Mobile Working in Extreme Conditions (i.e. on a train in the UK)

This is another one of my posts on working on a train. I’ve written about this before here, but the latest edition of the BBC Click programme put the issue at the front of my mind again.

The programme opens with a feature on mobile working, which incorporates an interview with the wonderful Christian Payne, known to many of us as @Documentally on Twitter. As he often does, Christian describes in the programme the kit and the methods he uses to stay connected on the move. Now, Christian does this stuff in some extreme situations, like war zones in Iraq, and remote parts of Pakistan. But, what particularly caught my attention, was his reference, towards the end of the interview, to working on trains, which is my particular bug bear. And, in many cases, I have the same problems trying to get and stay connected on a train in the UK as someone like Christian does in Iraq.

Cross Country Train at Manchester Piccadilly

The worst offender in all this is Cross Country trains, whose Voyager Trains (see picture above) have metalised windows, which prevent much of the signal from penetrating the carriage. And, it was only after I wrote my first blog post on this that I found out that Cross Country had failed to deliver on the commitment they gave, when taking over the franchise from Virgin, to install wifi on all its trains by November 2009. And, even where train companies have installed wifi, such as on the East Coast franchise, it so often fails to get a connection with the outside world that I have just about given up trying to use it.

I’m quite taken with Christian’s connectivity solution of tying a mifi to a string of helium balloons, and, if you ever see me looking around the outside of a train, trying to find an anchoring point, you will know what I am doing. I will say again, the fact that the mobile phone companies concentrated on motorways to ensure coverage for car phones in the early days of mobile network development and ignored train lines, plus the reluctance of train companies to address the issue, are severe barriers to mobile working and to getting more people out of their cars and using the trains. Getting on a train, particularly a Cross Country Voyager, often feels like cutting yourself off from the world. If mobile working is ever to become properly feasible, this issue must be addressed. I bet it would be easier for Christian Payne to get connected in some of the more remote and dangerous places on the globe, than it is on a Cross Country Voyager.

7 thoughts on “Mobile Working in Extreme Conditions (i.e. on a train in the UK)

  1. Another obstacle to effective mobile working on trains is the sheer lack of space to do so. Most passenger rolling stock now has fewer tables per carriage so the operators can cram victims, sorry customers in like sardines.

  2. All the trains run through the final third. That is where there is not much internet access either by landline or mobile services. 90% of the UK land mass has under the 2meg USC. Its a disgrace. If the telcos don’t want to provide access to the 40% of the population they say it isn’t profitable enough to reach then their assets should have a compulsory purchase put on them and let someone else do the job. Once there is connectivity in the final third the trains will stand a better chance.

  3. (Cheers for the mention.)

    I find laptop power my main and only real issue on a train. If i have a plug socket i am happy.

    I never rely on the onboard wifi as it is at the very least shoddy and unusable.
    With a decent unlocked mifi and a couple of sims you should always have a 3g to wifi signal (unless in a tunnel of course). To ensure a decent signal I use a plastic sucker like the type used to hold a child’s food bowl to a table. I ensure i have the correct sim for the area and stick the mifi to the window.

    I find Vodafone does a great job on the majority of routes and in the North my Three sim fills in the spaces.

  4. Christian that is Interesting, do you find you can get the signal through the glass? John usually has to stand the mifi in the corridor on our northern trains. There isn’t much Three in Lancs and Cumbria. There isn’t any signal at all in many places from any network actually.

  5. Enlightening post, it’s a true shame – we’re British, the hardest working people on the planet, let us work more!

    Tunnels are quite annoying indeed, it’s unfortunate you can’t just, “postpone” the connection for a while (like with tcp/ip) instead of just losing the connection (udp here)

    Ah well, not a network tech, so I probably got the challenges completely wrong, lets hope they get some professionals in to fix it. As ever public transport is lacking yet we’re supposed to use it…

  6. I should add a comment here that Cross Country finally introduced wifi on their services (I think during 2012). It seems to work pretty well, but it’s not free

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