£200,000 investment to improve mobile connectivity across UK rail

Posted: 24 July 2020 |

Telecom operators have been urged to come forward to develop suitable equipment to safely fix antennas onto overhead line equipment (OLE) in live rail environments.

£20,000 investment to improve mobile connectivity across UK rail

British Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, has announced that a £200,000 Government investment will support research into developing a prototype to improve mobile connectivity for rail passengers across the UK.

With over a third of the 11,000 miles of Great Britain’s railways electrified using overhead line equipment (OLE), research funded by the Department for Transport (DfT) has found that it is possible to attach communications antennas to them, improving connectivity for passengers whilst reducing the need to build additional track-side masts.

Published alongside the announcement, a Mott MacDonald report has found there is “significant potential” to utilise these existing structures to mount equipment, a technique that is increasingly being used in countries such as Austria to address railway mobile connectivity challenges.

Shapps said: “It is just not good enough that passenger’s mobile connectivity experience is still poor, blighting our efforts to work, shop and communicate on everyday journeys.

“By harnessing innovation and updating existing infrastructure, we can build the railway of tomorrow and find affordable solutions to improve travel for passengers. I urge telecom operators to match our ambition and we can commit to working closely together to design equipment and move forward in the next stage of this exciting trial.”

Charlene Wallace, Network Rail’s Director of Passenger and Customer Experience, commented: “We are keen to work with Government and train and telecom operators to deliver more consistent and reliable mobile coverage that improves passengers’ journeys in an efficient and affordable way.

“Today’s report highlights how the railway can share its electrical infrastructure assets to deliver a better service, and we are delighted that funding has been made available to test solutions at our Rail Innovation and Development Centres.

“This project, together with other steps we have taken – increased seating at stations, improved facilities such as free toilets and new water fountains, and greater accessibility – will help to improve passengers’ journeys on the rail network, particularly as we welcome more people back to the railway in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The announcement also coincides with research commissioned by the Department, published by Transport Focus, which shows that rail passenger’s mobile connectivity experience is still considered poor. The Transport User Panel Survey found the level of satisfaction with connectivity on trains is generally low while the expectation of being connected is high.

Anthony Smith, Chief Executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus, said: “From helping plan journeys to working on the go, passengers value being able to access the internet on the move so they can do something useful during travel time. However, WiFi speed and connectivity can be patchy.

“We know from our research that passengers now expect a reliable connection and access to free WiFi on trains, but only three in 10 are satisfied with the connection they experience so they will welcome news of this trial.”

The Department is now working with Network Rail’s Rail Innovation and Development Centres to identify a suitable OLE to conduct the trial by March 2021.