All images: Max Bögl


Rail connectivity is about more than linking cities: digital accessibility is key

As more passengers return to the nation’s railways in the wake of the pandemic, there is an increasing expectation for connectivity from its passengers. David Crawford, managing director at Cellnex UK, outlines the importance of a collaborative approach to ensure a connected future for the UK.

With our daily lives slowly returning to something more familiar, we have seen a steady increase in the daily usage of the UK’s railway network. In the last quarter of 2021, 285 million rail passenger journeys were made, more than double of the journeys made in Q4 2020.

As hybrid working becomes commonplace, expectations of what 'the commute’ means are changing. The daily commute now represents an opportunity for people to utilise their time differently, often more effectively and productively, including building the commute into their working day.

Therefore, we need to ensure that the passenger demand for ultra-fast, reliable connectivity is being met. This new way of working is putting more pressure on rail operators than ever before. If we want to upgrade our railway and its infrastructure, digital accessibility is a key element of the future of rail travel.

SkedGo CEO John Nuutinen. Credit: Skedgo

MOTIONTAG managing director Fabien Sauthier. Credit: MOTIONTAG

Supporting levelling-up

The Integrated Rail Plan has given industry a clear indication of the government’s commitment to further innovation and investment in our railways – with a strong focus on new technologies to upgrade the current network. This approach will include upgrades to the tracks, platforms, as well as depots and surrounding areas.

Digital connectivity must be a key element of the government’s vision if we hope to turbocharge the economy and support the wider levelling up agenda that is critical to stabilise and strengthen economic growth across the UK. As upgrades are made across the country to improve existing lines and install new ones, we must consider this ever-increasing expectation from citizens for connectivity across the entire UK railway network.

The government has released its Levelling Up White Paper examining levelling up across the UK and discussing what this means for connectivity. By 2030, the UK will have nationwide gigabit-capable broadband and 4G coverage, with 5G coverage for most of the population. The government’s ambitious plan for the future of connectivity is welcome, and its recognition that ubiquitous digital connectivity is a necessity.

However, there is one anomaly, which is that railway lines may still not be adequately covered. Hard-to-connect parts of the railway such as cuttings and tunnels can be ignored within coverage obligation statistics and in many rural areas the capacity provided will often not serve the needs of full train carriages. The end result will be continued dropped calls and inconsistent data service.

With millions of people relying on train and subway systems, even the smallest delay or issue caused by a power outage can quickly lead to chaos.

mobility as a service railways

Credit: SkedGo | MOTIONTAG

The Brighton Mainline project

Cellnex UK has already set to work to bring uninterrupted connectivity to passengers travelling the busy route between London and Brighton. At its peak, 1,700 trains and around 300,000 passengers use the Brighton Mainline every day. The work is a positive step forward in supporting the UK Government’s Digital Strategy and is part of Network Rail’s ‘Putting Passengers First’ vision.

The Brighton Mainline service runs for 51 miles from the South Coast of England to London Victoria and London Bridge stations, via one of Europe’s busiest stations, Clapham Junction, and East Croydon. The work to improve the line has entered a critical phase as the team begins deploying fibre-optic cable along a section of track from Three Bridges down towards Brighton, 550 days ahead of schedule.

The project is focused on providing continuous mobile connectivity throughout a passenger’s entire journey, be that on the train itself or as they walk through the station to order a taxi or book an e-scooter. The benefits extend beyond the train itself as it can improve connectivity for vendors and new opportunities such as smart parking.

The Brighton Mainline will see the installation of mobile towers and high-capacity fibre, along with base stations to house equipment. Bespoke radio equipment will also be delivered, to provide uninterrupted coverage in the main London stations, as well as the tunnels and cuttings where signal reliability has been difficult in the past.

This approach is a clear example of the potential for a UK-wide, world-class shared telecoms infrastructure, providing uninterrupted cellular internet, mobile reception, and fibre services through tunnels, ‘not-spots’ and rural communities.

A connected future

Increased connectivity along the Brighton Mainline will help drive local economic growth, create high skilled jobs and support businesses, as well as promote digital inclusion. It will also drive energy and transportation efficiency as an improved rail experience could encourage many people to swap their cars for the train.

However, the success of this project lies in a collaborative partnership approach, with rail operators, mobile network operators, the government and telecoms infrastructure providers coming together. It is this type of approach that we need to incorporate into our future planning for digital connectivity across the UK’s rail network – whether in the delivery of new high-speed infrastructure or through upgrades to existing networks.

Traditionally, most countries in Europe haven’t had a great deal of collaboration between rail and mobile operators, but there is a distinct need – and consumer demand – for both the public and private sectors to work together.

Connectivity is an integral part of the modern economy, and it is collaboration that will help pave the way to a better-connected Britain.

All images: Max Bögl