Free wifi on trains may be axed for passengers under new measures to cut costs

The Department for Transport said it is reviewing the service

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Free wifi on trains could be scrapped for passengers as part of new measures to cut costs.

The Department for Transport (DfT), which controls the finances of most operators in England, said it is currently reviewing whether the service “delivers the best possible value for money”.

Passengers have access to free wifi on most train services on Britain’s railways, allowing people to connect their phones and other electronic devices to the internet without having to pay for data.

But the DfT cited a survey by passenger watchdog Transport Focus which indicated that free wifi access is a lower priority among travellers than value for money fares, reliability, punctuality and personal security.

Free wifi on trains could be scrapped for passengers as part of new measures to cut costs (Photo: Getty Images)Free wifi on trains could be scrapped for passengers as part of new measures to cut costs (Photo: Getty Images)
Free wifi on trains could be scrapped for passengers as part of new measures to cut costs (Photo: Getty Images)

A DfT spokeswoman said: “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and it is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reform of all aspects of the railways is essential.

“Passenger surveys consistently show that on-train wifi is low on their list of priorities, so it is only right we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money.”

The DfT said many passengers on short journeys prefer to use their phones without connecting to onboard wifi, adding that continuing to provide wifi on many trains will require replacing or upgrading equipment installed in 2015.

The review of access to wifi was first reported by railway historian Christian Wolmar on his Calling All Stations podcast. He said: “Why this gets me kind of quite angry is that we’re trying to get people to use the railways. We’re trying to attract the commuters back onto it.

“What do people like doing on trains? They like to get their laptops out and their phones out and bash away a few emails or whatever work they have to do. If they can’t get that reliably on the train, they might then consider using their car.”

Anthony Smith, chief executive of independent watchdog Transport Focus, said having access to free wifi is a travel perk that many passengers “now expect as standard”, which would make removing it hard to justify.

He said: “It helps people use their travel time productively and is something which could encourage more people to use rail over other modes. Given the post pandemic need to get more passengers back on the train it would be difficult to justify removing something that makes rail more attractive to customers.”

The review comes following claims that the UK’s rail network is “falling apart” in the face of delays, disruption and ongoing strike action. But Baroness Vere of Norbiton, Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, rejected such criticism at Westminster on Monday (22 May) saying that while the railways face “occasional technical issues” that cause hold-ups, more than £44 billion is being invested by the government for improvements.

The Tory frontbencher was also tackled over future funding to complete work to protect the section of railway track along the south Devon coastline at Dawlish, after storms in February 2014 cut off the only railway line to the South West.

While some improvements have been carried out, including a new sea wall, Lady Vere was pressed over further measures “to restore full resilience to this vital link”. She was also told of the need for a second line to ensure the region’s rail connection is safeguarded year-round.

Raising in Parliament continued delays faced by train passengers, Liberal Democrat Baroness Walmsley said “points failures and signal failures are high on the list”, adding: “Does this not indicate that the network is falling apart?”

But responding, Lady Vere said: “I do not accept that the network is falling apart. In whichever country one is in the world, there are occasional technical issues that cause trains to be delayed. The government are investing £44.1 billion in the next control period. That will ensure that our railways are fit for the future.”

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