The government could use money raised by Network Rail fines to create a trackside Wi-Fi network for the UK’s busiest rail routes
The government is to invest millions of pounds in a new free superfast Wi-Fi network for commuter trains heading into London and other major UK cities, partly funded by a £53.1 million fine issued to Network Rail for missing punctuality targets on long-distance services over the past five years.
Network Rail, which manages stations, track and signalling across Britain’s rail network, can be fined £1.5 million for every 0.1 percent it is away from its targets.
This meant it could have faced a penalty in excess of £70 million, but the Office for Rail Regulation (ORR) has given it some leniency for factors that were beyond its reasonable control, such as extreme weather and suicides.
Some of this money will be used to create a Wi-Fi network that will allow passengers to connect through trackside equipment, rather than satellite technology. It is expected this will be ten times faster than current train Wi-Fi services which are much maligned for being slow and unreliable.
The new service is expected to go live within the next three to four years, with trains heading to the capital from the likes of Bedford, Brighton, Kent and Portsmouth expected to be among the first to benefit, along with services heading for Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield.
A number of train operators currently offer Wi-Fi services and it had been reported that the government would allocate funding to improve connectivity in the 2013 budget, although this never materialised.
Bread and circuses?
However the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has dismissed the proposals, arguing the fines will simply reduce Network Rail’s safety and maintenance budget and redirect money to the “greedy” train companies to fund Wi-Fi, when they themselves should be held accountable.
“Safety and reliability on the tracks will be compromised with the rip-off train companies once again getting a free ride,” says RMT acting general secretary Mick Cash. “This is a total con trick instigated by the Government that will come back to haunt the travelling public.”
The ORR’s findings do not cover Scotland, which is measured separately. The Scottish government has already pledged £2 million for free Wi-Fi on ScotRail express trains, while Transport Scotland is providing £863,000 to double the number of Wi-Fi enabled stations in the country to 52 ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this July.
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