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Trackside network to bring 5G to UK rail travellers by 2025

The government has launched a consultation on improving mobile connectivity for rail passengers

The government has issued a call for public input into a series of proposals to enhance mobile connectivity for rail travellers as part of its 5G mobile networking strategy, with the aim of bringing gigabit mobile broadband to UK trains within seven years.

Currently, mobile connectivity for rail passengers is mostly delivered via standard 4G mobile networks, which – because they were not designed specifically for use by rail operators – rarely offer acceptable levels of coverage during a journey.

To support its goals, a major new trackside network build will need to take place, comprising base stations and masts, fibre backhaul from the masts to the core telecoms network, external radio systems to link trains to the network, and in-carriage systems to provide Wi-Fi or mobile connectivity.

The government also hopes to take advantage of existing infrastructure, including trackside fibre owned by Network Rail, opening its network assets up to support commercial business models where appropriate.

The government said gigabit mobile broadband would future-proof connectivity on the rail network for years to come, and help enhance the UK’s planned 5G network roll-out.

“We want people to be able to get connected where they live, work and travel,” said digital minister Matt Hancock. “This means improving connections on Britain’s railways now, and making sure they are fit for the future. We’ve got a long way to travel but our destination is world-class signal for passengers.

“This will not only make journeys more enjoyable and productive, but will help improve the operation and safety of the railway and deliver economic benefits for the whole of the UK,” said Bruce Williamson of campaign group Railfuture. “Wi-Fi has moved from being an optional extra to something essential for the 21st century rail passenger, so we welcome any improvements to capacity and coverage.”

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“It should become absolutely standard for all trains on the British railway network to have seamless connectivity, as it’s essential for attracting the smartphone-connected generation to rail, as well as the business traveller working on the move,” he said. “Very soon, trains without Wi-Fi will become unthinkable, and rail passengers will look forward to the day when the phone doesn’t cut out in tunnels.”

Work has already begun on a project on the Trans-Pennine route connecting Manchester to York that will explore how best to use existing infrastructure and Network Rail assets, and test new track-to-train radio systems. This project is being funded out of a slice of the £31bn National Productivity Investment Fund, which was purposefully set aside for digital infrastructure improvements.

Elsewhere, rail operator ScotRail is currently trialling a 300Mbps Wi-Fi service on the Edinburgh to Glasgow route, drawing funding from Innovate UK and network supplier Cisco, among others.

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