Long-distance high-speed trains carry a variety of passengers, from business travellers to day-trippers and families. The one thing they do have in common is that most want to use the internet during their journeys. In the UK, Virgin Trains was acutely aware of this issue, and so it joined forces with GoMedia to launch the BEAM app, which enables passengers to stream media to their mobile devices regardless of external signal coverage. On railways, the signal drops a lot, so this innovation is a blessing for both business and leisure travellers.
Connectivity is vital, and it has been for a number of years. Operators aren’t oblivious to that fact, but a workable solution has proved evasive.
The issue of connectivity is most acute on a high-speed railway. The tracks might run through long, deep tunnels, rural areas with poor coverage and signal-sapping woodland. Overhead line equipment is also thought to have an impact on the quality of signal.
Speaking in June to RAIL, Eurostar admitted that there were ‘concerns’ regarding mobile network coverage on a large part of its route. It’s somewhat puzzling that you can use the internet all the way through the Channel Tunnel, 100 metres below sea level, but have the frustration of patchy coverage when racing through Kent or Northern France.
There are plans for investment to counter this problem, but for the time being, coverage remains intermittent at best. To improve this will require more aerials, which would involve making deals with the mobile phone companies.
But there is always room for innovation. Nomad Digital has worked with GoMedia to develop an entertainment app which allows users to enjoy media stored locally on Eurostar trains, offering passengers an alternative to browsing the internet - a bit like an on-train video library.
The shows available are from both the UK and France (with subtitles) with the addition of Belgian and Dutch content in the works. The developers monitor what is being watched so they can keep in step with what people watch and change the content accordingly. GoMedia Chief Executive Matt Seaman explains that, on average, a passenger uses the app for 75 minutes. They can also use the app to check on their journey’s progress - one of its most popular features.
GoMedia began working on the system in April 2015. Eurostar wanted a premium offering that would lure more people away from airlines and onto the trains. Seaman has been involved in similar developments before, such as for Sky and Freeview projects. He highlights that one of the most-watched shows on Eurostar trains was Peppa Pig.
Nomad Digital General Manager Jean-Philippe Tissot, travelling on the train to Paris on October 14, said that one key factor is to keep the contents fresh. “It keeps passengers coming back,” he says, and makes the point that it also drives down mobile data costs; a trainload of passengers streaming content via the trains’ WiFi access points is expensive for TOCs, who have to pay for that data, just as you would through your personal phone contract. As far as the actual coverage is concerned, however, that’s up to the likes of Vodaphone, EE and O2.
Seaman believes that in time “several hundred” passengers will be able to use the app concurrently, all watching locally stored content. That will need further development, which Tissot says Nomad is already working on. “We are monitoring its use at the moment. We need to see how many people are accessing it.” At the moment, one issue that skews those figures is a passenger who might be using the app on multiple devices simultaneously, which the system sees as multiple users. But the system has to be able to cope with high demand - if all 900 people on an e320 train were connected to the service, could it cope?
WiFi access points are fitted throughout the train, and Tissot explains that each one can handle between 80 and 90 connections.
Seaman reveals that current figures suggest that there are between 200 and 300 connections through the app per train. “That saves the company a considerable amount in 3G/4G data charges. These would be very high on a Eurostar service,” he explains. Virgin Trains - both East and West Coast - have recorded lower data costs as more passengers use the BEAM app to access the on-board entertainment.
Tissot also points out that the system is resilient enough to cope if the WiFi fails in one vehicle, so passengers in the rest of the train will not be cut off.
The system works through a WiFi access point within the carriage (two per carriage). The access points are hard-wired to a mobile network-enabled router, as is the media server that hosts the actual content, in digital format. The high-end routers on the e320s can be connected to the mobile network through up to eight simultaneous 3G/4G connections, to both UK and French networks.
Seaman explains that the app used by Virgin Trains is purely for entertainment, while the Eurostar system offers much more.
Tissot confirms that there is a fair use policy but it can be used for downloading files, which many TOCs don’t allow. Certain types of websites are blocked, such as those which might consume a lot of bandwidth, or those which are ‘inappropriate’ for viewing on trains.
Tissot compares the system to Netflix, and reckons it will be a ‘game-changer’ for the railway industry. He confirms that several TOCs have expressed an interest in the system. He also points out that the content can be tailored to the operator’s requirements. “For example, on commuter routes, we would cache the latest news on the trains’ media servers,” he says.
Seaman believes that this will offer something new to passengers. It brings rail travel more up to date and creates another reason to travel by train.
“My £4,000 season ticket doesn’t even know my name. TOCs need to start thinking about their digital strategies. This system knows more about the passengers than the operator does, but we also need to appreciate what we can do with that data. We’ve got some catching up to do.”
However, he’s optimistic about how the railways engage with its passengers through the internet. “Over the last couple of years we’ve noticed people from different backgrounds are being attracted to working in the rail industry. I have seen there is a change in the Chief Information Officers (CIO) joining companies. That the customer should come first has really become the focus, and that is permeating through the business.” He says that what passengers want has changed. “The world has moved on from ‘2-for-1’ deals. Connectivity is king.
“A few years ago, mobile operators had no interest in adding masts to cover railway tracks. Now, the likes of EE are investing in it. Orange has struck a deal with SNCF to provide high-quality coverage on France’s five main lines.”
Tissot believes that the rail industry is around five to ten years behind the aviation industry in terms of its entertainment and internet connectivity, and yet he says: “The UK is fairly advanced as a deregulated market.”
High Speed 2 will require high-quality connectivity - much of the route being built in Phase One, between London and Birmingham, will be in tunnels.
For cross-Channel trains, the Channel Tunnel has excellent reception. Tissot says: “There is 4G coverage there because there was a business case for it. Consequently, the investment was made and the necessary equipment installed. This was not done in the St Pancras tunnel.” It is thought that there was no business case for this.
“For HS2, you would have to invest in the tunnel,” says Tissot. “We would have to do it. Or perhaps a new technology will emerge that makes it more viable. But there will be no miracle solution.”
For the time being, Seaman says Eurostar leads the world in terms of its connectivity via the app. It has plans to do even more. One option could be live television, or ‘nearly live’ content, such as news.
The Eurostar brand is capitalising on these offerings. But in time, it will be commonplace across the UK’s rail network. Passengers are set for a step-change in the quality of their journeys.