Passenger warning

Risk to train wi-fi as part of cost-cutting move

Passengers are attracted to rail to use wifi services (pic: UK Government)

A rail passengers watchdog has expressed alarm that wi-fi may be withdrawn on trains in England as part of cost cutting measures.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, said access to wi-fi was something many passengers now expect as standard and warned that trains could lose custom if it is not available.

Many of those travelling long distance have chosen rail over air as they are able to work or use mobile entertainment on the train.

“Given the post-pandemic need to get more passengers back on the train it would be difficult to justify removing something that makes rail more attractive to customers,” said Mr Smith

Most operators offer free wi-fi as standard on their services but the Department for Transport is reviewing whether the current wi-fi service “delivers the best possible value for money”.

“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,” the Department for Transport (DfT) said.

“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.”

Wi-fi equipment was installed on trains in 2015 and the latest move represents a sharp reversal in thinking from just over five years ago when the Government announced an ambitious plan for “a dramatic improvement in onboard mobile and Wi-Fi connections.”

In a joint departmental statement in December 2017 it said “the rapid growth of mobile data requirements and the use of smartphones and tablets now means that consumers expect high quality, reliable connectivity everywhere.

“As part of its 5G strategy the Government has committed to improving coverage where people live, work and travel – including on trains.”

However, research now shows many travellers use their mobile phone network instead.

Christian Wolmar, whose podcast Calling All Stations first reported the DfT’s move, argues that passengers need the reliability of a train’s wi-fi, especially on longer journeys.

“People expect to be able to use wi-fi on a train in the same way they would use a toilet,” he said.

Mr Wolmar said the equipment would still have to be replaced for staff purposes, so any savings would be a “relatively trivial amount”.

Ultimately, he said the railways would suffer: “I think the operators will lose customers over this, using a train is a marginal thing anyway for many people.”

Mr Wolmar said train operators had received a letter from the DfT informing them of the decision to pull funding unless they could make a good business case for keeping it.

He said he expected most services to lose access to wi-fi “over the next year or two”.

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