British rail passengers to get free Wi-Fi ride

As part of seven-year contract for London-to-Scotland trains, National Express to offer even coach passengers free wireless connectivity.

Rail passengers on the London-to-Scotland east coast main line will get free Wi-Fi as part of National Express' 1.4 billion-pound ($2.8 billion) winning bid to run the franchise.

National Express plans to take over the rail route from GNER in mid-December after fending off competition for the franchise from Arriva, FirstGroup, Stagecoach and Virgin Trains.

GNER completed the approximately $6.5 million installation of Wi-Fi broadband connectivity on all 41 of its east coast trains last year, and although the service has been free for first-class passengers, those in standard (coach) are charged either $5.96 per half hour or $20.11 for a full day's use.

But in addition to faster journey times, National Express has also promised to extend free Wi-Fi to passengers in standard class as part of its seven-year contract.

The on-board Wi-Fi uses a combination of a satellite link and mobile 3G/GPRS networks to maintain 100 percent connectivity, even when going through tunnels.

A server from Swedish company Icomera on the train provides a 2MB satellite downlink, which is combined with the mobile connectivity. Wireless access points are then fitted at the end of each carriage on a train, which connect to the main onboard satellite server and can support about 40 simultaneous users in each carriage at a time.

National Express said it will also build a simpler "one-stop shop" Web site to highlight the cheapest tickets available, introduce smart cards by 2010, provide real-time travel updates to mobile phones, and allow passengers to print tickets at home or use "m-tickets" through their mobile phones.

Andy McCue of reported from London.

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