Internet Access on the Flying Scotsman

Despite its name, the Flying Scotsman is not a plane but actually a train with lots of history, running daily between London and Edinburgh. From a wireless perspective, a recent trip with it was interesting because free Internet access is offered to all passengers during the ride. A bit of background research revealed that the service has been realized together with Swedish company Icomera and some very high level information about it can be found here.

It looks like for most of the trip, a satellite based connection is used to backhaul the data. However, compared to the Internet access on Thalys trains between France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany, the connection is very slow and I could not get more than a couple of kbit/s over the link at any time. Round trip times varied greatly between a couple of hundred milliseconds to several seconds. Yes, several seconds (!), no idea where those packets went in the meantime…

It seems the connection is pretty much congested all the time, which might be because it is free for all passengers, due to a limited link capacity or a combination of both. So when web browsing, it usually takes quite some time for pages to come up. After a while I adopted a "better than nothing" approch but I wonder if some people would rather be willing to pay extra for the privilege to be "fully" connected and to shorten the wait!?

It would be interesting to know what kind of satellite system they use as I didn't see any dome like structures on top of the train such as those on the Thalys. Also, I wonder if they have similar uplink / downlink capacity on the link. No way of telling from the outside.

To summarize I'd say I got the work done I wanted to do during the trip, which was mainly e-mail, IM and a little bit of research on the web. I'd be quite unhappy to be stuck with such a slow connection for more than a couple of hours but for the train ride it was all right. That doesn't mean, though, that National Express East Coast should sit on their hands and do nothing, the service could be much improved as the Thalys example shows.

One thought on “Internet Access on the Flying Scotsman”

  1. Hello Martin – I’m sorry you’ve had a poor experience on the National Express East Coast service. The backhaul on this service is mainly cellular, with satellite used in areas where terrestrial networks are scarce, primarily in Scotland. The NXEC Wi-Fi is free to passengers and as a result has a lot of concurrent users (sometimes as many as 80 passengers online at once). This puts tremendous demand on the 3G cellular links. The Thalys service is pay-per-use so gets far less use, reducing contention and potentially delivering a better end-user experience at peak times.

    Icomera is working with National Express to optimize and improve the Wi-Fi service, but to some extent we are at the mercy of the 3G carriers to deploy better 3G coverage with greater speed/capacity along the route. This is not an excuse, but an observation.

    Jim Baker
    Chief Marketing Officer

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