DfT cost-cutting threatens free passenger wi-fi

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The Department for Transport (DfT) has stated that passengers may lose free access to wi-fi on trains in England as part of government cutbacks, unless rail companies offering the service can justify the costs. The DfT will review whether the current wi-fi service “delivers the best possible value for money”.

While most operators currently offer free wi-fi as standard, the DfT has cited a report from independent passenger watchdog Transport Focus, showing that wi-fi was a low priority for passengers, below for money, reliability, and punctuality.

A DfT statement said: “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and it is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reform of all aspects of the railways is essential.”

“Passenger surveys consistently show that on-train wi-fi is low on their list of priorities, so it is only right we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money.”

With on-train wi-fi equipment installed in 2015 now coming to the end of its operational life, the DfT argues that, considering that many people on short journeys did not connect to the on-train wi-fi, instead relying on their mobile phone network, replacing the equipment is not prudent.

However, industry leaders have argued that access to wi-fi is something many passengers expect as standard, and it’s removal would make rail a less attractive option for travellers.

Simon Holmes, managing director of Evo-rail said: “Yesterday’s statement from the Department for Transport is disappointing. In an environment where we should be encouraging people back to the railways, cutting access to on-board Wi-Fi will only weaken the appeal of travelling by train, especially for commuters.

“Existing train Wi-Fi is struggling to keep up with demand, and the business case for a constant, ultrafast Wi-Fi service is clear, especially in areas with poor mobile service. Wi-Fi is no longer a luxury, but a necessity for rail passengers as journey distances increase in favour of out-of-town living.

This is a short-term view which will further leave the UK’s railways behind its global counterparts and struggling to deliver the modern, appealing rail service passengers expect and need.”

“Given the post-pandemic need to get more passengers back on the train it would be difficult to justify removing something that makes rail more attractive to customers.”

Andy Bagnall, chief executive of Rail Partners, said the focus should be on “innovating to improve customer experience rather than removing features many passengers value.

“The consideration of this proposal is a symptom of the current disjointed management of industry finances where revenue and cost are looked at separately and operators are unable to innovate in response to customer needs.”

Image credit: istockphoto.com

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