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Government pledges to ‘futureproof’ Britain’s railways as it prepares for 5G

Rail passengers could see a dramatic improvement to onboard mobile and Wi-Fi connections, according to the government’s ambitious 5G Strategy.

The rapid growth of mobile data requirements means that passengers expect high quality, reliable connectivity across the network, and so as part of the 5G Strategy the government has committed to improving coverage where people live, work and travel - including on trains.

Minimum mobile connectivity standards are already being introduced on new franchises, but the new proposals set out how it could be drastically improved for passengers on all mainland routes by 2025, with ministers looking at how to “futureproof” rail connectivity to help pave the way for a 5G rollout.

Each train could see speeds of around 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), which would futureproof connectivity, as well as allow several hundred passengers to stream uninterrupted video content simultaneously.

Currently rail connectivity is largely delivered from remote masts, which means that coverage is patchy, and in some places there is no coverage at all.

In order to deliver the improvements, the government has said that upgraded trackside infrastructure may be required in areas of high passenger demand and hard to reach areas such as tunnels.

This will involve laying fibre along the tracks, mounting wireless devices on masts to transmit the signal to the train, and providing a power supply to these masts.

Work has already commenced on a trial on the TransPennine route between Manchester and York, in partnership with Network Rail, in order to learn how to best use the existing trackside infrastructure and to test suitable track-to-train radio systems to deliver services to passengers under real life conditions.

This trial is part of the government’s £31bn National Productivity Investment Fund, which has already earmarked £1bn for improving Britain’s digital infrastructure.

Transport secretary, Chris Grayling, said: “We are investing record levels delivering the biggest rail improvement plan since Victorian times to improve services for passengers - providing faster, better and more comfortable trains with extra seats.

“Improved mobile connectivity will help passengers keep up with work, connect with friends or even check the latest journey information online while on the move, as we continue to build and develop a railway fit for the twenty-first century.”

Matt Hancock, minister for digital, added: “We want people to be able to get connected where they live, work and travel.

“This means improving connections on Britain’s railways now, and making sure they are fit for the future.

“We’ve got a long way to travel but our destination is world-class signal for passengers,” he continued.

“This will not only make journeys more enjoyable and productive, but will help improve the operation and safety of the railway and deliver economic benefits for the whole of the UK.”

Railfuture’s Bruce Williamson welcomed the plans for improved coverage, explaining that Wi-Fi is no longer an “optional extra,” but is now essential for passengers.

He continued: “It should become absolutely standard for all trains on the British railway network to have seamless connectivity, as it’s essential for attracting the smartphone connected generation to rail, as well as the business traveller working on the move.

“Very soon, trains without Wi-Fi will become unthinkable, and rail passengers will look forward to the day when the phone doesn’t cut out in tunnels.”

A call for evidence has been launched on the different ways that the improvements could be delivered to meet customers’ expectations.

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Noam Bleicher   03/01/2018 at 08:46

Introducing minimum standards for franchisees is a puzzling step, given that TOCs have absolutely zero control over mobile infrastructure. Coverage, even for 1G voice telephony in this country is utterly woeful away from towns and motorways, which is why it's difficult to hold a phone conversation on a train without frequent dropouts. Until the the telecomms industry is given a kick up the jacksie by the Government and forced to improve coverage along railway lines, the TOCs will continue to be blamed for a problem not of their own making.

GW   03/01/2018 at 18:07

Promise the impossible and fail to deliver the basics!

Manek Dubash   04/01/2018 at 09:42

This government has proved that it can get away with making promises that it singularly fails to do anything about. A government that's the "voice of ordinary working people"?

Peter B   04/01/2018 at 12:48

How can the government claim to 'futureproof the railway when it just cancelled miles of electrification which other countries delivered in the 1970s years ago

Jerry Alderson   04/01/2018 at 12:57

"Coverage, even for 1G voice telephony in this country is utterly woeful " No surprise there since 1G telephony was switched off more than a decade ago. Voice telephony is 2G (GSM - a digital technology though circuit switched not packet switched, unlike voice over IP). 1G was analogue.

Paul B   08/01/2018 at 14:36

Any train, with or without wifi is a bonus nowadays. The first train this morning at 0528 cancelled due to congestion ... and we're worrying about 1G, 2G? Let's have some sensible service instead.

Clive J   13/02/2018 at 22:33

I agree with the other respondents - on-board superfast mobile connectivity is the wrong focus, and makes this "announcement" look like style over substance. It would be much better to focus on the stations and the environs, especially mainline, where getting an app to work is a lottery due to 1000s of smartphones accessing the cellular network. We will need smart-city identity based ticketing etc. and it will be in the stations where we will need Beacons and superfast high capacity wireless networks for real time platform information, walking guidance, smartphone embedded ticketing (no need to dab or fumble for your ticket at the barriers) etc.

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