The cost of rail travel in the UK is increasing nearly as fast as the likelihood of delays. And shortly, you might not be able to access the internet while you wait to see how long until you get moving again.
The news that train companies could be required to cut Wi-Fi access unless there can be a strong business case made for it seems baffling on the surface of it. Wi-Fi access is supposedly “low” on the list of passenger priorities, according to the Department for Transport (DfT) – who presumably have never been on a train before.
Take any train and you’ll see businesspeople checking their emails and working on presentations, students cramming final research in online before writing their essay and the general public catching up on the news – and checking on whether they can make that tight connection thanks to the delay – using on-train Wi-Fi.
It is, admittedly, not always reliable, and can be frustratingly slow to load up my email inbox. That’s because it’s not actually Wi-Fi in the sense we ordinarily know of it, but a redistributed 3G or 4G mobile data signal picked up from base stations situated near tracks (which is why it’s often patchy in valleys and deep countryside) then shared out sparingly among hundreds of passengers.
But it’s there, free, and better than it used to be.
For several years in the late 2000s and early 2010s, I travelled back and forth across the country in the pre-free Wi-Fi era. You had to pay for more than a few minutes of usage, and I rarely bothered because the signal would be so patchy.
With the advent of free, if not always reliable, internet access, I’m able to work while I move – which makes the train a more attractive option for long journeys than taking the car, where my attention has to be on the road.
I’m not alone. “Because I travel up and down the country for work, having good Wi-Fi on the train is crucial to getting my work done,” said Pete White, a mental health consultant based in Telford, who regularly uses the train – and works while on it.
It’s seen as a basic requirement for a train journey now – as Bruce Williamson of Railfuture, an independent organisation campaigning for a better rail system, said in 2017 when the government announced a big push to improve on-board Wi-Fi. “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,” he said then. “It should become absolutely standard for all trains on the British railway network to have seamless connectivity.”
We don’t yet have that, as the most recent national survey of train passengers, conducted last week, shows. In all, 56 per cent of passengers were satisfied with the reliability of internet access on their journey. Around one in four were dissatisfied, while a fifth didn’t have an opinion either way. But with a total absence of Wi-Fi, that satisfaction would be even lower.
“As someone who travels by train regularly for work and pleasure, the idea that Wi-Fi is low down on passengers’ list of priorities is somewhat facetious,” said Graham Soult, a retail analyst based in the north-east of England. “Of course trains actually running, or getting a seat, is going to rank more highly, but that doesn’t mean that Wi-Fi isn’t an important factor in making train travel attractive.”
“If I’m travelling by train that has no Wi-Fi it’s almost impossible for me to work,” said White. “All my work files are stored in the cloud and phone signal is so unreliable that I worry about my files corrupting if I used my phone hotspot. Even if the Wi-Fi is slow, it’s at least a more stable connection to work and slow is better than nothing.”
Clare Evans, a time management coach, said: “Removing access to Wi-Fi on trains is a backwards, short-sighted step. Many people, myself included, use the time away from the office to get on with work. On a long journey it’s a productive use of time. Access to public Wi-Fi needs to be improved, not removed.”
“It’s a retrograde step,” added Christian Wolmar, a British railway historian, and host of the Calling All Stations podcast, where news first broke of the likely removal of Wi-Fi. “You’re going to lose customers rather than gain them back.”
Wolmar explains that the Wi-Fi you get through a train is much more likely to be reliable than your phone because of the fact the masts that receive the signals are positioned above the train. (Some train carriages also unwittingly act as a Faraday cage, a phenomenon in physics, which blocks mobile signals, according to a 2021 study by Arup commissioned by the DfT.) “It sends out a message that trains operating without Wi-Fi doesn’t matter, when of course it does matter. It sends out the idea that we’re going back to the 1990s.”
Wolmar added: “They say many commuters don’t use it, but for people who do use it, it might make all the difference to them taking a train or going some other way.” Soult explains that when he travels on LNER, large chunks of Yorkshire are mobile signal-free, meaning he turns to Wi-Fi.
“Wi-Fi really is like using the toilets, and having space for baggage and luggage,” said Wolmar. “We’re in the 21st century. People expect to be connected. It’s the wrong idea, thought up by accountants.”
The Government has said there will be a review into whether Wi-Fi services on UK trains deliver “the best possible value for money”.
A Department for Transport spokesperson said previously: “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and it is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reform of all aspects of the railways is essential.
“Passenger surveys consistently show that on-train Wi-Fi is low on their list of priorities, so it is only right we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money.”
The DfT said it is also considering the cost of upgrading some older on-board Wi-Fi equipment, and whether people making shorter journeys use their own mobile phone data to connect to the internet.