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Antennas attached to gantries could oust mobile blackouts on trains

The government is granting £200,000 to support research into boosting mobile connectivity on rail journeys by attaching antennas onto existing overhead line equipment.

Research by Transport Focus has indicated that passenger satisfaction with mobile connectivity on trains is low, with just three in ten passengers satisfied with their connection. However, passengers expect reliable connectivity to allow them to be productive on their commutes.

According to Department for Transport-funded research published today, it could be possible to attach communications antennas to existing infrastructure used where overhead electric wires are installed. This technique has been employed in other countries, including Austria, to address railway mobile connectivity blackouts. More than a third of the UK’s 18,000km of railways are already electrified with overhead line equipment (OLE).

This would provide an affordable solution to the problem of dodgy mobile connectivity on trains, as it reduces the need for additional track-side mobile masts.

The government called on telecommunications companies to work with Network Rail to suggest designs for the trial phase of the project. The first phase will focus on how antennas can be safely fixed onto OLE in a live railway environment. Findings are expected to be published by March 2021.

“It is just not good enough that passengers’ mobile connectivity experience is still poor, blighting our efforts to work, shop, and communicate on everyday journeys,” said the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. “By harnessing innovation and updating existing infrastructure, we can build the railway of tomorrow and find affordable solutions to improve travel for passengers.

“I urge telecom operators to match our ambition, and we can commit to working closely together to design equipment and move forward in the next stage of this exciting trial.”

Charlene Wallace, Network Rail’s director of passenger and customer experience, commented: “We are keen to work with government and train and telecom operators to deliver more consistent and reliable mobile coverage that improves passengers’ journeys in an efficient and affordable way.

“Today’s report highlights how the railway can share its electrical infrastructure assets to deliver a better service, and we are delighted that funding has been made available to test solutions at our Rail Innovation and Development Centres.”

Next week, Ofcom is expected to publish updated advice on suitable bands for trackside Wi-Fi connectivity.

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