Tag Archives: train

Heading down Dawlish way

Travelling down to Plymouth today by train made me realise that despite living in the South West now for nearly twenty years, this was the first time I had gone south of Weston-super-Mare by train (well except for once travelling to Bridgwater by train, but certainly no further south than that).

It’s not that I don’t go to places like Taunton, Exeter or Plymouth (even Cornwall) it’s just that I have usually driven down the M5.

Often the reason for using the car was convenience, time and speed. Many of the places I needed to visit were not in close proximity to the railway station and that would have meant getting a taxi. Other times I was carrying a lot of stuff, you would be surprised by how much stuff you need when demonstrating mobile learning! Other times it was time. When I looked at going by train to Exeter or Plymouth, the only “available” tickets were on the very slow trains that stopped at every station, and as a result it would take anything up to twice as long as going by car. I was quite surprised though this time checking the train that I could change at Taunton and catch the “faster” train making the journey time about the same as going by car.

Perhaps I should make it clear that I actually prefer going by train, especially like today when the train is not very busy and I have a table. If I am going to London I will nearly always go by train and going north (unless I fly) I will usually go by train.

I am not entirely sure if every journey in the past I have taken it was necessary to take the car, but what I will say is that the train route this way is spectacular especially as it passes through Dawlish.

So though this is my first time by train to Plymouth I don’t think it will be the last time.

Fine, so still no wifi still on the train…

In May I wrote a blog post about internet access on the train. I talked about how in the past I had used various devices to connect to the internet while travelling on the train. A few weeks after writing the article I upgraded my Nexus One to Froyo 2.2 and now that is my main method of connecting my laptop or iPad to the internet while travelling with First Great Western. In the first article I did say:

One thing I have noticed though is that though my 3G connection from Bristol to London is pretty good, travelling on the Voyager trains from Bristol to Birmingham, the signal is really poor.

I initially thought this was just down to the route, but I have heard that the main issue is the construction of the train and the metallised windows. This basically blocks the 3G signal! So even with a Mifi, nexus one or a dongle it’s difficult to use 3G. One suggestion that I heard from John Popham was to keep the Mifi near the door area and that may mean a better signal.

I did wonder why CrossCountry Trains didn’t put in wifi as you find on the East Coast Main Line services and Virgin Trains Pendolino. Well it appears that providing wifi was part of their Franchise agreement with the Department of Transport. CrossCountry Trains was suppose to have wifi in place by November 11th 2009. They failed to meet this deadline and the revised deadline of the end of January, according to The Telegraph that was published in a recent article.

The service was supposed to be in place by November 11 last year. The company was given until the end of January to install the service, but this date was missed as well.

The response from CrossCountry was

CrossCountry suggested that the growing use of dongles, devices which link computers to the mobile phone network, meant that WiFi was no longer necessary.

Which when you consider the problems of metallised windows is a laughable excuse, more so when CrossCountry also say in that article,

A CrossCountry spokesman said the delay was due to technical difficulties especially on the Voyager trains where the signal needed for WiFi is weakened by the high metallic content in the windows.

Yes it does do that.

However the reason wifi works on other trains is that they put the wifi on the inside of the train and the internet connection on the outside of the train.

CrossCountry said they would provide wifi and so they should provide wifi.

They have now been fined twice and if by September 30th they still haven’t installed wifi then they will be fined again.

My question though is much more, why isn’t there wifi on First Great Western services from the West Country to London and why wasn’t it in their franchise agreement? I travel with First Great Western much more than I do CrossCountry and would really like it if they had wifi.

This is the age of the train…

About once or twice a month I find myself on a train travelling to some far flung exotic location, like London, Leeds or Birmingham! Though more often then not it is the First Great Western train to London.

As I travel I like to try and get some work done in the time I have available. One key aspect of my job is communication and for that I need a decent internet connection. First Great Western, unlike some other train operating companies does not provide wifi on their services.  So what is one to do?

I have over the last few years used different ways of getting online on the train, all of them though have involved 3G.

Well recent tests show, as reported by the BBC that:

Mobile broadband speeds are improving but coverage is getting more patchy, suggests a survey.

The survey was…

…carried out by analysts from comparison site Broadband Genie, the annual test involved using dongles from UK mobile operators during a long train journey.

Interestingly…

T-Mobile came out top in the tests because it racked up higher speeds and proved more reliable during the tests.

So how do I use 3G on the train and with what services?

My original way of getting online was with a 3G PC Card from Vodafone, however this went once I changed jobs back in 2006.

I then had an 3G Dongle from Vodafone. This actually worked quite well, some dropped connections, but once within a 3G area, a good speed both up and down. I did notice though that more often then not, I could not get 3G speeds and the connection dropped to GPRS speeds. The main problem with the dongle is that it sticks out and on cramped trains this can be problematic.

After getting a T-Mobile contract phone (with Walk’n’Web Plus) I was able to use the phone as a tethered Bluetooth modem to connect to the internet at 3G speeds. The main disadvantage with this process was the impact that both Bluetooth and 3G had on battery life of the phone. The upside for me was a more reliable and faster connection.

Using a Nokia N95 I was able to use JoikuSpot on the Nokia, this shares the 3G connection over WiFI. This has one key advantage JoikuSpot allows more than one device to connect. A simple idea which just works. Basically it turns my Nokia N95 into a wireless hotspot, allowing me to connect multiple wireless devices to my phone’s 3G internet connection. I start JoikuSpot and once started I can then join the wireless and surf the internet. This was really useful allowing both my laptop and an iPod touch to connect to the internet using the single 3G connection. The Light version only really does internet, it doesn’t allow e-mail or https for example, whereas the Premium version does; this is the reason I upgraded to the Premium version and very pleased I am with it. The main downside is the impact it has on the battery life on the Nokia N95, down to less than four hours, often less!

I used this process for a fair amount of time, made easier when First Great Western introduced power sockets on their trains. Swapping over to the Vodafone 3G dongle if the signal failed or was weak.

I have recently tried a couple of other options, the first was not as successful as I would have hoped and that was the MiFi.

So what’s the MiFi? A battery powered 3G wireless router. Using a 3G SIM it would connect to the internet and then allow  up to five wireless clients to connect and share that 3G connection. With a four hour battery life, could be charged via USB and about the size of a credit card. Using a SIM from a Vodafone 3G USB dongle it was very simple to set up and configure and I would recommend that you use the details from Ross Barkman’s excellent website on connection settings for GPRS/3G to save having to work out where the information is on your providers’ website.

However one of the downsides for me was that though the MiFi worked a treat in stationary location (say at a conference) it was less satisfactory when travelling by train. What seemed to happen was that when the MiFi lost its 3G connection, as does happen on a train, it would switch itself off. As a result you had to check now and again and see if it needed turning back on. This also had an impact on the WiFi connection on my Mac laptop, which even when the MiFi was back on would not re-connect back to the MiFi wireless. In the end the experience was so unsatisfactory that I stopped using the MiFi on trains as a wireless router. The nice thing about the MiFi is that it will work as a USB 3G dongle, so you can use the MiFi in your event and meeting as a wireless router and revert to the dongle mode when on the train.

I have recently switched from the Nokia N95 to the Google Nexus One that runs the Android operating system. There is no JoikuSpot for the Nexus One and I am not 100% on how or even if it is possible to use it as a Bluetooth modem. One thing I have tried is PDAnet that allows me to use the Nexus One as a tethered 3G modem.

One thing I have noticed though is that though my 3G connection from Bristol to London is pretty good, travelling on the Voyager trains from Bristol to Birmingham, the signal is really poor.

I initially thought this was just down to the route, but I have heard that the main issue is the construction of the train and the metallised windows. This basically blocks the 3G signal!

I have used various methods to get online on the train and though each have their disadvantages and advantages, I think I prefer the 3G dongle, though the wifi methods are neater.

National Rail Enquiries – iPhone App of the Week

Update: Since this blog post was written, this app has been renamed UK Train Times and another app by a different company has been released which is called National Rail Enquiries. To add to the confusion the UK Train Times icon has changed, whereas the National Rail Enquiries app has a very similar (well identical) icon to the old icon of UK Train Times. Though National Rail Enquiries is free, having tried both, I do think UK Train Times is a much better app and you don’t get the ads you get on the free app.

National Rail Enquiries – iPhone App of the Week


This is a regular feature of the blog looking at the various iPhone Apps available. Some of the apps will be useful for those involved in learning technologies, others will be useful in improving the way in which you work, whilst a few will be just plain fun! Some will be free, others will cost a little and one or two will be what some will think is quite expensive. Though called iPhone App of the Week, most of these apps will also work on the iPod touch.

This week’s App is National Rail Enquiries.

National Rail Enquiries provides complete journey planning for journeys across the UK National Rail network and live departure information for all National Rail stations in the UK. This is an official application from National Rail Enquiries, with fully-licensed and accurate real-time information.

£4.99

For many users a 99p App is too expensive, this is a five pound App, so is it worth it? If you travel by train then in my opinion it is.

A simple example, I know that this App helped my college secure £40,000 of funding, so well worth the £4.99 I paid for it.

Really?

Well, let’s just say it certainly helped.

What’s the story?

I was on my way to London to be interviewed for a funding proposal we had put in.

The interview was at 11.00 and I had my train ticket and was intending to catch a train from my local station and arrive at 9.45 giving me just over an hour to get to the venue for the interview.

So there I was waiting…. waiting…. waiting…

I got out the iPhone and checked National Rail Enquiries.

It said that the train was running very late and would not be going to London! Confused I was to begin with. A few minutes later the “train” arrived. It wasn’t the big High Speed Train I was expecting, but a smaller local train. As it arrived the driver lent out the window and shouted that this was the next train to Bristol. What had happened was that the original London train had broken down and they were using this as a replacement. Arriving in Bristol later than expected and on checking the departures form Bristol on the iPhone via National Rail Enquiries, I knew that if I caught the Manchester train I could change at Bristol Parkway and catch a London train from there. This I managed to do with literally seconds to spare after running across the station; and eventually I was in London by 10.00! Only 15 minutes later than originally planned.

If I had relied on finding out trains from departure boards or information kiosks I would have been much later into London and would have been late for the interview.

Would it have made a difference? Don’t know for sure, but I am glad I was there in plenty of time.

So what about the App itself?

Simply it is a portable station display board. It tells you the departures and arrivals from any station on the national rail network. It can also tell you the whereabouts of your train, if it is running late or worse cancelled.

It can also be used for journey planning, though there are other websites that do that for free. For the immediacy of catching trains now, it works really well.

If you travel anywhere by train, then this is one useful app. True you can find the information online for free, but the user interface of this app beats most websites interfaces, which have been designed more often then not for use on a computer and not on an iPhone sized screen.

Tube Exits – iPhone App of the Week

Tube Exits – iPhone App of the Week

This is a regular feature of the blog looking at the various iPhone Apps available. Some of the apps will be useful for those involved in learning technologies, others will be useful in improving the way in which you work, whilst a few will be just plain fun! Some will be free, others will cost a little and one or two will be what some will think is quite expensive. Though called iPhone App of the Week, most of these apps will also work on the iPod touch.

This week’s App is Tube Exits.

With unique information, Tube Exits will give the savvy tube rider the inside track on how to get one-step ahead of their fellow commuters to get a speedy exit off the Tube. Save about 10 minutes on average peak hour journey times. No more delays following crowds, and walking the length of the platform. Save valuable time out of your busy schedule and avoid frustration.

£1.79

If you ever go to London and ever go on the London Underground then Tube Exits is one app you should get.

While writing this article I found a free App which does something similar, called Tube Changer Lite. Now I have not used the free app, but do make extensive use of Tube Exits when I am in London.

So what does it do?

Well to put it simply, it allows you to plan your journey on the London Underground and make it as easy and stress-free as possible.

The App works out your route and then lets you know which carriage to get on, so that when you arrive at your destination (or transit) station you know which side the doors will open and you get off on the platform next to the way out! This means, especially when the tube is very busy, you are not stuck on the wrong side of the train when it arrives at your destination and when you do arrive you can get out the station quickly, avoiding delays walking down the platform and the throngs of crowds as they stream to the exit.

You can save regular journeys, to save having to recalculate each time you use the tube.

A simple App that has made it easier and less stressful to use the Tube.