5G and Wi-Fi is on the back burner for the UK’s railways.

In light of much higher than expected costs and general market apathy towards the project, the UK Government has announced it is to scrap part of its £35 million trial of 5G-based mobile and fixed line fibre technology along the Trans Pennine rail route. With support from the Department for Culture Media and Science (DCMS) the line, which connects Manchester and York, had been selected as a trial area for new trackside wireless systems.

Coined the Trans Pennine Initiative (TPI), the trial was originally devised as a support mechanism for ambitious Government plans which sought to supply uninterrupted Wi-Fi and 5G Mobile broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps to all mainline train routes across the UK by 2025. The initiative remains a collaboration between the Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) and 5G Testbeds and Trials programmes, with Network Rail as the delivery partner.

Following last August’s Call for Information, central Government had been hoping to appoint a selection of winning bidders at the end of 2018, with work to commence in March of this year. However, on January 30than update published online included a; “Notification of Discontinuation of Radio Infrastructure Delivery.” The update revealed that the plan to build a passive infrastructure, which would include masts allowing radio trials of high-quality connectivity on carriages along the Trans Pennine route, was to be halted.

Despite the downsizing of the project, two elements are to remain. Firstly, Network Rail’s fibre cable deployment along the Trans Pennine route is already well underway and scheduled for completion in May of this year. Indeed, over half the fibre has already been laid (65km of 116km), splicing has commenced, and planning requests for connections to internet exchanges in both Leeds and Manchester are nearly complete. Furthermore, the DCMS recently stated they believe the completed works will act as a trial commercial model for fibre deployment on the railways.

Second, plans are still in place to upgrade the existing 13-mile long Network Rail test track, located at the Rail Innovation and Development Centre in Melton Mowbray, enabling trials on emerging technologies such as 5G.

Following the announcement that the Trans Pennine Initiative is to be cut back, the DCMS made the following statement to provide a little more clarity to the situation:

“The Call for Input (August 20th, 2018) sought feedback on, and interest in, testing passive infrastructure, including masts, along the Trans Pennine route, to enable radio trials of high-quality passenger connectivity on trains.

Although there was interest in the concept of the trial, the market was not prepared to participate on the basis of the available funding (covering equipment provision only) and that following the trial a supplier could be required to remove their equipment.

In parallel, it has become clear, following the completion of a detailed site survey and planning work by Network Rail along the route, that the construction costs and complexity of the radio infrastructure required along the Trans Pennine route are significantly greater than expected.

The timetable for delivery of the radio trial would also be significantly impacted by these factors. Having assessed alternative options, DCMS has concluded that there are no credible means to deliver the planned passenger trials to a suitable standard within the available budget and within a reasonable timeframe to inform wider policy development.

As a result of these factors and the results of the CFI, DCMS has taken the decision not to pursue the planned build of radio infrastructure along the Trans Pennine route.

Apparently, the costs for this specific aspect were more than double (around £25m) what had actually been allocated and the deployment would have taken up to four years to complete. Suffice to say there was a legitimate concern that this effort might not deliver value for money.”

Currently, Wi-Fi penetration into the UK rail market stands at around 65%, but – and despite the recently announced cut-backs to the TPI – the figure is expected to increase exponentially over the next two years.