UK train operators expand free Wi-Fi offers

Virgin has finally launched a wireless Internet access trial on its trains, while GNER's original three month trial has now been extended and expanded

First class rail passengers are in for a Wi-Fi treat as Virgin Trains on Monday launched the long awaited trial of its wireless Internet services and GNER has extended its free Wi-Fi trial indefinitely.

A GNER spokesperson told ZDNet UK that the original trial, which started in December 2003, was scheduled to finish at the end of March but had been so successful that the number of trains offering Wi-Fi would be increased, and the trial period extended indefinitely.

"We were originally trialling [Wi-Fi] on a HST diesel set and now it has also been installed on the electric set, so it is now on both types of train that GNER operates," the GNER spokesperson said.

Virgin Trains has partnered with wireless service provider Broadreach to offer Wi-Fi to first class passengers on its North-Western routes. The trial is scheduled to last for six months, during which time the service will be free of charge.

Philip Bates, business development manager at Broadreach, told ZDNet UK that the Virgin service uses a combination of satellite and GPRS technology to keep passengers connected: "Our preferred method is to use GPRS (or 3G when it is available) to get from the train to the Internet and use a satellite link to get from the Internet back to the train. This works fine for Web browsing. For email, there is a server on the train that is able to do some caching of emails -- in case the train goes through a tunnel," he said.

According to Bates, by the time the trial is over, there should be a 3G service operating to speed up the outbound connection, but even with GPRS, he said passengers would get an "ADSL-like" experience.

A price has not yet been set for the full service, but Bates said it is likely to be more expensive than the standard £4 per hour that is charged from a regular Broadreach hot spot.

Last month, Eurostar said it would also begin trialling wireless Internet access on its cross-channel services as part of its plans to refurbish its 10-year-old fleet of 27 trains.