It could be argued that Britain’s rail industry is a victim of its own success. Although the last few quarters have shown a slight decline, over the previous 10 years passenger journeys increased by about 42 per cent and passenger kilometres by about 35 per cent. Evidence of increased demand can be seen most readily in more crowded passenger services, but also in investment in longer trains and platforms, and in the need for better signaling to enable trains to safely operate more closely to each other.
As consumers are moving to a mobile-first world, where smartphones and tablets supplant PCs for personal and small business internet use, they increasingly expect to be connected wherever they are. And if they’re spending more time on trains, they don’t see why that environment should be any different.
Unfortunately, though, it is.
Anyone who spends time on trains is familiar with pockets of no mobile connectivity, not just in tunnels but also in sparsely populated areas, cuttings – and even as trains approach Clapham Junction, Britain’s busiest station. London Underground’s deep stations are also notoriously devoid of mobile connectivity, a problem which subway systems in some other countries seem to have cracked.
In a post-Brexit environment, where the UK will be investing more resource into attracting inward investment and retaining what is already here, wherever digital infrastructure is suboptimal by comparison to countries competing for that same investment, it will have to be addressed.
Both the National Infrastructure Commission and the European Commission have recently highlighted the need for improved connectivity along major rail and road corridors. The Transport Select Committee has also investigated this.
While an increasing number of rail services already offer Wi-Fi, and this is a requirement for new franchises, the passenger experience is variable (with some rolling stock being delivered even now without Wi-Fi).
How best to improve connectivity has been looked at several times over the years, including at least 10 attempts to offer mobile connectivity in deep Tube stations, but nothing much resulted from this.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of progress, given that telcos have very different operating environments (not least, the pace of change) from companies operating in the rail sector; also Network Rail has legitimate concerns about any safety implications of additional third parties accessing trackside equipment; and ongoing misalignment of incentives between the two sectors. The fragmented nature of the rail sector, where train operating companies have fairly short franchises and own neither the rolling stock nor the track, is also an obstacle to investment.
As with modern office buildings, the materials which train carriages are made from, combined with the shorter wavelength spectrum which is most often used to provide internet connectivity, makes it harder for mobile operators to reach rail passengers using their existing base stations, which aren’t located trackside. Plus the current on-board Wi-Fi relies on mobile networks to connect to the internet. Tunnels, cuttings, foliage and (to date) the difficulty of fitting suitable antennas to rolling stock, have so far ruled out satellite playing a part, although this has worked in other countries.
Clearly it is time for action.
As the cost to UK plc of doing nothing could only increase, techUK stepped in to facilitate discussions between the two sectors. We established a working group comprising rail sector - Network Rail, Rail Delivery Group (RDG), Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB), and Train Operating Companies - plus telcos and independent telecoms infrastructure operators.
The desirability of developing a “roadmap” of steps to improve digital connectivity for rail customers was identified fairly early on. The RDG and the RSSB provided some funding to engage a consultant (LS telcom) to work with the working group to develop the roadmap. techUK and RSSB hosted a series of workshops to share intel and highlight issues needing addressing.
This initial report, to be launched at techUK on 6 February, necessarily focused on short to medium term actions (which could be actioned in the next 3-5 years), and on improving passenger connectivity rather than connectivity and signalling for the rail industry itself.
The report clearly showed that this isn’t a technology issue, technical solutions are largely available now.
Trials have shown that satisfactory connectivity can be provided to passengers, including in cuttings and tunnels, if the telecoms equipment can be located trackside, where Network Rail currently has some 2,500 base stations providing the GSM-R secure communications service used by rail personnel.
The report has a clear preference for the adoption of a “neutral host” model, where the infrastructure is perhaps operated by a company independent from both Network Rail and the mobile operators, and which is incentivised (subject to any health and safety concerns) to maximise the number of commercial operators sharing the trackside infrastructure. There is a range of companies (e.g. Arqiva) which have extensive experience operating neutral host models, which would ensure healthy competition for the resulting contract(s).
This won’t be fixed overnight.
Significant funding would be needed to upgrade existing infrastructure, not just masts (possibly in addition to those currently supporting GSM-R), but also fibre to those masts, and access to power. The neutral host approach is seen to be an approach whose time has come in facilitating the sharing of costs and benefits between the players while retaining competition for consumers.
But there is now a momentum, with the Government launching a consultation only a few weeks ago and in the Budget announcing a Trans-Pennine connectivity trial, building on a number of trials around the country, including project SWIFT with Cisco and ScotRail. Crucially, both the rail and telecoms sectors are supportive.
techUK is delighted to have helped bring this about, and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to take this forward, including looking at what could be achieved over a longer timeframe than the current report considers.
If we get this right, over the coming years investment in digital connectivity will not only provide the connectivity passengers increasingly expect, but also reduce the cost of operating train services (not least through predictive maintenance), and improve the speed of recovery and keep passengers informed when things go wrong.