back to article Mobile coverage on trains really is pants

Mobile survey coverage company GWS, the company behind The Reg's awesome Monopoly test, has numbers to back up what we’ve always suspected: mobile coverage on trains is pants. In what it claims is the most rigorous train connectivity study ever conducted, GWS has dubbed Three best for voice, Vodafone best for 3G and …

  1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Hogwart's Express

    Doesn't the Hogwart's Express leave King's Cross, rather than St. Pancras?

    1. Richard 81

      Re: Hogwart's Express

      They say it's King's Cross, but in the movies they used St. Pancras.

      ...neither of which look much like they are described.

      1. Test Man

        Re: Hogwart's Express

        Wrong. King's Cross was used for filming, but not in Platform 9/10/11 (as that's effectively an extension to the rest of the station), it was on the other more eastern platforms. The exterior shots was of St Pancras, though.

        However, when J K Rowling mentioned King's Cross in the books, she was actually imagining Euston's platforms.

      2. Anonymous Custard

        Re: Hogwart's Express

        The two are basically expanding to become one station anyway, so it's easy to accept.

        And for those who wish, you can actually have your photo taken at a little "Platform 9 3/4" thing at King's Cross. Admittedly it's not in the movie location, but it is signposted and reasonably well run. It's half a trolly plus a few props stuck on the wall between the bookshop and the ticket office/info bit, although with a few members of staff to run it and take photographs that you can buy.

        A bit of fun, and probably quite profitable given what they charge for the pics (my kids did it a few weeks back) plus there's a small Harry Potter shop there too (slightly confusingly with another bookshop outlet between it and the photo area).

        1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

          Re: Hogwart's Express

          And for those who wish, you can actually have your photo taken at a little "Platform 9 3/4" thing at King's Cross. Admittedly it's not in the movie location...

          Before the big refurbishment at King's Cross, they actually had the trolley down near the end of Platform 9 on a wall between platforms 8 & 9. It was a bit grubby and not too well thought out. The new place is much better and easier for people to get to.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Hogwart's Express

        As far as I know, they used the interior of King's Cross, but exterior shots of St Pancras. Cos it's pretty. And I guess sort of castle looking, gothic and spooky. At the time the films were made, kings cross had that nasty green porch, and prostitutes. You wouldn't really want randoms in raincoats asking Hermione if she was on the game. Not until the later films, in any case.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Hogwart's Express

          Harry Potter as imagined by Salman Rushdie, magic realism and all. I like it. "The Satanic Verses" could easily have been a title of one of the HP books (remember the Onion spoof that got taken seriously by evangelicals?).

  2. Zog_but_not_the_first


    I'm on a tra...

    1. HollyHopDrive

      Re: Nonsense!

      Clearly you aren't on o2 or you wouldn't get even the page up to type in.

      Birmingham to Euston I've given up. I can get 4g while sat in coventry station other than that its GPRS with NO throughput until off the train at Euston. I used to be on three and it was fairly usable (I even used to tether to my laptop!) - only 5 months left on my O2 contract then I'm off the worst network I've ever used (and over the years I've been on 3/T-Mobile/orange/o2)

      1. The Wegie

        Re: Nonsense!

        Brum - Euston last week, and Euston via Rugby to Crewe on the way back were positive miracles of connectivity on O2 (HSPDA+ for about 60% of the journey) compared to the horrors that await once you make the mistake of venturing any further west into Shropshire. Apart from the HSPDA signal that sits firmly inside the Shrewsbury ring road (and never ventures beyond) and a localised patch of almost decent 3G in Ludlow, the county is a giant sucking black hole for data: nothing escapes the event horizon. If you don't know where you're going and don't have the most up-to-date timetables saved as PDFs on your phone, you're absolutely stuffed for working out any travel hitches.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Nonsense!

          O2's data network is horrific.

          Unless you are in a population centre, you can forget about anything other than reallllly slow 2g data. If you are more than about 10 miles from a major conurbation, forget even 2g data. I get the feeling that the Sloughbots think everyone commutes by train from the home counties. It doesn't occur to them that the whole point of mobile data is that you can enjoy connectivity where there ISN'T a fixed network. Having 3G at work is pointless, I have a LAN connection. Give me data in mid-Wales, or the Scottish highlands where I like to go on holiday, not in Leeds City Centre, where I would never ever want to access high speed data.

          I live a mile away from one of O2's Offices it, and can't even get 3G at home, so have to fall back on my O2 broadband....oh, wait...I can't even do that now!

          1. rhydian

            Re: Nonsense!

            For all their faults EE does cover Mid and North Wales very well with 3G. During my road trip to the Isle of Skye I was rarely without signal, and usually had passable 3G, even at Glencoe

            1. William Gallafent

              Coverage in more remote areas (was Re: Nonsense!)

              Yes, one reason I've stuck with T-Orange is their coverage in South-west Wales. Far better than any of the others. Were it not for the femtocell I wouldn't have any coverage /at home/ in South-east England, mind you (but that's true for all operators, no signal of any flavour here, so no big deal!).

    2. Alan Brown Silver badge

      Re: Nonsense!


  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I call BS

    The time to download a 4MB picture on a commuter train using Vodafone is _NEVER_.

    Example 1 - Cambridge to London Kings Cross

    1. There is practically no coverage from Addenbrooks to Letchworth with the exemption of Royston station.

    2. After that you get some coverage on the East Coast mainline, but it is clearly unusable due to every commuter with a vodafone company phone on the train using it. Average speed on any of the trains running between 6:45 and 10:00 is sub-1K/s. During that time you actually get better performance on 3, because it is mostly private use and much fewer company contracts.

    Example 2 - London to Sheffield or London to Glasgow

    1. Same commuter horrors apply if you are travelling in the morning - you can forget about anything above 1-2K/s until you get past Peterborough (or Milton Keynes on the West coast mainline).

    2. Once you are past these the coverage is sporadic. There is 3G and even 4G in urban areas and stations. Once you are out rolling through the countryside you should be happy if you are granted an occasional couple of Edge channels.

    So I dunno where did they measure this, but it is complete and absolute bullshit which vastly overstates the actual usable mobile coverage.

    1. werdsmith Silver badge

      Re: I call BS

      ECML from Hitchin to Kings Cross has enough tunnels to make using mobile services pointless and I just give and put the thing away.

      The headline on this article has two superfluous words in it: "on trains".

    2. Billa Bong

      Re: I call BS

      Interesting - on O2 I can tether and get reasonable service (i.e. I can work) all the way to the tunnels - after that it's dicey.

      However, that's the best experience I've had with O2. Even major hubs of community, such as inside Addenbrookes hospital itself, or one of the many large villages around Cambridge has next to no signal and no chance of data at all.

    3. LucreLout

      Re: I call BS

      Travelling from Kings Cross to Cambridge, I tried in vain to grab a stable connection (on call, had to remote into the office) all along that route. Given the length of a train vs the length of a tunnel, there's really no excuse for the TOC and the telcos not offering a stable connection for the whole length of the journey.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Packet loss is an odd metric to use for mobile networks - because of the way error protection and retransmission work at the air interface level, a loss of ~10% is the target to maximise throughput.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    sample size of one

    I travel for work a lot, and this is full of confirmation bias etc etc but my O2 gets a better signal for data on most train journeys than Vodafone. Vodafone does a better job of maintaining a voice call though.

    I carry two phones because usually one of them will work when I get to my destination, otherwise I'm scrambling to find a good wifi connection to use Lync.

    1. SharePoint-Bytes


      I carry two mobiles O2 for work EE for home and I do the Manchester - London commute every week. EE is unusable for East Coast line, sporadic but OK on West coast line. O2 is OK but patchy on both.

  6. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    Offload to Wifi

    Bandwidth is always going to be limited so some for of throttling to reduce contention is inevitable. The smart thing, of course, is to use pico or femto cells to offload the traffic to a fat pipe, though I suspect video is generally out of the question.

    The Dutch rail companies now provide some form of free throttled wifi on all their trains but public wifi spots carry an inherent security risk that cells can avoid.

  7. Nifty

    Almost every developed country seems to do much better

    In the past I've take very lengthy journeys in China, Finland and Switzerland.

    China: Perfect uninterrupted, fast 3g (on a dongle) for the 1st 6 hours North out of Beijing.

    Finland: Free Wifi on the train that worked very with with no dropouts for 90% of a 10 hour journey. No video streaming possible but radio and podcasts, just fine.

    Switzerland (on an o2 roaming SIM): No 3g but perfect fast Edge or UMTS

    So when took two long UK journeys recently, one from Reading to Devon and one from Reading to Fort William in Scotland, I expected to be able to use data (Three) on the train. In reality there was no 3g for 80% of the journey. When there was it was very hit or miss if you could connect.

    Seems the motorways are well covered in the UK (so kids and passengers can web surf) but nothing for laptop and tablet toting rail travelers. (I did look at the train operator's WiFi offerings but laughed out loud at the cost - and already had heard reports of how dire UK onboard rail WiFi is).

    For my next long journeys, flying or going by car will take precedence largely due to the lack of one major modern convenience on trains: data.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

      Reading to London is no better. Sure it's only 30 minutes, but in that 30 minutes I'd like to send a few emails, check my voice messages and read some online news. You can only do that for about 60-70% of the journey.

      1. The Wegie

        Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

        Ah yes. Reading to London. Where the biggest black hole in O2's abysmal coverage was always right outside their HQ in Slough.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

      1. stu 4

        Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

        At least on east coast mainline 'abelio' backwater the wifi is nothing more than a hotspot for train mobile 3g connection. So it's as shit as the 3g coverage... which on the eastcoast mainline is utterly pathetic - there are about 3 or 4 spots during the 75 min journey between ipswich and liverpool st where you can get 3g.... most of the time it's between GPRS and no signal at all.

        doesn't stop the wankers actually trying to CHARGE for the crap wifi right enough... on top of your 70 quid ticket.

    3. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

      For my next long journeys, flying or going by car will take precedence largely due to the lack of one major modern convenience on trains: data.

      Because you'll be using your smartphone whilst driving..? Or are you going to employ a chauffeur?

      1. Nifty

        Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

        ....Because you'll be using your smartphone whilst driving..? Or are you going to employ a chauffeur?...

        Because I'll save a lot of time and (especially with 2 in a car) money. Rail is supposed to have the key advantage that you can do something else at the same time. Except that the something ought to include online something.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

      Quote: Seems the motorways are well covered in the UK (so kids and passengers can web surf)

      My observations are based on the "traffic" indicator in the GPS going offline so they are indirect. Based on them there are huge swaths of the UK motorway where there is no coverage whatsoever - M11, parts of M4, etc.

      Otherwise I agree. The only time I have seen worse coverage than UK is when sitting in a traffic jam in the middle of nowhere on A1 in the Czech Tatra mountains. Everything else has been better.

    5. Neil Hoskins

      Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

      Developing countries too. I got better coverage on a holiday to Kenya in 2007 than I get at home in 2014 (T-mobile / EE).

    6. captain veg Silver badge

      Re: Almost every developed country seems to do much better

      Not France, alas.

      I quite regularly take the train from Paris to Toulouse. There is NO signal at all between the large towns, so you have about 5 minutes roughly every hour to get what communication you can done.

      Free WiFi? No WiFi at all on the trains. Or in most of the stations.

      On the other hand, a standard ticket costs 55 euros, and I have paid as little as 17 in advance.


  8. Chris Miller

    TBH I really don't want to download a song, let alone a movie, while on the train. I would like to be able to read/send emails and check the Network Rail/Tube app/website for my connection. Neither is possible for a lot of the time. Instead of building out 4G/5G networks to deliver 100Mb (4K movies on a 4 inch screen??) to a select few in city centres, please get 100Kb coverage working in most places. </rant>

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Missed opportunity

    Looks like they've missed an opportunity here - pootling around London on commuter trains where the guy admits people are likely to be standing - probably without space to wave a fondlefone around - is a pointless test for the mobile operators anyway. Surely it's obvious with typically well over 100 people in a 23x2m space (enclosed in metal) that the radios are going to perform woefully; that and the fact that they're relatively short journeys anyway.

    How about some quality data for the lines where people are relying on their mobiles for doing real work, like WCML, ECML, MML, GWML and GEML where the push is also for faster trains, and they regularly run at up to 125mph? I'd also be interested to compare the North West and Scottish commuter experiences into Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Edinburgh with that into London too. I suspect "similarly bad" will be the answer there.

  10. John Riddoch

    I put it down to problems getting a solid signal at speed and the fact you're in a big metal tube which isn't particularly condusive to good radio signals. Add in the fact that many rail lines are flanked by embankments and it's little wonder you struggle to get a decent reception. I know my recent train journeys were a nightmare for getting 3g on vodafone.

    1. Ted Treen

      Correct, John...

      "'re in a big metal tube which isn't particularly condusive to good radio signals..."

      And most of these big metal tubes were designed quite some time ago (when today's mobile comms would, if considered at all, have been viewed as sci-fi). They have great wiring looms running overhead; to one side; to the other side; in fact almost anywhere where they could be tucked away out of sight.

      That makes the radio reception - especially at mobile frequencies - even more iffy.

  11. John Miles 1

    Works for the wrong people

    Why is it that I can seldom get a signal on a train to make a quick call, yet the person next to me can be loudly blabbering trivia into their phone for the entire journey ( or perhaps they are talking so relentlessly that they don't notice that the call dropped ages ago ).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Works for the wrong people

      You presuppose that they were ever talking to someone in the first place...

      1. ravenviz Silver badge

        Re: Works for the wrong people

        If I want to make a call I go to the entrance vestibule* because a) I stand a better chance of getting a signal; b) it's polite.

        *I don't use the train for commuting, only leisure trips in the evening

      2. LucreLout

        Re: Works for the wrong people

        "You presuppose that they were ever talking to someone in the first place..."

        Yep - I'll never forget about 10 years ago, catching a Northern line train south into London. The wannabe gangster yoot opposite blabbed and blabbed on his phone, answering questions as though he were having a two way conversation. That he'd not noticed we'd been underground for the past 6 stations was slightly amusing.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I travel on the West Coast Mainline between Birmingham to London every week and I simply do not recognise this story about Vodafone coverage. I don't know whether this is because I'm using them via the MVNO TalkTalk, but I've now resorted to putting my phone into flight mode for the journey as the signal is non-existent.

    Three were best on this route for data and EE weren't far behind. O2 was OK and usable. But Vodafone by far and away the worst. I'm off to 3 with the end of my TalkTalk mobile contract.

  13. Scuby

    South Africa

    SA has the best mobile coverage anywhere. The battery on my old iPhone 5 used to last be the whole day without getting below 40%, as opposed to lasting 5 hours for the same amount of usage.

    Get back to London, get to Waterloo station, no chance of a data connection despite having 4 dots and a 3G signal unless I turn flight mode on and off a couple of times, the same for roaming around the city, especially on weekends.

    Switched to Three a week ago when I upgraded my phone. Not had a single problem since.

  14. frank ly

    An old man writes

    In the mid to late '70s, I used to use buses, underground and trains for all my travel. Then, the idea that there could be a phone on a train was the stuff of science fiction. I didn't even have a phone in my small rented flat (or a television or a computer). If I tell that to youngsters nowadays, they don't believe me.

    1. ravenviz Silver badge

      Re: An old man writes

      So listening to Libby Purves was your only source of pr0n?

    2. Nifty

      Re: An old man writes

      "the idea that there could be a phone on a train was the stuff of science fiction"

      I think it still is

  15. ukgnome

    Lack on investment of the railways? Surely not.

    OK that's sarcasm, wouldn't it be a simple infrastructure job to place 4G masts alongside the tracks? I thought that was what "call me dave" wanted.

    It would be a win for train and mobile providers alike. Decent connection means more subscribers, more subscribers mean more data used, more data used used means more cash. All from the "comfort" of a train.

  16. spider from mars

    Don't go south of the river

    confirms what I suspected - there's a weird coverage black hole around Clapham Junction. Can't imagine why - it's not as if it's a sparsely populated area.

  17. Phil_Evans

    Am I missing a trick?

    Does the study take account of any signal contention? I swear that as the massed ranks of the One Direction fan club board the train, my healthy five bars of signal evaporates magically. Or would another Hogwarts metaphor apply here too?

  18. trigpoint

    Faraday cages

    The use of metailised glass that turns carriages into Faraday cages doesn't help either.

  19. rivergarden

    And Paddington...? I'm sure all those people standing from Swindon / Didcot / Reading would love to know the relative reliability. I've never kept a call going for more than 3 minutes on that line once past the M25.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    30 secs to download 4MB? Jeez, I should be so lucky! You attempt to download 4K on the Seven Sisters line between Sisters and Waltham Cross you'd best not even bother, at least on O2 anyway!

  21. Wilseus

    It's pants now, but didn't used to be

    I've been commuting on the train between Northampton and Watford for several years now. I own a non-4G Moto G, and while my T-Mobile/EE 3G signal was patchy in places such as Tring*, up until the last few months it was usable for most of the journey. However now it's almost completely useless and as a consequence I've given up browsing and I now read a newspaper instead. Even at a major station such as Milton Keynes, I get nothing. I presume that this deterioration in 3G reception coincided with their 4G rollout.

    I've tried to phone up EE to complain on more than one occasion but surprise surprise, I've never been able to get through to speak to someone.

    *Oddly enough, Tring station, the one place that there was never any signal at all, is now one of the few places on my journey where I can, briefly as the train passes by, actually download a web page.

    1. TheOtherHobbes

      Re: It's pants now, but didn't used to be

      I was in an EE store over the w/e (uh...) and the excuse was that Orange and T-Mobile masts are being closed and/or repurposed for EE/4G. So even though in theory you're on EE, you're actually... not.

      Or something.

      All I know is that I can stand at the window of a house in Devon with a view for miles and full bars on a FormerlyOrangeNowEE phone, and get download speeds of plus or minus zero.

      If that doesn't work, what hope of getting anything useful out of 3/4G on a train?

      At best demand is vastly exceeding supply. At worst the cellcos simply don't give a crap, and will keep collecting money from a captive market for as long as they can.

  22. IHateWearingATie

    About matches my experience

    Currently commuting from Watford to Kingston (sometime round the outside via richmond, sometimes through central London) and reception is pretty good using my EE mobile.

    Only on 4G though - if I have it switched to 3G (as I do at home to get a signal for voice calls) the mobile connectivity sucks on both routes.

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I don't ask for much - just the occasional phone call & the odd web surf between Weymouth & Waterloo. Result is about an 80% failure rate in my experience. It is a journey I have been doing every month for about 5 years and I have seen no improvement and no interest. Please could they do these surveys outside of London - it is appalling.

    (BTW - there is indeed a Clapham blackspot. Do they care).

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Weymouth-Waterloo

      My experience on the same route (but to Eastleigh) is exactly the same, on both EE (T-Mob and Orange), Vodafone and O2.

  24. kensal

    Pffffffff...forget the underground they need to sort out their overground nonsense first...same crap...OFCOM are such a weak regulator...the amount of money these networks take from us and are still able to get away with poor coverage and worst still awful awful WiFi..and recpetion.

  25. Roland6 Silver badge

    "The testing throws down the gauntlet to the mobile operators."

    BE interested to see the logic for this statement...

    The current Ofcom/Oftel 3G coverage obligation is very specific:

    " providing mobile telecommunications services to an area within which at least 90% of the population of the UK lives ... with a 90% probability that users in outdoor locations within that area can receive the service with a sustained downlink speed of not less than 768 kbps in a lightly loaded cell."

    There is no obligation to provide coverage to people who are travelling...

    The compliance verification methodology backs this up by assessing the services available at a single fixed point within a designated population area.

  26. Zog_but_not_the_first

    Down the wire?

    For the electrified lines, can't they squirt networky stuff down the wire like the things that plug into 13A sockets?

    1. Otto is a bear.

      Re: Down the wire?

      Overhead supply is very noisy, and the pan is not in continuous contact with the wire. On wet and cold days the supply arcs through water and frost. WiFi on trains uses Icomera which hunts the best mobile signal with satellite fallback and an ariel on the roof. The track is also split into sections which pass a different electrical circuit to tell signallers which section a train is in, these sections don't match the overhead supply. 3rd Rail is DC and has a whole host of other noise issues.

      Don't forget that a fast train will be doing 90 plus for most of its journey through tunnels and cuttings and other geography, all in a steel box full of HV wires. If you want to get an idea of how good a signal you'll get look at Ofcom Sitefinder which shows the location of all mobile transmitter sites. The railways GSM-R system provides train to shore comms, but not standard mobile, so don't be fooled by the line of masts along the railway.

      I drive on the M25 a lot, and mobile reception there is poor as well, especially in the tunnels, my sat nav uses GSM for traffic updates, and there are whole sections where it loses contact, again geography and being in a steel box.

      Lastly the signal attenuation for mobile has increased with each generation of mobile technology, and the masts haven't moved that much.

    2. phil dude

      Re: Down the wire?

      take an upvote for voicing my thought!!

      I suspect there is a $$ disadvantage...but the compromise is use the rails for an IPoverAC connection, and then have 3G/4G repeaters in the carriage.

      As someone pointed out, geriatric carriages may be a large part of the problem...


      PS here in the USA, I recently rode the Acela express from NYC to DC and the wifi was shockingly good... phone signal was not, so perhaps the issue is the phones being in motion etc..?

      1. Otto is a bear.

        Re: Down the wire? @Phil

        As a by the way, older stock is more likely to give you better reception, as it has less electrical equipment and seats aligned with windows. Modern EMUs use distributed traction, where by the traction supply is distributed from the pan car to the motored axels through the train. Older trains tend only to have hotel power from the locomotive or generator car, EMUs tended to have a single power car. So outside that car you only get the hotel power and control circuits.

  27. This post has been deleted by its author

  28. Peter27x

    OFCOM's drive routes are partly to blame

    OFCOM publishes a set of cities and 'drive routes', the main trunk roads around the country, where all mobile phone operators need to report there network availability and quality. The railways are (or seemingly were not) included, therefore there was no real reason for the Mobile Operators to provide good coverage in those areas. Remember in days gone past, the mobile phone used to be called the carphone!

    Rubbish mobile data whilst travelling really is a pain, what else can we do whilst commuting on trains for hours a week?

  29. Geoff 19

    A couople of poinits to add

    1) it may be that there are many people that carry around a mobile phone jammer. This would creat the sorrt of service stats we see here.

    2) Using a mobile phone loudly is anti-scoial behaviour - yet we seem to accept it as reality on trains. May be the people with the phone jammers have a point.



  30. Carbon life unit 5,232,556

    Mobile coverage crap?

    Who knew?

  31. A J Stiles

    Known this all along

    If you sit just outside first class, where you can pick up on the wi-fi spillage, your connection really is not much better than 2.5G at the best of times -- and most of the time, it just disappears altogether.

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