Rail travellers on track for 5G by 2025
The government has fired the starting gun on an ambitious plan that could see the UK’s train passengers benefit from a dramatic improvement in onboard mobile and Wi-Fi connections.
The rapid growth of mobile data requirements and the use of smartphones and tablets now means that consumers expect high quality, reliable connectivity everywhere.
As part of its 5G strategy the government has committed to improving coverage where people live, work and travel, including on trains.
Minimum standards for mobile connectivity on new franchises already being introduced, but the new proposals set out how, working with industry, connectivity for passengers on all mainline routes could be dramatically improved by 2025.
Each train could get speeds of around 1 Gigabit Per Second (Gbps). This would future-proof the connectivity and in practice could allow several hundred passengers to stream uninterrupted video content at the same time.
Minister for Digital Matt Hancock said: “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.
“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.”
Bruce Williamson from Railfuture said: “Wi-fi has moved from being an optional extra to something essential for the 21st century rail passenger, so we welcome any improvements to capacity and coverage.
“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.”
Rail passenger connectivity is largely delivered through mobile phone networks operating from remote (non-trackside) masts, meaning coverage is patchy and in many places, non-existent.
To deliver the improvements, upgraded trackside infrastructure could be required for reliable connectivity in areas of high passenger demand and in hard-to-reach areas such as tunnels.
Delivering this will involve laying fibre along the tracks, mounting wireless devices on masts (and other trackside infrastructure) to transmit the signal to the train and providing power supplies to these masts.
To help the government understand some of the technical and practical deployment challenges of trackside infrastructure, work has already begun on a trial on the Trans Pennine route between Manchester and York in partnership with Network Rail.
This will help show how to make use of existing trackside infrastructure and utilise Network Rail assets, as well as testing suitable track-to-train radio systems to deliver services to passengers under real-life conditions.
This pilot is part of the government’s £31 billion National Productivity Investment Fund, which has already earmarked £1bn specifically for improving Britain’s digital infrastructure.