Plan for faster internet on rails is abandoned

The Government was accused last night of derailing the “digital revolution” by scrapping part of a £35m scheme to upgrade internet connectivity on trains through Yorkshire.

Picture: SWNS

The initiative – which would have seen masts installed alongside tracks on the TransPennine Express route – was part of a wider plan for uninterrupted wi-fi and high-speed mobile broadband on all mainline trains by 2025.

It had been billed as “a fundamental part” of efforts to explore the benefits to passengers of the forthcoming 5G mobile technology, with the line between York and Manchester designated a trial area.

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But last night it emerged that the Culture Department was abandoning the masts, saying they would have been more expensive than had been envisaged.

“There are no credible means to deliver the planned passenger trials to a suitable standard within the available budget and within a reasonable timeframe,” it said in a four-page report.

The CBI, which represents businesses, said the decision was “a big blow”.

It had come only 24 hours after the promise of improvements on the Northern Powerhouse corridor, including a new high speed line connecting Leeds and Manchester.

The Digital Minister, Margot James, had said last August, when her department asked for expressions of interest from communications companies in the 5G scheme, that it would help make Britain “a world leader” in the technology.

“The importance of fast, reliable and uninterrupted connectivity on our rail network is only going to increase. Projects like the TransPennine initiative will be instrumental in delivering this for passengers,” Ms James had said.

But last night’s announcement said “the construction costs and complexity” of the radio masts along the route were “significantly greater than expected”.

It is believed the cost of the installation would have been around £25m.

A separate part of the project, involving laying fibre cable along the Manchester to York line will go ahead as planned.

Beckie Hart, the CBI’s regional director in Yorkshire, said: “Scrapping Government plans to improve mobile connectivity on the Trans Pennine rail route is a big blow to business.

“Keeping the North connected with the latest digital technology offers unprecedented opportunities for businesses across the UK. If schemes such as this are parked in the sidings, the digital revolution is in danger of buffering.”

The annual passenger satisfaction survey, published earlier this week by the rail watchdog Transport Focus, reported that nearly half of TransPennine Express travellers were dissatisfied with the reliability of the current wi-fi service.

The train operator, which told The Yorkshire Post it did not know of the Government’s announcement, said it paid an external company to provide its existing service.

Yesterday, the strategy body Transport for the North had set out what it said was an “ambitious but realistic” plan for a Northern Powerhouse Rail programme to cut journey times between the North’s major cities, with a high speed line that would connect both Leeds and Bradford with Manchester.

The scheme is dependent on Government funding.