile, wi-fi and broadband services for travellers. To improve this, there must be much greater levels of collaboration between the rail and digital industries – as well as government and regulators – if we are to have the strategic leadership needed to solve this issue.

According to the ORR, in 2015 there were 1.7 billion passenger rail journeys in the UK – the highest in Europe and an increase of 48.9% since 2006. However, the National Infrastructure Commission observed that mobile coverage on these rail routes was poor for various reasons.

In terms of the rail sector, the UK landscape is a fragmented one, with government being responsible for overarching policy, Network Rail responsible for infrastructure, and passenger and freight train operators providing services on fixed-term franchises. This fragmentation, coupled with short franchise periods for train operators, limited competition between franchisees, and no immediate or direct passenger revenue opportunities, means that incentivising the improvement of mobile and broadband connectivity can be difficult.

For mobile network operators, however, competition and increasing public pressure has given some incentives to invest in mobile network improvements. With year-on-year increases in data volumes, they are continually having to invest in improving their networks in areas of high demand. However, the ferocity of retail competition in mobile communications and a regulatory focus on consumer pricing means that they face increasing pressure on margins. With a significant proportion of the rail network being in scarcely populated areas, the investment incentives to improve coverage in these areas are limited.

However, the potential benefits of good-quality connectivity along rail corridors are far-reaching. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the examples below, these benefits are accrued across a wide range of stakeholders, not just those in the rail and telecommunications sectors:

  • The public will have an enhanced travel experience and more productive business journeys;
  • TOCs will increase customer satisfaction and operational efficiency through better customer information and opportunities to monetise resultant data;
  • Freight operators will increase their capacity to retain and attract new customers through facilities such as better tracking of goods and enhanced utilisation of carriage space;
  • Network Rail could improve operational efficiency through remote monitoring of assets and managed maintenance. It could also benefit from stations and depots becoming business hubs and could indeed attract adjacent service providers to these sites;
  • Online service providers could develop innovative new services focused on commuters and passengers;
  • We could also see a reduction in carbon emissions and congestion by limiting private and haulage journeys on roads.

Thus, the prize for achieving quality digital connectivity along rail corridors in the UK by 2020 is well worth the effort. To achieve this ambition, there are two important priorities.

First, we must reduce the cost of implementing and running the communications infrastructure along rail corridors. Network Rail infrastructure (e.g. land, fibre/ducts, masts) can play a crucial role in bringing this about. Given its public ownership, the government must play a greater leadership role than at present to find a suitable arrangement that will deliver this, alongside Network Rail’s other safety and operational duties.

Secondly, there needs to be better collaboration between the rail and telecoms industries. Ideally, we would also like to see further collaboration take place across the wider ecosystem to include online services providers, for example.

To foster this collaboration, techUK in conjunction with rail sector partners – such as Rail Delivery Group, RSSB and Network Rail – has formed the Future Connected Rail Working Group. A key goal for this working group is to develop a ‘route map’ to enable the digital connectivity needed on UK railways and create a world-class railway network which would be beneficial for us all.



Lutz   21/11/2017 at 14:43

Not sure about this: "According to the ORR, in 2015 there were 1.7 billion passenger rail journeys in the UK – the highest in Europe and an increase of 48.9% since 2006." Figures I see indicate that they are far higher in absolute terms in Germany.

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