Opinion: It’s time to go the extra mile with rail Wi-Fi


(Image Credit: iStockPhoto/mbbirdy)

Recent announcements by Chiltern Railways and South West Rail demonstrate how Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are forging ahead with the full-scale rollout of Wi-Fi on-board for the benefit of passengers. This follows on the heels of the Government’s consultation about improving mobile communications on the rail network, of which we are still awaiting feedback.

All of this activity bodes well for long-suffering passengers who’ve contended with hit-and-miss mobile connectivity for too long.  However, whilst I acknowledge that mobile coverage along the train lines is the major bottleneck in the system, I believe the scope of the consultation and the vision of operators in general – both train and mobile network – is still too constrained. They appear to ignore the medium-to-long-term developments taking place in the wider public Wi-Fi / mobile space, and don’t fully consider a customer’s overall journey.

The main reason put forward as to why rail passengers want better mobile / Wi-Fi coverage is simply to be connected for voice, texts, and internet access. This was also the situation in other public Wi-Fi locations a few years ago, however, many of those locations are now moving well beyond these simple reasons for offering Wi-Fi.

Clearly passengers, just like customers to retail stores, cafes and hotels, increasingly expect free Wi-Fi (although somebody has to pay to install and operate it). Venue owners are therefore looking at what value they can derive from their Wi-Fi infrastructure in order to provide this, which is similar to TOCs as most don’t operate in a monopoly environment and have to compete for customers, with Wi-Fi/mobile coverage being a key customer driver.

Examples of added value include:-

  • Enhanced Wi-Fi Analytics to better understand passengers and what devices they use; dwell times in stations and trains, movement patterns etc.
  • With their permission, engage with passengers to provide useful information, promotional vouchers etc. in real time to enhance their journey.
  • Real time notification of who is in the station and on the trains, allowing insight into  transactional history, web activity,  journey profiles to decide if engagement with them would be helpful (e.g. offer a free coffee after 3 journeys).

I believe the on-board and on-station Wi-Fi infrastructure should be owned and operated by the TOCs (or Network Rail in large stations) rather than by hotspot providers. By owning the Wi-Fi infrastructure the TOC can control the QoS (Quality of Service) and ensure it delivers their requirements. They can then choose the best of breed providers for each of the applications they want to run over their infrastructure.

The government’s consultation looks solely at the requirements for on-train or trackside connectivity; with only one comment about “seamless connectivity”. I believe the scope should be expanded to include all of the elements of a customer’s journey, most importantly the stations at both ends of all rail journeys. Connection at the station should be maintained when boarding a train (irrespective of which TOC is operating it).

Similarly, many TOCs also own the local bus companies delivering passengers to their stations and trains, why can’t the session be maintained from the bus to the end of the train journey? Technically this can be done, but it needs thinking about before each of the three different elements are rushed out separately (bus, station, and on-train Wi-Fi.)

With regards to on-board connectivity, this can be best achieved with WiFi which all passengers can access, rather than asking all the mobile operators to improve their own coverage. I believe the UK government should follow the route in Denmark and get all of the mobile operators involved in enhancing coverage along train routes, possibly altering collaboration rules under particular circumstances so that costs are reduced.

In summary, the rail industry, at the moment seems to see only two reasons for improving mobile connectivity and WiFi services:-

  • to allow passengers to connect to the internet whilst on trains, and
  • provide infotainment to passengers (either to screens or personal devices)

The rail industry is lagging behind other sectors that are using the data from their Wi-Fi infrastructure to improve their operations, their customer experience, and to promote a permission-based engagement with their customers.

This is an opportunity not only to improve the mobile coverage across the rail network, but to also leapfrog to the front of WiFi developments.

Do you think it’s time for going “the extra mile” with rail Wi-Fi? Let us know in the comments.

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