Wi-Fi rollout completed on East Coast trains

GNER's trains are all Wi-Fi-enabled ahead of schedule, but one rival operator claim there's little demand for wireless on the railways

Rail operator GNER has completed the fit-out of all its trains with Wi-Fi broadband connectivity.

As predicted, the company has installed the technology on all 41 of its trains — electric and diesel — ahead of schedule. The £3.2m project had originally been due for completion in May of next year.

GNER operates the UK's East Coast line, with the longest journey on its network being London to Inverness, at 580 miles.

"Wireless internet has immense potential for both business and leisure users, and we're very encouraged by the usage levels and positive feedback from passengers," said Jonathan Metcalfe, GNER's chief executive officer, on Thursday.

The company claims it now operates the "world's biggest fleet of wireless internet equipped train carriages, and Britain's first all-Wi-Fi train fleet". The service is free for first class passengers, while standard class customers can use the service on a pay-as-you-go basis. Half an hour's connectivity costs £2.95, while a full day's use will cost £9.95.

The Wi-Fi installation was supplied and fitted by Swedish company Icomera. The downlink backhaul — the basic connection which then feeds into the onboard Wi-Fi network — relies on a roof-mounted satellite connection and a 3G/GPRS uplink is provided via a mobile phone antenna, although spectrum was recently made available which could be used to make the uplink satellite-based too.

Several other rail routes, such as Virgin's West Coast service and Southern Trains' Brighton Express, have opted instead for WiMax backhaul, which theoretically provides better speeds and lower latency and is based on fixed-WiMax transmitters placed strategically along the train line.

GNER's John Gelson told ZDNet UK that, while keeping an open mind for the future, the company had opted for the combination of 3G/GPRS and satellite connectivity because of the "unique environmental challenges" posed by GNER's route.

"Some parts are very geographically isolated, and there are several tunnels. It's such a mixture, which is the reason why we didn't go for a ground based system," he explained on Friday, adding that, unlike Virgin, GNER operates a network of routes rather than one continuous line.

Gelson suggested that Virgin was better placed to install a WiMax-based system as "the line they're using is currently part of an upgrade by [rail infrastructure owner] Network Rail anyway".

Other major rail operators have thus far ignored the issue of on-train Wi-Fi. A spokesperson for South West Trains told ZDNet UK that the company was "assessing the feasibility of it" but had no current plans for a rollout, while First Group — whose lines include First Great Western and First ScotRail — is concentrating instead on installing Wi-Fi in some of its stations.

"The move in technology with handheld devices like BlackBerrys means not everyone wants to use laptops on trains," a First Group spokesperson said on Friday.

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