Wifi is not an add-on

One of the stupidest things that TOCs are doing is charging for internet use. That’s rather like asking for money for the lighting or the toilet. They should, instead, be looking at the competition. The car manufacturers are turning their product into mobile communication zones that have instant access to the internet and easy hands free mobile phone use.

Quite apart from the fact that this poses a danger to other road users – my only accident in 40 years driving was caused by me adjusting my radio and hitting the Jaguar in front – it is a real incentive to stay in the car rather than use public transport, as pointed out by Simon Johnston in the latest edition of Tramways and Urban Transit. Therefore while fitting wifi is an expense, so is providing toilets, seats, lights, doors – whatever. Train operators have to learn that wifi has to be included in the price of a ticket.

Hotels have begun to realise this. Oddly, having stayed in countless hotels across Italy, France, Belgium, the US and Russia last year, I found that it was the cheaper two and three star ones that tended to offer free wifi, whereas irritatingly the four star ones would charge, except, oddly, in the lobby. Cue dozens of business people sitting in the lobby lap top on lap.

Eurostar is about to get wifi belatedly. Let’s hope it is sensible enough to realise that it is not an optional extra. It’s the future. And hopefully whoever wins the West Coast franchise will realise that, too, unlike Virgin which charges.


  • If Reading can have free WiFi on their local bus fleet, then the likes of Virgin and Cross-Country have no excuse. Charging for WiFi is the sort of thing Ryanair would do.

  • Mark Holdstock

    Another example of how the railway is run by people who aren’t very bright. East Coast, or whatever they’re called this week started charging for wi-fi the same week that I got an Orange (or whatever they’re called this week) 3g Dongle. £5 a month for that, and £5 an hour for wi-fi onj the train.And the bandwidth is much better, and you can connect to the BBC i-player…..er, no contest.

    Also a useful tip. If you sit next to the platform 1st class lounges you can tap into their 1st Class wi-fi for free! Even if you’re travelling cattle class. Not very bright the chumps who run our railway.

  • I was on a CrossCountry Voyager service yesterday, and ended up paying £2 for an hour’s wifi because my 3G wouldn’t work inside the trains – these were the units that had metal foil tint on the windows that blocks most mobile phone signals. What was all the more irritating is that the purchasing system happily took my money but then didn’t give me access right away – in the end I managed to get the required access code from an email the system had sent during a brief moment that my phone managed to get some 3G coverage. Very irritating.

  • David

    Have a McDonalds coffee any where for 1.50 and its free, never mind 80 quid for Birmingham to Euston

  • Ben More

    You are absolutely right on wifi charges. I get access to some free wifi as a Sky user, and elsewhere will only use free wifi. I have never paid and never will pay for wifi.

    Companies like Accor hotels (Novotel, Ibis, etc) take the p*** and charge £10 for 24 hours.Trouble is people are daft enough to pay, and most of these dipsticks have an expense account.

    Even my local Asda now has free wifi. Add to that Costa, Cafe Nero, Pret, Starbucks, McDs, Debenhams, and many stations, and you are never far from free wifi. You have to ask what planet railway marketing execs are on.

    The answer is to simply not to pay train operators for wifi. The message will soon get through. Given the cost of installation and maintenance, the markup on a ticket over the life of a franchise is pence. Shame it’s take some companies so long to install it.

    Mind you the thought of wifi on a Class 142 Pacer is mind-boggling.

  • Colin Lea

    The issue is that on a high speed train constantly moving between cell towers the systems cannot cope with the sheer number of people who would log on if it was free. Virgin tried it free and it was no use to anyone as it fell over. So until 4G comes on free in first class makes sense. I travel on chiltern who recently went to a free for all system and it is either impossible to get on or so slow you are better off with your own 3G. That is the reality – trains are very different to buses (limited number of people logging on at once) or hotels with fixed line fibre connections.

  • Keith

    This fits in with the stories from America about them finally having a generation growing up comfortable with using public transport – simply because they want to be able to use devices on the move. Free wifi seems pretty widespread on Amtrak, for example. It’s a massive culture change but I’m not sure politicians have realised it.

  • Ian

    An issue with charging for wifi is that corporate and government users can not make full use of it. There good security reasons that mean devices connecting to a corporate network cannot use the websites that charged for wifi makes you pay on before you log-in to the corporate network. Bet the TOCs didnt think of that one!

  • christianwolmar

    mmm, that is very interesting but not sure it is not dealable with. What about all those people with dongles? And surely it is possible to block downloads of films or the like? Moreover, what if lots of people decided to pay – and then they get a poor service, as another commenter has experienced

    Will 4G make a big difference?

  • Colin Lea

    TOCs that have tried to ban certain sites like YouTube have had varying degrees of success as many people access these sites through apps or via clients like twitter/Facebook/google reader etc. it is hard to find and block these ‘ways in’. 4G will indeed help once it gets to the rural areas inter city trains travel through (a while). But the same problem occurs if too many people want to log on at once. East coast have a free 15 mins system but all that does is encourage people to write emails offline then log on and send all at once, creating unusual spikes in usage that are no good either. I would think a free amount of bandwidth would be the way to go so that sensible users – sending emails without large attachments, browsing without video streaming or checking social media sites would get a decent service. Don’t underestimate the costs of wi-fi to TOCs though. – it is millions of £!!! Very different to a hotel getting a simple connection set up!

  • Last summer I travelled from Birmingham to Euston on Virgin using the “Weekend First” upgrade. It includes free WiFi.

  • Yes hotels and all these retail outlets have had to install wi-fi anyway
    to enable wireless chip and pin readers or stock control hand helds.
    The ‘free’ wi-fi to customers piggy backs on this existing

  • stimarco

    The WiFi on a train is connecting to the cell towers using exactly the same technology as those 3G dongles you see sticking out of laptops. The WiFi connection itself is only inside the carriage: your device ends up talking to a router that connects to the nearest cell tower using an industrial-strength 3G dongle. (Basically the same kit, but in a more robust form that can take all the vibrations a train will throw at it.)

    A 125 mph. HST or Pendolino train will have one such router per carriage (which is why you sometimes see it offered only for First Class passengers: you only have to fit out a couple of carriages per train instead of all of them). At 125 mph., the connection will be switching cell towers every minute or so. If you’re approaching a city, that might mean switching to a tower that has a slower ADSL connection to the actual internet, to another tower in an urban area that can (a) handle far more simultaneous connections, and (b) is more likely to have a high-bandwidth fibre-optic connection to the internet. (Those connections to the internet are known as the “backhaul” infrastructure.)

    Fitting a train with WiFi isn’t just a matter of slapping some cheap Netgear routers in each carriage: you have to upgrade the cell towers – particularly their backhaul infrastructure, which might mean running a fibre-optic line way out into the countryside – to cope with the added demand. Add on the costs of fitting repeaters inside tunnels, (can you say “engineering possession”?) long bridges, and for some deep cuttings, and it gets very expensive. (It’s not strictly necessary, but it helps to have line-of-sight to a cell tower for a fast connection.)

    And remember: every one of those 3G dongle users you see on your train streaming video from the BBC’s iPlayer site is gobbling up bandwidth. And it’s the *same* bandwidth to that cell tower that your train has to share across all your fellow passengers. *That* is why many on-board WiFi providers tend to manage that shared bandwidth by banning video streams and the like: you’re all sharing a single “3G dongle”.

    3G connectivity still isn’t universal in the UK; 4G won’t be any better, and all cell towers are inherently limited in the total bandwidth they can offer by their backhaul connections: a 4G-capable tower that only has a basic ADSL connection to the internet isn’t going to be much use to anyone. Ultimately, the cellphone connection method suffers from the contention problem too: the more people who connect to each tower, the slower the connection each one gets. And cell towers have to serve a lot of people, not just trains.

    The future of on-board internet connectivity may involve providing the connection via some other medium. Possibly even the rails themselves.

  • Fandroid

    I have discovered a way to get ‘free’ wifi on EastCoast. Join the membership scheme on their website, book a few tickets (any journey) on there, and you can then ‘buy’ 24hr wifi access for 50 points. Also, their wifi gives running time info plus connections for the train you are on, for free anyway. A nationalised railway, that’s ahead of the the competition (like the municipally owned Reading buses!).

  • Paul Holt

    CW has missed the target. People don’t drive because they can use their laptops there, they drive because the politicians behind Beeching took away their rail line (and tramway and trolley-bus route) and the car is the only viable means of getting from A to B. When will the penny drop?

  • Josephine Bacon

    Yes, you are absolutely right about the internet charges, in the fancy hotels the charges are outrageous and if you transfer to another hotel that uses the same internet service provider, the charges are not transferrable! Another example of private railway greed. Anyway, I hate the Pendolino trains, they do not have the same motion as other trains and make me feel nauseous. Brilliant idea of connection via the return rail, it carries the return current why not carry WiFi?

  • christianwolmar

    do you think that is technically possible?

  • There was a franchise commitment on Southeastern to install WIFI on trains but when they had supplier problems it was conveniently forgotten by the DfT. The Javelins were constructed with no passive support for WIFI and even fitting those trains would be costly now. I also feel that stations should be fitted (not just the bigger ones, but many smaller ones where a mobile phone signal is a problem let alone a Wifi provider.