Wi-Fi on trains isn't welcomed by all, it seems.
One reader literally railed at my recent column championing free Wi-Fi ('Free Wi-Fi is the way to a traveller's heart,' 22 August), saying that the inevitable noise made by selfish, self-important users of such hi-techery would put them off travelling by train altogether.
Fair point: not everyone wants to be plugged into the web 24/7, or associate with those who can't keep their fingers off their laptops. But surely the answer is simple – train companies should ensure that there are carriages where the use of computers, as with mobile phones, is banned.
Of course, what if the train is full and you have no choice but to sit in a carriage that has become a virtual office? Well, that's a whole different question about train companies providing enough coaches on their services. And having stood through many a long journey in a train corridor over the years, it's one that also makes my blood boil.
But I'm not going to address it here. Instead, I'd like to raise this question: when are British train companies going to start offering better on-board leisure services? Anyone who has ever travelled alone with a young child on a train – where the only pint-sized entertainment is walking up and down the carriages for the whole trip – would jump at a little Swiss-style thinking and a family coach with a play area. Hey, and what about that ski train with the disco?
Most perplexing to me is the lack of multimedia – the odd film or selection of TV shows that might relieve the boredom of looking at field upon field of cows. I find it astonishing that Virgin Trains isn't leading the way in this, when you consider that Virgin Atlantic offers one of the best multimedia packages available to air passengers.
I asked Virgin Trains when we might be offered something a little more absorbing than pre-recorded radio shows, which have been eclipsed by iPods and the like. But a spokesperson told me that the company couldn't divulge future plans for on-board entertainment because they are likely to form part of a bid for the West Coast Main Line franchise, which is up for renewal in March 2012.
Railways expert Christian Wolmar is more informative about why we don't yet have in-seat entertainment on the railways – it's expensive to provide. And with most journeys taking just a couple of hours, it promises little return for the train companies.
But Wolmar adds that railways, traditionally, have been slow to innovate. "They had to drag themselves into the 20th century and now they are dragging themselves into the 21st. On the whole, railways have been slow to bring in customer-friendly extras."
Wolmar adds that the franchising system doesn't help. "The companies are going to bid on the least cost base, not on offering the most service," he adds. "If the Government doesn't specify entertainment, will it be included in a bid?"
In-seat entertainment may seem like a luxury but the Government would do well to consider it a crucial addition. For better multi-media may be part of the answer to the pressing question: how do we get more people off planes and into trains for longer domestic journeys? There's an idea for you, Dave.
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