Train passengers face losing access to wifi after the government told rail companies to stop providing the service unless they can demonstrate its business case.
The move is being pushed by the Department for Transport in order to cut costs as it looks to “reform all aspects of the railway”.
Most British train services now provide free wifi as standard but the DfT has told its contracted operators in England that they should cease offering it if they cannot justify it financially.
The department said it was looking for “value for money” and wifi was low on passenger’s priorities, particularly on shorter journeys.
The drive was questioned by passenger groups and industry figures who said the railway should be continuing to do all it could to attract people back, with peak commuter numbers still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Christian Wolmar, who revealed the proposals on the Calling All Stations podcast, said it was a “ridiculous measure”, adding: “The DfT actually wants to reduce the quality of the train service by saying to passengers: sorry, you can’t access wifi.
“It’s all about saving money. But we’re trying to attract commuters back on to the railway, and people like to get on their phone or laptops.
“They’re going backwards. My view is that wifi is as essential as toilets now – people expect to be connected.”
Bruce Williamson from the passenger campaign group Railfuture said: “One of the great things about travelling by train is that you can work or watch a video or listen to a podcast – and wifi is pretty essential for that.
“We should be encouraging passengers to get back on the trains and this is a good example of a move that is going to make rail less attractive.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “Our railways are currently not financially sustainable, and it is unfair to continue asking taxpayers to foot the bill, which is why reform of all aspects of the railways is essential.
“Passenger surveys consistently show that on-train wifi is low on their list of priorities, so it is only right we work with operators to review whether the current service delivers the best possible value for money.”
According to a Transport Focus report cited by the DfT, a survey in December 2022 showed wifi on trains was a lower priority for passengers than other features – although those included such essentials as value-for-money fares, reliability, punctuality and personal security.
However, Transport Focus itself warned against the DfT’s conclusion. Anthony Smith, the chief executive, said: “Access to wifi is something many passengers now expect as standard. It helps people use their travel time productively and is something which could encourage more people to use rail over other modes.
“Given the post-pandemic need to get more passengers back on the train, it would be difficult to justify removing something that makes rail more attractive to customers.”
The DfT is also considering the cost of replacing or upgrading some on-train wifi equipment installed in the middle of the last decade, and whether passengers on shorter journeys use their own mobile phones or data rather than connecting to an operator’s wifi.