Expat Essentials

Expat Essentials: For business travelers, Wi-Fi on trains still hit-or-miss across Europe

I travel. A lot. Which is the norm for many expats living in Europe, especially corporate executives.

My preferred mode of intercontinental transportation is the train because I hate to fly. Honestly, these days, trains in Europe aren’t that much less expensive than discount flights. But interestingly, they’re faster. At least according to GoEuro, the three-year-old app/search engine that allows you to compare and book travel based on which mode is a better deal, or faster. (More about that at the end of the post.)

One of the big advantages of taking the train for me is, if it has Wi-Fi, I can get far more done on the train to, say, Vienna or Amsterdam than I can on a flight. For a few hours, that train car becomes my office, my laptop, iPhone and documents spread all over the table in my compartment, or in the dining car. Recently, on my way to Vienna, I looked up and the digital display inside my car indicated we were doing about 200 kph (125 mph), so I posted on Facebook, “I’m running Dispatches from the train at 125 mph … who needs an office?”

Well, not so fast, hotshot.

I need Wi-Fi. Fast Wi-Fi, and lots of it, and I book accordingly. But this post is to alert you that all is not as advertised on Europe’s trains. Which I found out the hard way.

I was coming back from Vienna earlier this month and I checked online to make sure the Deutsche Bahn trains I was taking from Vienna to Utrecht would have wireless. I knew that the Austrian train system ÖBB only has Wi-Fi on its RailJet high-speed trains. On the ICE trains, literally, when you cross the border into Germany at Passau, voila, Wi-Fi. And pretty fast Wi-Fi all the way to Frankfurt. (That said, late last year, Newcastle upon Tyne-based Nomad Digital signed a 10-year deal to equip “the majority of ÖBB’s passenger trains with onboard Wi-Fi and related services covering information and entertainment,” according to Railway Gazette’s website.)

So, I get to Frankfurt and change to the train to Amsterdam, and nothing. Though it says clearly in the DB reisplan (schedule) that ICE Sprinter from Frankfurt to Cologne is supposed to have it, and it’s free in 1st Class. (It would be so nice if they had English versions of these things.)

hero_riderguide_Wifi_SounderstnThe joke is on me! Regular passengers and crew knew the wireless connection never works. I was chatting with a woman who works in Frankfort’s financial-services sector, but lives in Cologne. She told me, “I don’t know why, but they always have trouble with Wi-Fi on this train.” So, I asked the crew. “No, we’ve had big problems. Everyone knows …”

And this is weird … on the leg from Vienna, the cars clearly had “DB Wi-FI Hotspot” decals on the partitions as you entered the cars. On the ICE Sprinter from Frankfurt to Cologne, no stickers. So I sat for more than four hours until I switched to the Dutch train system in Utrecht and once again got connected.

Part of my irritation is first, I’d paid the 4.50 euros DB charges for 24 hours of connectivity, and I got roughly four. Second, this isn’t 2002, when Wi-Fi was just becoming available on Europe’s trains.

When I got back to Eindhoven, I dashed off a media query to DB officials asking about the Wi-Fi issues on trains. Which I’m guessing is not at the top of their priorities, so no response yet. I also found posts stating a number of long-distance services including in England and Finland have spotty Wi-Fi service. And Swiss trains offer no Wi-Fi at all, because railway executives assume locals want to use smartphones as a hotspot for their laptop. Foreigners … you’re out of luck.

The question becomes, which trains have at least okay Wi-Fi? After a lot of research, it appears they include:

  • Eurostar. Eurostar is a high-speed service connecting London to Avignon, Brussels, Lille, Lyon, Marseille and Paris via the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France. This is one of the many public-private joint ventures in Europe, which includes the SNCF and SNCB/NMBS, and Eurostar, a subsidiary of London and Continental Railways
  • Thalys. Thayls is the joint venture between DB and the SNCF that started out as high-speed trains running to and from Paris, Brussels, London, Amsterdam and Cologne. Now, Thalys runs trains through a big portion of Western Europe. It was a Thalys train on which Americans Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone foiled the terror attack.
  • Virgin. Virgin is famously Richard Branson’s train service that runs between London and major cities in the UK including Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Get ready to pay, because Sir Richard knows how to make money.
  • DB’s Inter-City Express, or ICE, fast trains. Well, selected ICE trains … and  clearly not the one between Frankfurt and Amsterdam.
  • Frecciarossa is Italy’state-owned luxury, high-speed that includes service to Rome, Naples, Florence, Bologne and Milan. Frecciarossa purportedly has the fastest trains in Europe, now, which hit 350 kph.
  • Italo. Italo is the other Italian luxury high-speed train, this one a private company. Italo competes with Frecciarossa on the country’s two major trunk routes: Milan to Naples and Turin to Venice.
  • SJ High Speed is Sweden’s high-speed line. Of course Sweden has wi-fi. Puh-lease ….

Other national trains services including Spain’s are racing to join the 21st Century in communications technology. Rail Technology has a post about Spanish national system RENFE investing big in Wi-Fi, cutting a deal with state-owned communications giant Telefónica to spend 150 million euros over 10 years to put Wi-Fi on RENFE’s high-speed trains.

Britain’s local trains are notorious for poor Wi-Fi connections because the satellite links don’t work very well. Last year, Prime Minster David Cameron announced his government would spend 50 million pounds to roll out free Wi-Fi on all trains in the U.K. starting in 2017. Cameron told The Guardian the investment would benefit passengers with four rail operators – TSGN, Southeastern, Chiltern and Arriva Trains Wales – covering more than 500 million journeys per year.

So how does wireless work on trains?

Something I’ve always wondered. Without going into the GSM/data-packet level, it’s pretty simple. Your train has a router connected to a satellite via an uplink, or to the same wireless nodes from which you get your cellphone signal via what are called “wireless access points,” or WAPS. In Britain, Wi-Fi is delivered via satellites. Trouble is, trains spend a lot of time in tunnels, and apparently satellite systems don’t work as well as ambient signals for your Wi-Fi.

On the continent, most trains systems now have installed some sort of repeater hardware along the tracks.

UMTS antennas along the ÖBB Railjet tracks receive and bundle data signals from mobile service providers, according to the ÖBB website. The availability and quality of the wireless Internet service depends on the coverage of the mobile service network along the route. So imagine when the train is doing 200 kph how fast it moves between coverage areas. And goodbye Wi-Fi when you’re out in the boonies where there are no transmission towers. “Because of this, we cannot guarantee the availability of Internet access on certain route sections,” states the site. Hmmmm.

Another problem is some trains have legacy 2G/3G connections, which really aren’t fast enough to quickly download any significant amount of data.

In the future:

Florida factory to mass-produce satellites at record pace

Toulouse-based aviation giant Airbus is working with a Florida-based company to start cranking out a massive number of small satellites that will provide Wi-Fi signals from space to all sorts of users, including trains. The first 10 satellites will be assembled at Airbus’s existing satellite factory in Toulouse, France, with series production of 890 more Airbus-designed platforms to follow at a new $85 million facility to be built at Exploration Park near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Why you should still take the train, Wi-Fi or no Wi-Fi

As we said at the top of this post, GoEuro execs stated that while point-to-point air travel is theoretically faster, “there’s nothing slower than airports to grind those time savings to a halt,” with traffic, baggage and security issues. GoEuro studied ten major intra-Europe travel routes and found that – when including wait time and airport transits – trains gets travelers to their destinations faster every time.

From that post:

On all 10 routes, train travel saved about an hour or more compared to flying. The five routes from Brussels, however, saved between two and more than four hours compared to flying. From Brussels to Paris, for example, the train was 4 hours and 8 minutes faster than flying between the capitals, the most time saved on the list.  Similarly, London to Paris was one hour and 41 minutes quicker by train, and travel from Madrid to both Barcelona and Seville were each an hour and 5 minutes faster by rail.

So, take the train over the plane,but remember to have a Plan B. for catching up on work.

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Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.

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