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Trains: Wifi Provision for Passengers

Volume 830: debated on Thursday 25 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they plan to advise franchise train operators to discontinue the provision of Wi-Fi for passengers on their trains.

My Lords, the way we currently operate our railways is not financially sustainable. It is unfair to continue to ask taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reforms are essential. Therefore, it is only right that we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money. However, no decisions have been taken.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. She will be aware that, I think, most train operators already have wifi in all their trains for management and revenue purposes. How much money would be saved by the Treasury if they removed access to wifi from the passengers?

I will revert to where I started on this. No decisions have been taken. As part of the business planning process, we have asked the train operating companies to look again at the services provided and to come up with a business case which sets out the benefits to passengers and the costs of providing that service. However, usage of wifi on trains is actually quite low. It is available from all train operating companies but is not available on all trains.

One of the reasons that wifi use on trains is perhaps a little low, as my noble friend says, is because it is so hit and miss. I have been involved in an energetic correspondence with Mr Mark Hopwood, the managing director of GWR. I say energetic. It is energetic on my part, but less energetic perhaps on his; an acknowledgement would be a start and an answer even better. The truth is that we have a terrible problem in this country with productivity, and train time is dead time. You can get wifi on a plane and on a boat; surely you should be able to get reliable wifi on trains. If the problem is with Network Rail, then we really need to look at the relationship we have with the train operators, Network Rail and the whole infrastructure.

The wifi on trains usually runs off the same 4G and 5G system that my noble friend will have on his smartphone, so sometimes there can be reliability issues. It also depends on how many people are using the wifi on the train. It is there for email and other low data usage requirements. It is not really there for streaming, but I accept that sometimes the bandwidth can be a little challenging.

My Lords, UK rail passengers already suffer the most expensive rail fares in Europe. Surely they should expect to receive the basics—a seat, working toilets and catering—but too often this is not the case, even on long journeys. Now the Government are planning to advise train operators to remove wifi so passengers will not be able to use their journey time to work. Are the Government stuck in the 19th century? When will His Majesty’s Government recognise that to tackle the climate emergency we need better public transport, not worse?

Of course, the Government regularly survey passengers to find out what they really appreciate about the railways such as reliability, good services, punctuality and clean services. Actually, wifi is very low down on the list of priorities.

I can say only what the evidence is from asking passengers. We have asked the train operating companies to look at the provision of wifi, to establish a business case which sets out the benefits to passengers—how much they need it, those who perhaps are unable to use a smartphone on 4G or 5G for example—and then to revert.

My Lords, will my noble friend take this as a response to her survey? Those of us who purchase our tickets electronically require wifi to both board and travel on the train. How am I going to be permitted legally to travel if there is no wifi to demonstrate that I have purchased a ticket?

I would hope that my noble friend would have got the ticket in the wallet on her phone because she would have needed it to go through the station anyway. Free wifi will remain available at stations and as I say, no decisions have been taken. We have asked the train operating companies to prepare business cases.

My Lords, if the wifi is taken off our unreliable Avanti trains, how will I be able to let the Whips’ Office know that I will be missing a three-line Whip? Is this not another example of the pettifogging interference in the railway industry by civil servants, many of whom know nothing about it but love playing trains in their spare time? Is this not yet another example of those in her department who know the price of everything and the value of nothing?

I for one would be very disappointed if the noble Lord were unable to vote. I will take up the issue of where the Government are at the moment. Prior to the pandemic there was no need for any subsidy in operating the railways. There were zero subsidies, so revenues matched the costs. Noble Lords will all know that, since the pandemic, revenues have fallen and some revenues have shifted to the weekend and to more leisure travel. Last year the taxpayer had to subsidise the trains to the tune of £2.85 billion. That is unsustainable. To be a responsible Government, we have to look at all elements of our train services to ensure that they match demand and that the services we are providing and the facilities on them meet the needs of passengers.

My Lords, the Minister frequently tells us that the taxpayer cannot be expected to subsidise the railways because relatively few people use them. Do the Government acknowledge that we all benefit—every single one of us—from the use of the railways because each train that travels carries many hundreds of passengers who would otherwise be clogging up our already congested roads?

I do not think I can necessarily disagree with the noble Baroness, but that is a very absolutist approach and there is some balance to be had here. She says that the Government are not willing to subsidise the railways; we already do. As I have said, £2.85 billion is going in for the services. As I mentioned earlier this week, £44.1 billion is going into control period 7—the highest ever—and that covers all the renewals, the maintenance and the Network Rail operations. That element of it is very significant. That is nearly £9 billion a year that the Government spend, and in addition a further £2.8 billion is spent on subsidising services.

My Lords, the Minister says that no final decision has been taken, but is she trying to persuade the House that the Government no longer think, in the 21st century in which we live, that wifi should count as an essential service for those of us who use the railways?

The proof is in the pudding—between 10% and 20% of people on trains use the wifi. Most people nowadays use 4G and 5G networks.

The noble Baroness links the unavailability of wifi to the unavailability of 4G and 5G in the areas in which the trains are travelling. Does she directly link the failure of the trains to provide wifi to the failure of Project Gigabit?

If I knew what Project Gigabit was, I would be able to answer the noble Earl’s question. I will find out and write to him. If there are not-spots for 4G and 5G—or perhaps we should call them no-spots—we really should look at that and ensure that train travellers can use those networks with reliability.

My Lords, the Minister has a number of times referred to people using their own 4G or 5G contracts instead, but people who have to really watch their costs in the cost of living crisis are very likely to have capped contracts where the amount of 4G or 5G they use is limited. Given the already eye-watering cost of rail fares and the fact that if you get wifi you are not using that scarce resource you have in your 4G or 5G contract, is this not actually pricing even more people off the railways and making the service available only to the rich?

As I have said many times, business cases will be drawn up by the train operating companies, and those considerations will be top of mind.

Can the noble Baroness let the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and the House know just what saving would be made if wifi were withdrawn, and what alternatives might be available to keep it running?

Of course, I cannot say that at the moment because there is no plan to completely withdraw all wifi from across the network. That is the whole point. However, once the business cases have been done and there is an agreement as to which wifi might continue and which might not—one might assume that it would be a prerequisite on longer journeys, but I am not going to prejudge the outcome of the business cases—at that stage we will have a better idea of the future economics.