ScotRail is to trial the fastest in-train Wi-Fi service in the world – Project SWIFT will allow users to experience Internet speeds on-the-go of up to 300 Mbps. Currently, passengers travelling between the two cities can access less than 10% of that capability.

If successful, the service would represent “the difference between streaming a music service with interrupted coverage, and downloading the entire Beatles back catalogue, seamlessly, in under two minutes”.

ScotRail is working with Cisco, CGI, Network Rail Telecoms and Wittos on an Innovate UK and Rail Safety and Standards Board funded proof-of-concept project, first reported by FutureScot earlier this year. As part of Project SWIFT, start-ups and SME’s have been invited to participate in an open innovation challenge that utilises live data from the project.

With the existing in-train mobile service in the UK, 33% of internet requests on trains fail and with 1.4bn journeys a year, that equates to millions of lost hours of productivity, missed opportunity for online retailers, and potentially dissatisfied passengers, said Cisco in a statement.

“Consistent, high speed connectivity on trains provides a significant opportunity for not only the rail industry, but the UK as a whole,” it said.

As the recent National Infrastructure Commission report outlined, the use of existing 3G/4G networks for train connectivity has been unsuccessful, largely due to number of tunnels, cuttings and regional 3G/4G black-spots in the UK. Project SWIFT provides a viable alternative, said Cisco.

Project SWIFT improving experience

Led by Cisco CREATE, the company’s Collaborative Research and Emerging Technologies division, is working with government, industry, research institutions and start-ups to accelerate innovation.

Project SWIFT aims to show how high-speed in-carriage connectivity will improve the experience for passengers and help train operators provide better, more reliable and profitable services.

It has been tested on a train and track near Stratford-upon-Avon, and will now be trialled on a train between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The project will use existing trackside fibre to backhaul data from trackside masts. The masts will access unlicensed Wi-Fi spectrum to connect trains to this fibre, with a lossless session handover between masts as low as 2 milliseconds.

Both existing and newly installed masts will be used along the Edinburgh-Glasgow route to ensure that consistent coverage can be trialled along the line, regardless of tunnels and cuttings.

The proof of concept trial will commence later this year, and run until the end of March 2018.

Cisco said the project goes beyond providing Internet access to passengers “and investigates what becomes possible when you add data and insight to connections”

This could include providing passengers live information on seating capacity, real-time detection of incidents on trains, no dropped calls – even in tunnels – and the possibility of video-conferencing, and retail opportunities such as shop and collect at a journey’s end.

The art of the possible

“Project SWIFT embodies the art of the possible,” said Scot Gardner, chief executive of Cisco UK & Ireland. “If the UK is to truly benefit from what digital technologies have to offer, then connectivity has to be a given – even when travelling at 140mph.”

He added “If only a fraction of the time that we spend travelling is made more productive, the potential for commuters, the train companies and the UK as a whole is immense.”

Rob Shorthouse, ScotRail Alliance communications director added: “Our customers consistently tell us that one of the things that they expect on their journey is fast, reliable Wi-Fi.

“This pilot scheme, which we are undertaking on behalf of the entire rail industry, will allow us to fully understand how we take our current on-train WiFi to the next level.”