Rail Industry Focus

14.03.14

Online on the platform

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/Mar 2014

Free wi-fi has been a perk confined mostly to first class passengers up until now. But in Scotland, thanks to some government funding, passengers on board trains and at stations are getting online without paying a penny. RTM heard from ScotRail’s head of IT, Alan Manclark, as well as Tim Passingham and James Hughes  from Level 3 Communications, the technology company implementing free wi-fi at stations.

ScotRail is installing free wi-fi at 25 stations, thanks to funding from the Scottish government via Transport Scotland.

This latest project is on top of the existing scheme to offer wi-fi on the operator’s 59 Class 170s, already rolled out, and on its 38 Class 380s, which goes live soon.

When RTM talked to ScotRail, the station implementation was nearly complete, having gone live at 20 out of 25 stations.

ScotRail’s head of IT Alan Manclark told RTM: “We know that customers increasingly expect to stay connected while travelling – with more than a quarter of a million wi-fi users on our express trains each month – so it’s exciting to have free wi-fi at our stations for the first time. We are confident customers will find it useful, whether they are keeping up with work emails, or simply checking in with friends.”

ScotRail led the delivery of stations wi-fi, but regularly consulted with and reported to Transport Scotland, which provided £250,000 for the project.

Manclark said: “Several factors were considered when selecting the first tranche of stations to receive wi-fi, including footfall, how long people stay on the premises, the number of services and the impact of major events, such as the Commonwealth Games and Ryder Cup.

“We also aimed to support stations that provide onward travel links. There are plans for further stations to receive wi-fi in future as part of the Scottish government’s aim to roll out wi-fi across Scotland’s railways.”

He said the roll-out on the Class 170s showed “the huge demand for wi-fi during rail journeys”, adding: “We have been careful to communicate to customers that on-train wi-fi needs to collate the best available signal from many mobile providers, and we have asked them not to access heavy bandwidth sites.

“With station wi-fi, we are glad to have much more available bandwidth due to using fixed connections – so customers will be able to stream videos from sites such as YouTube and BBC iPlayer.”

ScotRail went out to tender for the project in early 2013. It chose to go with Level 3 Communications, which already provides the corporate network for FirstGroup (and many other rail companies). 

James Hughes, director of the travel, transport and logistics sector for the IT company, told RTM: “Level 3 hadn’t actually developed the station wi-fi solution at that time. We’d been working on an on-board solution for some time. We thought stations looked like a very logical place to go next.

“We came up with a very interesting solution, took that to ScotRail and were very open that this was the first time we’d looked at stations. We were competing against some of the well-known current wi-fi providers at stations and airports, but because of the compelling benefits of combining the wi-fi with the corporate network, ScotRail liked that vision and where it could take their business, and they gave it to Level 3.”

Many of the stations had not had their infrastructure upgraded in many years, Hughes said, and there were listed building issues to contend with at others. “Getting fibre into those stations was difficult,” he said.

“Also, because it was a new product for Level 3, we had to work through the business processes that sit behind it to ensure that if a help ticket gets raised, for example, how we navigate that through our operations team to make sure we can hit the SLAs.

“Some of the stations, such as Gleneagles because of the Ryder Cup in September, were going through massive refurbishments anyway. Because Transport Scotland and ScotRail are completely redeveloping that site, those stations will be a bit further behind in
the wi-fi schedule.”

Hughes explained: “Level 3 provides the corporate IPVPN to FirstGroup, including ScotRail. They use that network for point of sale, customer information, business applications and so on. We’ve known for a while that the customer would like more bandwidth into their stations for operational purposes, but obviously that comes at a cost. The reality is, with only a couple of years
left on their rail franchise, and with the step-up in bandwidth being quite expensive, the logical way that we looked at it is that if
you could converge the bandwidth requirements of the public-facing wi-fi with the corporate requirement, the cost of that bigger pipe is spread.”

Passengers have to enter an email address, gender and age, then get free access to the whole web, with no restrictions on
downloading or streaming.

Via a partnership with Global Reach, there are now plans to earn revenue via targeted advertising of the wi-fi users.

Hughes said: “That work is ongoing, as the service has only been live less than a week. As we capture the data and demographics and segmentation, we can cross-match that with brands and create campaigns sitting behind that, driving revenue for ScotRail and Transport Scotland.”

Tim Passingham, Level 3’s senior VP of enterprise and government business in the EMEA region, said there are longer-term ambitions to make better use of passenger data to make journeys smarter, more integrated, and seamless between transport modes.

“We’re putting real thought and time into that – that’s not an easy problem to solve,” he told RTM.

We asked Passingham whether he thinks standard class passengers in England in Wales should expect to see more operators and stations with free wi-fi in the future.

He said: “I think so, absolutely. It’s not our place to talk about funding, but it should be quite possible, if we can get that blend of advertising revenue, infrastructure revenue in terms of a contribution from the TOC, and public funding if it’s needed –and in more rural places like Scotland that’s always going to be necessary as it has been for Broadband UK for example, while in large metropolitan areas and on busy lines it should be possible for it to be self-funded rather than need a huge amount of state investment.”

Transport Minister Keith Brown said: “In 2014, the eyes of the world will be on Scotland and we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase what we have to offer as a modern country. I am pleased that in advance of the major events taking place in 2014, visitors flying into Prestwick and Glasgow International airports, who then join the rail network, will be able to get access to wi-fi on every train. Combined with the station enhancements, this will help keep Scotland’s railways at the forefront of wi-fi installation.”

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