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European train operator considers Wi-Fi

Cross-channel railroad company Eurostar moves ahead with a plan for wireless Internet access. But can it win back customers from no-frills, short-haul airlines?

Train operator Eurostar is set to begin testing wireless Internet access on its cross-channel services later this year, joining operators such as GNER and Virgin Trains that are already experimenting with the service.

Eurostar plans to begin refurbishing its 10-year-old fleet of 27 trains starting in the middle of the year, a spokesman said Friday, and this will include installing facilities for Wi-Fi-enabled laptops. Train operators are looking to Wi-Fi services as one way of taking back customers from no-frills, short-haul airlines.

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Details have not yet been ironed out, but the system is likely to be similar to the one GNER is testing, connecting to the Internet via a satellite link, Eurostar said. The downside is that service will be interrupted while trains are under the English Channel.

The cross-channel operator recently inaugurated a high-speed track in the United Kingdom a part of its journey that cuts 20 minutes off travel times and promises better punctuality. As a result of the faster link, passenger numbers have increased to record levels, Eurostar said.

GNER has moved the furthest down the track toward enabling its trains with wireless LAN connections, in December launching a three-month trial on one train running from London Kings Cross to Scotland.

Customers wanting to try out GNER's wireless broadband need to have a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop and must buy a first-class ticket for the coach equipped with the wireless data communication system built by Icomera. There is no extra charge for the connection.

Satellite receivers are fitted to the train. GNER says customers experience speeds that are more or less equivalent to an ADSL (asymmetrical digital subscriber line) connection, though speeds vary during the journey based on obstacles on the railway track and coverage offered by different wireless networks along the route.

GNER said that, for example, when the train passes through a tunnel, four to six cellular phone links are used in parallel to maintain the Internet connection, so even if the speed decreases temporarily, the connection will entirely not drop.

If the trial is successful GNER will fit the equipment to 10 high-speed diesel trains and then 30 electric trains.

Stations along Virgin Trains' West Coast route are being Wi-Fi-enabled and, Virgin said, the next phase will include offering full on-board Wi-Fi.

Matthew Broersma of ZDNet UK reported from London. Andy McCue of contributed to this report.