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Posted on March 19th, 2013 by Dave Stevenson

Government-funded Wi-Fi on trains: who benefits?

Train blur

“Industry sources” have told The Guardian they expect the 2013 budget to include money to install wireless networks in trains, allowing commuters and travellers to get online with non-cellular devices. Currently, less than half of the UK’s 25 rail franchises offer internet onboard. It’s unclear whether the government plans to fund Wi-Fi on all trains, or whether it intends to make wireless internet access free across subsidised services.

As The Guardian points out, pricing for Wi-Fi access on British trains is currently in a state of disarray. It can be free – travellers on the Heathrow Express don’t have to pay a penny, for example, and passengers on the Chilterns mainline also benefit from free web access. Very often, though, internet access is either locked down to everyone, or provided free only to passengers who have coughed up for first-class tickets.

Virgin Trains makes passengers in the cheap seats pay an outrageous £4 per hour. Elsewhere, frequent commuters can pay Greater Anglia trains £209 per year for Wi-Fi access, while East Midlands Trains makes a statement by allowing first-class users online for free, but charging those in standard seats £299 per year. Of the nine rail franchises that offer internet access, four ask for money in return.

There are two questions the government will need to answer. The first is who will pay? Rail franchises in modern Britain are private businesses, after all, and it seems odd that they might receive public money to improve their services. For example, you don’t see the government splashing out on new in-flight services for British Airways. A government bung for internet access that is passed on as a for-profit perk rather than as a benefit for all will be hard to spin to the majority of passengers who travel in standard class.

The second question is whether the service will work at all. Wi-Fi on trains is delivered by a system of 802.11 repeaters spread through a train, but the internet comes in via a 3G signal, meaning internet access is only as good as the signal areas the train passes through. Editor Barry Collins has two words to say about Southern Railways’ abortive attempts to introduce Wi-Fi to its trains in 2005, one of which is “shambles” and the other I leave to the fertile imagination of PC Pro’s grown-up readers.

As anyone who’s had an internet connection drop halfway through an important download, VoIP call or particularly exciting episode of Doctor Who will tell you, a flaky internet connection is sometimes worse than none at all. Let’s hope that, if the government does splash out on on-board Wi-Fi, it won’t just be the train companies that benefit.

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16 Responses to “ Government-funded Wi-Fi on trains: who benefits? ”

  1. JDunn Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 9:41 am

    East Coast Trains is state owned and charges £9.95 for 24 hours or £4.95 per hour.

    This isn’t just about private operators ripping people off – they are all at it. More to the point, the Wi-Fi is slow.

  2. Sam Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 11:35 am

    Hull Trains, which runs between London KX and Hull, has free Wi-fi for all passengers. The speed is very hit and miss, though

  3. Graham Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    To echo JDunn, the Wifi on EastCoast is patchy at best, although you can have your first 15 minutes free (just about long enough to log into the Citrix yesterday, although not sadly long enough to do any actual work!)

    To be honest, if the government is going to give some money to EastCoast, improved rolling stock, ideally with working air conditioning and better food would be my first priorities.

  4. Mark Thompson Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 1:48 pm

    When you NEED a connection for business you need it to work. A £4/hour charge prevents the Dr Who watching plebs from soaking up all the bandwidth :-) With most smartphones holding off big downloads and updates until they’re connected to wifi unfettered access would be horribly slow on many routes.

  5. Surefire Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    For several millennia every single member of the human race managed to get from A to B without internet access.

    It really is not something that is necessary but it really is something that the country cannot afford while the government are dismantling things such as the NHS and the police service.

  6. James Says:
    March 19th, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    WiFi is free on trains in Northern Ireland. Locked down of course but it’s good for checking why the train has stopped and complaining about it on twitter.

  7. Ian Says:
    March 21st, 2013 at 8:08 am

    My wife and I use a MiFi from the 3 network. We pay 15.99 for 15gb per month. The signal occasionally drops out as expected but it is far faster than any train wifi I have tried.

  8. Fai Says:
    March 21st, 2013 at 5:36 pm

    Wifi is usually free on 1st class on trains (which works out quite nicely if you book early enough on East Midlands – it’s only a few quid more than standard for advanced non-peak journeys), and it’s useful enough to browse web sites and email. Video is usually blocked though.

  9. Jordan Says:
    March 22nd, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    if WiFi is going to be run by the goverment then we are bassically paying for it in TAX so it better be free first class and standard

  10. Jeremy Says:
    March 23rd, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Another Government subsidy for the fat cat owners of the privatised railway operators.

  11. William Mcloughlin Says:
    March 26th, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    That’s a novel way of collecting the travelling public’s Internet activity, by a Government !

  12. AA Says:
    March 29th, 2013 at 1:58 am

    My tax pounds should not be used to subsidise the profits of fat cat train operators; fat cat greedy money grabbing. grubby politicians / businessmen in first class but should be used to provide free wifi to all except first class passengers.

  13. MickyB Says:
    March 30th, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Grand Central Rail, Yorkshire to London King’s Cross & Route 72 Bus Bradford to Leeds, both have free WiFi

  14. Delila Says:
    April 17th, 2013 at 3:44 pm

    I’m no longer sure where you are getting your info, but great topic.
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  15. Says:
    April 17th, 2013 at 11:41 pm

    There’s a big trouble when it comes to the lenders. They typically suffer lots of issues with borrowers not paying out their stated dues. They would suffer these things plus they would not have any means to obtain them back. Needless to say the checks will bounce plus they will sue these people today but for what? A measly hundred dollars? For all that trouble and cost, you get to possess so small. and aside from, you’ll only be beating a dead horse if you’re finding revenue through the individuals who don’t have them inside the initially place.

  16. Tim Davies Says:
    May 3rd, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    How does the crap above ever get through? I’m on a train via 3G and would love a decent wifi, but I doubt I’ll ever pay another premium for it.


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