SNCF will do anything to stay competitive… except add WiFi in their trains.

SNCF will do anything to stay competitive… except add WiFi in their trains.
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France’s main train travel provider SNCF has been making quite a number of sweeping changes in their service in preparation for European Commission-encouraged competition entering the market in the coming years. In addition to adding a low-cost offer in an attempt to stave off price-cutting competition, the company has also increased the service aspect of train rides, improving mobile apps to make ticketing easier and selling coffee & food in train cars to all passengers – I do quite enjoy watching them try to push an airplane trolley cart down a train aisle that clearly wasn’t meant for it.

However, while competitors like Thalys have made the jump to offering Wifi on their trains, this doesn’t seem to be in the cards for SNCF in the coming years, according to a recent statement made by the government about SNCF’s development plans. While the company has plans to install WiFi in 100 train stations by the end of the year, it seems the internet connection stops there.

The problem isn’t so much that people expect WiFi, as much as it is that SNCF’s biggest competitors are starting to have onboard WiFi, and other forms of travel may be quicker to the punch than them.

Airline companies have long since talked about installing WiFi in their planes. The price point for installment just isn’t there yet, nor is the desire of passengers to pay for in-flight WiFi; however, planes have the added advantage of being more comfortable, faster, and ‘classier’ than train travel – not to mention the fact that people expect to be out of contact when they are 10,000+ feet in the air. When I’m travelling next to a highway between two major cities, there is a certain expectation that I will still be able to take phone calls, walk around to stretch my legs, and connect to the internet – for now, I end up tethering from my iPhone.

SNCF’s other competitor, however, may be a bit quicker to get in-transit WiFi. I’m talking, of course, about cars. SNCF’s biggest competitor, other than long-distance buses (many of which have WiFi on board, such as Ireland’s airport shuttle) are peer-to-peer ridesharing services like Blablacar. While not everyone is driving a BMW with a mobile hotspot built in today, some of them are, and the turnaround for new cars is such that we may be seeing more of them including this feature down the road.

If my plane has WiFi, and my car has WiFi, and my train doesn’t: what are the chances that digital professionals will start rethinking their travel choice when it’s no longer a question of price, but a question of connectivity ?

9 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Jonathan Denais

    The thing is, putting wi-fi on TGVs isn’t that cheap either
    Consider this: Wi-fi in buses (in the UK) and trains is barely good enough for browsing as it is. That’s because you need to keep switching base stations as you pass them by.
    In a TGV running at 300km/h, switches happen so often it’s hardly workable (at least I clearly can’t get any decent browsing with my phone), and I’m not even talking about tunnels…

    It’s not impossible, but you have to use more expensive solutions like satellite and dedicated infrastructure. That makes it not a capability problem but a cost issue.

    • Avatar
      Liam Boogar

      My understanding was that train operators like Thalys don’t use base stations, but actually use the rails themselves to trainsfer the connection (which also keeps it consistent).

      I’ve had pretty good WiFi on Buses in the past – in Ireland you can even drive up next to one on the freeway and steal a bit of internet as long as you stay close – did that last week while roaming.

      WiFi on trains is expensive, but it’s an investment in customer retention. Trains used to be a place where you get work done – i’m writing this comment on one right now, but it’s by tethering to my iPhone. As soon as we lose Cell reception, I’m done for, work-wise.

    • Avatar
      Etienne Le Scaon

      Here is the telecom engineer answer 🙂

      SNCF provides WiFi on their Paris to Strasbourg line as a “3+ years old live test” (https://boxtgv.voyages-sncf.com/). Connection is done via a satellite/WiFi/WiMax hybrid ad-hoc technology with Orange, if I remember well.

      I worked on the topic while interning at Orange, here’s a paper we produced about it : http://goo.gl/8Idc5n (in French though :s)

      Clearly, the bottleneck for deploying the service nation-wide was the fact that as you state, no one is ready to pay for WiFi anymore (SNCF, Orange, or the end user) and you simply can’t make things work business wise.

  2. Avatar
    brekovo

    Thalys is not a spinoff of SNCF ?
    The Signal to connect can be bring by the electricity coming to the train.

  3. Avatar
    dan (@phrawzty)

    Wifi is literally the only reason that I choose Thalys over SNCF (where possible, of course).

  4. Avatar
    Pierre Chapuis

    Long-distance buses *should* be a natural competitor of SNCF, like in the UK. But in our communist^W beautiful country they are illegal. Eurolines has a few lines open, but they are only allowed to take passengers to complete international their lines.

    Ride-sharing services are not regulated like this… For now. But the government did regulate Uber & friends, so if they grow a lot I would worry.

  5. Avatar
    Adrien Châtillon

    I’d rather pay more money for clean seats, quiet cabin and fast train than Wifi. Why is it today that people cannot just stay off the Internet for more than an hour?

  6. Avatar
    Tatiana Soukiassian

    Interesting thoughts, though do you not think ultimately 3G/4G will spread enough to make onboard wifi unnecessary?

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