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Will Railway Mobile Coverage Affect Your Christmas Getaway?

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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BLOG: Mobile coverage can make journeys seem a lot quicker, but can new data show if it will affect your journey this Christmas?

With just three days until Christmas, hundreds of thousands of people will look to escape London to see friends and family and get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

Some will flock to the capital’s major airports but others will turn to the nation’s train network. For many, this means crowded, sweaty and possibly delayed journeys exacerbated by the difficulty in connecting to a mobile phone network for communication and entertainment.

Trains are notoriously difficult to get a reliable connection on, as signals find it difficult to penetrate carriages and the speed of travel means users are frequently passed between base stations. But what about train stations themselves?

Read More: How RootMetrics tests the UK’s mobile networks

Train terminal mobile coverage

Kings Cross Railway Station ConcourseLike many public places dealing with large numbers of people, intense strain is placed on mobile infrastructure. Operators cope with this by boosting capacity, while public Wi-Fi networks look to alleviate the pressure.

According to the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), nine of the ten busiest rail stations are In London, with Waterloo the busiest. RootMetrics tested all four major operators’ networks at five stations – Charing Cross, Kings Cross, Paddington, Victoria and Waterloo – to see how they performed and whether some terminuses were better served than others.

Charing Cross was rated the best out of the five, with EE, O2 and Vodafone rated joint-top with ‘Rootscores’ of at least 97.6 out of 100. Vodafone’s data network at Waterloo was rated best with 97.6, Vodafone and O2 joint-best at Paddington with 96.8, EE at Kings Cross with 96.7 and EE and Vodafone joint top at Victoria, with significantly lower scores of 90 and 89.7.

This disparity was replicated with speed too. The fastest was recorded at Charing Cross where EE achieved 53Mbps, but Vodafone was named best because its network offered more consistent speeds. Kings Cross was the worst performing in this category with EE achieving 92.7.

Future improvements?

High Speed TrainIn terms of reliability, all of the stations tested has at least one operator offering at least 99.4 – except Victoria where Vodafone was rated best with 89.9. Although not an exhaustive survey of London’s rail stations, it does offer an indication of which might be a more enjoyable place to travel from this Christmas and which networks perform best.

The most recent data available from RootMetrics for London Bridge and Euston is from the first half of 2015 and showed EE offered the best mobile Internet performance, while Vodafone was best at Liverpool Street during the same period.

“Mobile internet on trains is notoriously patchy, so getting online is often the first thing business commuters and tourists do when they arrive into a London station,” said Scott Stonham, general manager of Europe at RootMetrics. “Time-pressed travellers often do not have time to look for the Wi-Fi connection, so mobile internet performance is particularly important in these commuter hubs.

“Saying that, there is significant variation across networks and stations when it comes to median upload and download speeds. For instance, an EE user commuting in Charing Cross may experience blazing fast performance while the same user commuting through King’s Cross may experience much slower mobile performance.”

But how do things get better? The previous coalition government made a number of indications it would help improve coverage on major rail routes, while other services have received on-board Wi-Fi upgrades. However Three believes train operators should help foot the bill for network upgrades.

“Train coverage has been problematic and there have been various attempts to improve it,” Phil Sheppard, Three’s director of network strategy and architecture, said in June. “I would argue that if you’re going to build a train that has absolutely zero penetration of radio signals, then maybe you might want to help improve mobile signal by putting repeaters in them, because your customers will value it.”

Still, if you can’t wait that long, at least the London Underground has a fairly comprehensive Wi-Fi service even if it has no mobile coverage.

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