Travel Tech

Railways and trains are synonymous with the United Kingdom, not least because the first working steam locomotive was designed, developed and manufactured in Britain in the 19th century. Robert Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ - which won the Rainhill Trials held by the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1829 - is often cited as a watershed moment in human history, where it became possible for human-beings to travel without feeling the weight of their own exertion, or being reliant on the elements, for the first time ever.

The Rocket paved the way for the industrial revolution, which has arguably had a larger impact on the planet and human culture than any other facet of our collective history.

So trains and rail travel are very much at the heart of British life and culture. Millions of people commute every day via rail services, and the commuter train into London is very much part of the British way of life. But the modern rail passenger is very demanding, and those that travel by train in order to get into work often require business-related services to be available on trains.

Wi-Fi Black Spots

With this in mind, the lack of Wi-Fi on some British rail routes has met with dismay. Thus, the British government has recently indicated that this problem should not be an issue for British rail travellers for much longer. Rail Minister Claire Perry has announced that the government is already in talks with train operators, including Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (TSGN), Southeastern, Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales, about incorporating connectivity into their carriages from 2017.

This policy is very much in line with the UK government’s general ethos towards internet connectivity, upgrading the rail network, and promoting mobile broadband and services in particular.

In the meantime, numerous operators are installing equipment within trains now, which means that many commuters will be able to enjoy Wi-Fi on trains rather sooner than 2017. Of course, some of the network is already Wi-Fi-enabled, but this latest £50 million scheme will ensure the ubiquity of Internet connectivity across Britain's rail network.

While the completion of the scheme is intended to be only two years away, train operators are currently in consultation with the government regarding how they will meet this commitment to passengers. It has already been stated that all rail companies which bid for new franchises and other rail award agreements will have to include specifications for Wi-Fi connectivity within their bids.

The £50 million figure quoted previously will be released by the UK Department for Transport in order to fund areas in which there is no acceptable franchise agreement by the 2017 deadline. This money will be drawn from funds which Network Rail - the state-owned company which owns and operates the British rail network - has been required to return to the government for missing punctuality targets set by the Office of Rail Regulation.

Government's Mobile Focus

In line with this concept, the Conservative government has already invested over £1 billion in improving broadband and mobile infrastructure. This is intended to provide superfast broadband coverage to 90 percent of the UK population by 2016, while basic broadband will be available for everyone in the country. This is to be further rolled out to 95 percent of the United Kingdom by 2017, while the Conservative government is also exploring options to deliver what it describes as “near universal superfast broadband coverage” across the UK by 2018.

Both rail and Internet connectivity have been central pillars of the economic policies of the Conservative government in UK. Back in 2010, the Conservative Party promised “ultrafast broadband” capable of 100mbs would be delivered to “most of the UK population”, as part of a policy which it deemed the “Right to Data”. The government has also gone to great lengths to promote the improvement of Britain's railway network, with the intention of delivering passengers faster to the country's urban hubs, in order to generate economic activity.

The government already has a plan to create 22 ‘SuperConnected Cities’ across the UK by 2015, with major urban centres in Britain such as London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham central to this plan. Additionally, the British government is also investing £150 million in mobile infrastructure to improve coverage for voice calls and text messages for the minute segment of the British population currently unable to access this.

A More Mobile World

What all of this information ultimately points to is that we are living in an increasingly mobile world. Numerous Digital Tourism Think Tank articles have pointed to the fact that mobile is becoming more important for the travel industry. Tourists are using mobile platforms to plan and book travel, and then spend money and access services and information once they actually arrive on holidays or business trips.

With every rail traveller in the UK potentially able to access Wi-Fi by 2017, there will be millions of people utilising mobile broadband on Britain’s railways on a daily basis. This should be viewed by travel companies as a hugely rich seam of custom.

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