The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has warned that progress on mobile connectivity on rail has stalled since the government accepted the findings of its 2016 Connected Future report. It is calling for clear ministerial leadership in response to avoid further delays.
In its original 2016 report, the NIC recommended that rail passengers should be able to access high capacity wireless connectivity, with the necessary trackside infrastructure for an open and accessible telecommunications network being in place by 2025 at the latest, to take advantage of emerging 5G technologies.
However the NIC now believes the current rate of progress on rail connectivity is insufficient to ensure that even basic mobile services, including voice calls and 4G data, will be reliably available throughout the UK’s network within the next five years.
In its new report, Connected Future: Getting back on track, the commission found that a lack of leadership from government, frequent ministerial changes, and split departmental responsibilities have halted any initial momentum in steps to improve passengers access to mobile services. As a result, the NIC says the gap between an increasingly connected society and a disconnected railway risks could become even more stark.
The commission’s new research also found no evidence that an overall plan exists for rail connectivity. Combined with the cancellation or deprioritisation of a number of other programmes, the research suggests rail will fall further behind road in terms of progress towards seamless mobile connectivity.
In response, the NIC has identified four areas in which government must improve progress on rail mobile connectivity:
Leadership and action: Appointment of a ministerial lead and publication by the Department of Transport of a clear plan of action by December 2020.
Access to trackside land: Network Rail must put in place by December 2020 arrangements for third party access to trackside land for the purposes of delivering the trackside connectivity network.
Commercial barriers: Government should set out plans for a competitive process for delivering connectivity improvements on specific routes, building on lessons from the active trials currently taking place. These processes should begin no later than June 2021.
Filling evidence gaps: Ofcom should regularly report on the extent and quality of mobile coverage on the railways, to ensure progress is tracked and to build consumer awareness.
Sir John Armitt, National Infrastructure Commission chair, said: “We’re all used to having mobile access on the move but for many passengers, loss of coverage while on the train occurs with frustrating regularity. In too many areas our rail infrastructure seems stuck in the digital dark ages.
“As coverage improves elsewhere, people will find it increasingly frustrating that it doesn't extend to the railway. It would be like finding that the railway only accepts cheques for payment and not debit cards or contactless.
“Government has dropped the ball on this issue and passengers will expect it to get a firm grip and find a solution. It must set out clear plans for delivering railway connectivity and giving passengers the reassurance they need.”