Gone are the days when, to pass the time on a long train journey, people read newspapers, books, or just looked out of the window at the passing scenery and seasons.
No, the young and not so young of today must have some kind of electronic device that connects them to the internet so that emails, music, videos, games and even digital books can be viewed as if it was one’s own home.
Since Wi-Fi services began to be offered on trains some twelve years ago, the popularity of the service has mushroomed beyond the aspirations of the early pioneering companies. As in all walks of life, people have become addicted to their mobile devices and a goodly percentage of the population need to be constantly connected. Walk down any train these days and you will see a variety of laptops, tablets and smart phones showing a myriad of information and entertainment. The user age ranges from around six (mainly for games) right up to the 70s where a mix of genuine work and doubtful videos engross people for hours on end.
Is this a good thing? Whatever your opinion, it seems certain that this habit is here to stay. Train Wi-Fi provision service is becoming a victim of its own success, with a number of challenges now causing the supply companies to explore different innovative ways to cater for such high demands as a result of the relentless growth in tablet and, particularly, smartphone usage. The quality of service is already being stretched, so what can suppliers do to reverse this situation?
The first problem is coverage. To connect all the clever equipment on the train to the outside cellular world, linkage has to exist with the 3G, 4G and future 5G mobile networks. The providers of these plan their infrastructure to give the most beneficial financial return, and this is dense urban areas and the motorway/trunk road routes. In other locations, it is pot luck and, whilst national coverage intentions are happening, in many places this will be only by one network provider so, if your device is hooked to some other provider, then you will struggle to communicate.
For the railways, there is the added problem of deep cuttings and tunnels where coverage will be poor or non-existent because of how radio propagation works. One solution is to extend mobile network coverage with purpose-built base stations to fill these gaps, even including leaky feeder cables being installed in tunnels. The techniques to achieve this are well known but they cost money as well as the hassle of planning consents and civil engineering specification sign off.
So, who pays? That is the big question with no easy answer. It may have to be a combination of the Network Providers, the train operating companies and the Wi-Fi supply companies. Just how willing are these to stump up hard cash in order to provide the service required?
A further step forward would be for the government to insist that the mobile network providers allow free roaming of mobile users to access an alternative network if only one signal is available in an area. Users enjoy this facility when travelling abroad, so why not allow it on home territory? Doubtless there are commercial considerations, but the lobbying interests should be strong enough to overcome these.
The second challenge is capacity. Distributing the necessary bandwidth throughout the train can be difficult. New rolling stock should be easy as these are specified to come with the necessary cabling installed in the factory. Retro- fitting older trains is never straightforward and is more expensive. An internal radio solution to link between carriages may be the only answer, but this is never as good as train wiring and can be subject to interference.
However, it is usage demand that is so often the barrier. An intercity train may have upwards of 500 people on board and, if everyone wants internet access at the same time, then that is a challenge. Couple that with downloading large files or even videos and it is inevitable that many will struggle for access.
The Wi-Fi providers are well aware of the situation and are introducing new on-board equipment to give more capacity within the train. However, it is still going to need increased bandwidth from the train to the outside world and this is always likely to be the crunch point.
One solution is to drive down demand and there are various ways of doing this. The obvious one of charging for the service is not seen as customer friendly and increasingly train operators are likely to be forced to offer a free Wi-Fi service for all passengers. Another is for media content such as videos, games, music and frequently accessed web pages to be stored on the train for distribution over its internal Wi-Fi service.
An alternative is to offer different types of information and entertainment. Keeping the passengers’ attention focussed on other things will help stop them demanding high bandwidths for a personal internet connection. Seat-back video screens, which are commonplace on aeroplanes, have been briefly tried on trains but have logistical and maintenance problems. Although many people reserve a seat, a lot do not bother and the ethos of ‘turn up and go’ is still one of rail’s main selling points. End-of- coach screens to show films or, more usefully, ongoing travel information are beginning to appear on the latest trains for the Thameslink service and will likely feature on all new train builds. It is too soon to know whether these will prove popular.
The 5G concept of being able to connect with whatever the strongest signal is in any particular area from whatever source should help enormously, be this localised Wi-Fi – terrestrial or satellite. However, a nationwide 5G service is still some time off, not soon enough to help with the present demand increase and, anyway, it may never truly benefit the railways.
More likely are dedicated sections of private purpose-built broadband coverage along the tracks where the investment matches demand. Education is important and the travelling public needs to be taught that capacity is something dependent on the laws of physics and will never be available on a limitless basis. There is an argument that passenger behaviour should be conditioned to tailor bandwidth consumption to the route and time of journey. For instance, can files be easily downloaded beforehand in the office or at home, while motionless? If so it makes perfect sense to avoid using up valuable bandwidth on the train.
Promoting the concept of a savvier connected passenger will encourage a myriad of ways to keep entertainment and work pursuits satisfactorily connected throughout a long and busy train journey.
General train connectivity can include railway operational requirements, with the goal of obtaining savings through the more efficient running of trains to minimise congestion problems and achieve improved energy usage. Operators are beginning to implement systems that should achieve these objectives – remote download of train system data being one of them – but this obviously relies on the availability and reliability of a public mobile connection service.
The provision and updating of information screens in carriages will become a norm as will be the sending of condition monitoring reports on train performance. The present 2G railway GSM-R network cannot accommodate these requirements, thus making a further demand on the public mobile connection.
Crossing the safety divide to embrace train control system communication is a different ball game and using a public mobile service for such a facility would likely be a step too far. From a technical perspective, it is entirely possible but, from a capacity viewpoint, it is highly risky as any failure to reliably communicate every five seconds to every train in the area will result in trains being brought to a halt.
Maybe some sort of shared service, or the installation of private purpose-built broadband coverage along the tracks will be the solution, but that is something that is taxing the minds of those planning for the future. A prioritised service guarantee may have to be part of the solution if dedicated bandwidth is not to be provided. This could, of course, have a detrimental effect on other users.
The progress made with train connectivity over the last decade has been impressive and has transformed the journey experience for many. Access to Wi-Fi on journeys is now commonplace right across Europe and must be applauded.
However, the popularity of the service poses challenges for the future and exploring new ways to provide flexibility and choice for the passenger is important. Education has a part to play, but new technology using media platforms to provide both entertainment and information to passengers must be part of the solution.
Suppliers and operators cannot work in isolation: strong partnerships between government, network providers, train operators and suppliers must be formed to provide an industry-wide collaboration to realise the potential for the future. The ultimate goal is to provide a service that can be delivered consistently, reliably and with a guaranteed quality.
Written by Clive Kessell.