Train companies might be told to stop providing Wi-Fi on trains in an effort to cut costs while train revenues are still below pre-pandemic levels, and unsurprisingly, this has provoked many column inches of outrage, but there’s more to the issue than seems.

Yes, the Department for Transport (DfT) is reviewing the case for free Wi-Fi provision in trains and has cited a survey by the passenger watchdog, Transport Focus which suggests onboard Wi-Fi is a lower priority among travellers than value for money fares, reliability, punctuality and personal security.

Although Transport Focus has pushed back since then noting that “Access to wi-fi is something many passengers now expect as standard. It helps people use their travel time productively and is something which could encourage more people to use rail over other modes.”

If the DfT is looking at cutting costs, then cutting Wi-Fi should be considered in the list. But that assumes that the DfT is returning to the pre-privatisation way of thinking about railways, which is to look at them as a cost that needs to be managed.

For all the various problems that privatisation caused, one of the many benefits was looking at the railways as a service to be provided not a cost to be cut, and the private companies pushed hard to increase passenger numbers — and succeeded — because they knew a better service attracts passengers and that means more money in the till for the train companies. Rail use is now vastly higher than when it was state owned, but if the dead hand of the DfT is returning to the bad old days of worrying about how much a thing costs than how good a service can be, then that is a very bad backwards step.

As Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners said: “While there is a need to control costs, the consideration of this proposal is a symptom of the current disjointed management of industry finances where revenue and cost are looked at separately and operators are unable to innovate in response to customer needs.”

Is killing off a feature that is expected to be provided, especially on long journeys really what the DfT is thinking of doing? The threat to train Wi-FI was initially reported by railway writer, Christian Wolmar on his Calling All Stations podcast, and then picked up elsewhere as a bad thing.

However, ironically, the DfT is doing the right thing for once, just for the wrong reason and at the wrong time.

When you think about it, it’s ridiculous that in 2023, once you’ve got settled into your seat on a train, pretty much the first thing you have to do is decide which internet service provider you will use. Do you connect to the station’s Wi-Fi, the coffee shop on the platform by accident, the in-train Wi-Fi, or stick to your phone network?

We still have a tendency to think of Wi-Fi as better than mobile data, and in places it still is. However, increasingly mobile data is better than Wi-Fi, and this is particularly true on the railways. It varies wildly, but there are many times where I will turn off Wi-Fi on my phone to stop it trying to connect to the train service because the mobile network is faster and more reliable.

That will be down to a range of factors, but remember that the Wi-Fi connection inside the train carriage itself has a radio link to the nearby radio towers to provide the connection — and quite often those nearby radio towers are the mobile networks themselves. So by using Wi-Fi, you’re still connecting to the mobile network, only via a Wi-Fi connection instead of direct.

So why are we still deciding to use Wi-Fi at all?

In part, it’s a legacy behaviour. When mobile data first started taking off with 3G services (it had been possible on GSM, but ugh!), the 3G networks were noticeably slower than home internet speeds, and much slower than the newly popular Wi-Fi services that were also starting to arrive at the same time.

Coffee shops learned quickly that providing Wi-Fi lures in customers, and it wasn’t too long before the railways caught on as well.

There’s also an element of captive audience satisfaction. If you sit in a coffee shop and then discover the phone signal is poor, you’re stuck there until you’ve drunk your coffee. And it’s pretty difficult to swap train services in the middle of a journey — so the trains have a captive audience that will be rightly annoyed if their phones don’t work properly if they’re on a train for several hours.

There’s also a cost element, Wi-Fi tends to be cheaper (especially when its free) than using up mobile data allowances, but generally venues that lack a free Wi-Fi service is looked on as inferior to one that provides it.

So, even when the mobile data service is better than the Wi-Fi service, we have a tendency to sign up for the Wi-Fi service.

With ever improving mobile data speeds, is it time to kill off railway Wi-Fi for good?

Yes – but only when the mobile data is more reliable along train lines.

In fact, that’s happening.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the London to Brighton mainline is to get a dedicated mobile network upgrade aimed at improving services in trains. The mobile networks should be encouraged — if not forced — to focus on upgrading their service along the railway corridors. They regularly tell us their annual above inflation rate price rises are needed to fund upgrades, so let’s see some of that money spent along the railways.

When HS2 trains start running, they are going even further – there won’t be any Wi-Fi at all in the trains. Instead, they are being fitted with small mobile network boosters in each carriage that will ensure five bar signal strength along the entire route.

So, the train companies are already on a path that we should all be taking anyway, to stop needing to decide which internet provider we will use when sitting in a train.

That the DfT is looking at the issue today because it wants to shave a few millions off the cost of running the trains is the wrong reason to kill off the Wi-Fi service. Especially as in places the mobile networks aren’t good enough — you don’t want a repeat of Vodafone’s inane decision to kill off London Underground Wi-Fi several years before the mobile network replacement is ready (decision reversed two years later).

However, if the DfT were to be more innovative, and tell the mobile networks to fill in the gaps in their service along the railways, and fund the hardware upgrades needed to boost the signal inside the carriages  — will we need Wi-Fi at all?

Probably not.

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31 comments
  1. Fazal Majid says:

    WiFi only makes sense if it can be technically superior (faster, more reliable) than the 4G and 5G service most train users already have. Alternatively, working with mobile operators to offer connectivity in tunnels, as TfL is doing on the Jubilee Line, might be a better way to get there, as the carriers make the investments using the rights of way owned by Network Rail or TfL.

  2. Colin says:

    Wifi is free; phone data isn’t. I use PAYG so removing Wifi will make my journey cost more.

    Trains will almost certainly still have Wifi for private operational use, so cost savings will be limited anyway.

    • Jeremy says:

      It’s not free: someone is paying for it. But the rest of this is spot on. Passenger wifi is effectively a side benefit of connections that the train operator wants to have for its own purposes.

    • Paul Barrett says:

      £17 pm

      3 Sim

      Unlimited everything.

      Really you can’t afford £17pm!?

  3. John Watkins says:

    Phone data assumes you have a phone – what about laptop / tablet / Kindle(?) users?

    • ianVisits says:

      Tethering – I often connect my laptop via my smartphone when Wi-Fi is lacking.

    • anon says:

      Not just assuming a ‘phone, but a smartphone. Some of us still use “bricks” (by choice), and have no wish to pay for ANY mobile data whatsoever (I have good old-fashioned PAYG and pay less than £2 per month). Being able to check and type electronic mail on my LAPTOP quickly and conveniently (I am a fast touch-typer, relying on the haptic feedback of a keyboard, so a miniscule touchscreen is unacceptably and excruciatingly slow and inaccurate) during a train journey is a valuable benefit (and, for many people, could be the difference between choosing to travel by train versus by car — remember, if you are not going to/from inner London, driving is often more direct and cheaper).

      As for the HS2 white elephant not offering wi-fi, that just confirms the impression that it is for high-ranking business travellers travelling on company expenses with company smartphones and unlimited data, and not a practical and affordable service for the wider population.

      Why discontinue a perfectly functional and convenient service that is widely used, especially at a time when persuading people to use public transport is supposed to be of paramount importance?

    • ianVisits says:

      I’ll just note that around three quarters of people using intercity trains are leisure users, not businesspeople, and has been like that for over a decade. That outdated stereotype needs to die.

  4. Keith says:

    Using public WiFi also has security risks to the user. I rarely use it due to it usually having slower data speeds.

    As you wrote much better to fit the trains with hardware that boosts the phone signals within the trains, as well as pushing the mobile networks to improve coverage along railway lines.

  5. Jake says:

    I applaud this decision.

    I travel frequently for work, so am always doing laptop working on trains. I have never once found on-board WiFi to work. If it does ‘work’, then it’s slower than the dial-up I had in the 00’s and cuts out/drops every time we get too rural. Every time, I have given up and switched to tethering from my phone. And it always angers me that some company is getting probably a huge sum from our rail fare spending to provide this ‘service’. Just so the TOC can tick a box and say they offer WiFi, even if it’s not actually functional for people’s needs.

    Indeed WiFi is old technology. The roll out of 5G is rendering it increasingly redundant outside of fixed homes and workplaces.

    (If the 4G/5G dead zone between Waterloo and Queenstown Road on the SWML could be addressed ASAP I’d be much appreciative)

    • RogerTCB says:

      So you’re not a Chiltern Railway user then? They led the pack in providing free WiFi. I steamed when GWR etc offered me the chance to pay for their WiFi. Free customer WiFi is a facility that all enlightened businesses provide.

  6. Dan Coleman says:

    The survey the DfT are referring to is by nature, extremely skewed. Of course people are going to give WiFi a lower priority. That might be because we have some of the most expensive fares in Europe and who knows if your train is actually going to show up these days? Does that mean WiFi should be scrapped because it came bottom of a priority list? No it does not.

    I’d probably be in favour of this if the DfT made guarantees that the money spent on WiFi will be better reinvested in things that passengers did prioritise. Sadly, this seems like it’s just about cost cutting as you’ve suggested in the article. The DfT claim that this is a win for taxpayers, but in real terms, benefits very rarely materialise in any meaningful way.

    What we will get as passengers are the same expensive fares, for trains that are late, now featuring one less amenity.

    • RogerTCB says:

      I very much agree. If you pitch free WiFi against cheaper fares, of course it will be a lower priority; the survey produces skewed results because it was badly constructed, possibly deliberately.

    • Harry says:

      You’ve got to remember that surveys, no matter who creates them, are usually intentionally biassed to prove whatever it is that the body performing the “survey” wants to prove. There’s no legal requirement for prior independent bias audit, and when despite intentional bias a survey fails to deliver the wanted result, there’s no legal requirement to publish the result.

  7. RogerTCB says:

    I’m a PAYG user & will be extremely unhappy if “Free WiFi at the point of use” is canned. I’ve never found the speed of the WiFi limiting, except, of course, when the train I’m riding is in a tunnel. Out here (i.e. not in London) I count myself lucky if I get a data signal of any kind, let alone a 5G one so I always switch to WiFi when it’s available. I’ve always felt that the emphasis on 5G rollout was premature, given the lack of a 4G service outside of the ‘urbs.

  8. RogerTCB says:

    Who are you & what have you done with the real IanVisits? That was a terrible piece seemingly advancing the idea of removing existing facilities, not the IanVisits style at all.

    • ianVisits says:

      If the replacement is better, why retain the inferior service?

    • RogerTCB says:

      Inferior in what respect? Having WiFi to use instead of my precious data allowance is not inferior at all. 5G only exists in the ‘urbs, not out here and it’s so called speed advantage, when you can get it, is far faster than any needs I can think of.

  9. Stuart Wright says:

    ‘precious data allowance’?

    Assuming you’re not streaming TV or films/You Tube anyone can easily get by with 5GB of data a month which costs virtually nothing.

    4G is faster than most wifi, and indeed as mentioned in the article often comes from the same source anyway!

    • RogerTCB says:

      With the small quantities of data you’d be used to using if you pay for your own data on PAYG, there’s no discernable lag difference between WiFi or 4G (if you’ve got a data signal at all) or 5G (if you can find it).

  10. Duncan Martin says:

    Visitors who (thanks to B××××t no longer have roaming) will find relying on 4/5g very expensive.
    Personally I have a second hand 4g phone and have a contract with only a limited amount of data which I use when away from a WiFi connection.

  11. John B says:

    I use the train Wifi whenever I can. On PAYG I save money, and I assume their aerial is better than mine inside the train’s Faraday cage. And its a lot easier to use on a tablet than faffing around with phone hubs. The cost savings of getting rid of it will be minimal given the need for high-tech trains to have network access anyway, so I don’t think fares will reduce an iota.

  12. Paulo says:

    Surprised at all those claiming they are on PAYG and don’t want to spend their “precious” data, and instead use the slow and unreliable onboard Wi-Fi. I just checked and you can get a 5G enabled sim with 5GB of data on a monthly contract for less than £4 a month. If you’re in regular need of data on trains and think this is too expensive for a faster more reliable connection, then I’d seriously question your spending priorities.

    • Paul Barrett says:

      Far cheaper with a 3 SIM

      Unlimited everything

      £17pm

      Get it via cashback sites

  13. NG says:

    It’s deliberate – by the tories & the Treasury – both of whom hate railways.
    See the past three months’ articles in “Modern Railways” for multiple small, patty & cumulative examples

  14. Captain Haddock says:

    This is irrelevant as Wifi on trains is generally rubbish.

    The on train wifi connects to the same towers as your mobile, and think about it, they are servicing a whole train through one (sometimes two) SIM card(s) – is it any wonder the speeds as woeful?

    I’ve travelled across the Atlantic with better wifi than Hayes to Bristol. So let’s kills it. A bit like those GWR Volo screens – just a bit sh1t – too late and not good enough – https://www.railforums.co.uk/threads/end-of-volo-tv-on-fgw-hsts.105535/

    If you’re on PAYG and worried about data usage, I suggest you pick up a new contract which cost very little for 5-10gb / month.

  15. Jimmy says:

    Killing something off not because it isn’t useful but because it hasn’t been implemented very well is beyond rubbish. Although it does sounds like it the modus operandi of DfT’s current political bosses.

    Ensuring decent mobile coverage would be a better investment though, although this sounds like a savings exercise! It is tricky to achieve though, but more infrastructure dedicated to the railway line/train would help with the capacity crunch of a trainload of people coming along.

    The DfT also commissioned a good piece of work on sorting out coverage in tunnels. It said that long tunnels in this country are relatively few, so sorting the problems should be relatively cheap!! The Penge tunnel on the Southeastern mainline and routes out of King’s Cross seem obvious based only on my own experience. Solution is to point some directional antennas in at each end of the tunnel!

  16. SteveP says:

    I have no luck using GWR’s wifi. It’s there, and I can connect but nothing happens after that. However, if I instead connect to the Heathrow Express train on the next platform it works fine (until we leave, of course)

    “Free” wifi is probably of greater importance to tourists who may have limited or expensive mobile roaming service

  17. Gerry says:

    Free WiFi is expected almost everywhere nowadays. Even the discount supermarkets provide it because it’s appreciated and attracts customers; Aldi and Lidl aren’t known for wasting money.

    It’s a big U-Turn from the DfT. This is what they were saying less than six years ago:-

    Across the UK, this Government is investing at record levels to improve the experience for rail passengers. State-of-the-art infrastructure, new and longer trains, smart ticketing, improved information and updated Wi-Fi are all contributing towards a modern, 21st century railway that drives our nation’s economic prosperity.

    [On the SouthEastern network] passengers will benefit from a step-change in customer service, with improved smart ticketing and on-board Wi-Fi.

    “Shaping the Future” November 2017

  18. Reaper says:

    We are rapidly heading back into the dark days on British Railways. As a regular East Coast mainline user this year less than 10% of my journeys have run without a major problem. The abandonment of WiFi along with the abolition of trolley service and cash in “Peasant Class” since renationalisation shows that the DfT doesnt give a monkey’s for the users. Compare the LNER service with Lumo and it shows up really badly. If they want to get rid of WiFI what next? Farewell to delay repay, reintroduce smoking carriages, slam door carriages? The list is endless and I am sure they will be able to construct a survey that shows passengers want them brought back.

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