Blogging on a train

National Express On-Train WiFi

I was on an intercity train this evening, journeying up the East Coast main line from London to Edinburgh; it was my first trip on the new National Express service since they took over from GNER some months ago. They offer free wifi to all passengers, which I was keen to try out with my new Eee 900 PC.

Upon firing up the ‘Wireless Networks’ window, I was heartened to see five hotspots with names like BN06DE, BN06EF and BN06FH. Selecting the one with the strongest signal yielded a WEP key prompt, which I eventually discovered could be bypassed simply by pressing OK. The window then displayed more hotspots named ‘nxecwifi’ and one called ‘Jet Blue hot spot’.

After several futile attempts at connecting to the more-enticing ‘Jet Blue hot spot’, I tried ‘nxecwifi’ … and Bingo! It took 15 seconds or so to acquire an IP address via DHCP, but after that I could ping www.google.com. Upon opening firefox I was immediately redirected to www.nationalexpresswifi.train – hosted on the train’s LAN. The page presents a login box asking for your email address (the password is supplied). After logging in you’re finally online at this point and can type any website address into your browser’s address bar.

Being a geek I now felt compelled to poke around and measure a few things. The network latency was pretty variable – between 500 and 6000 milliseconds, but this still seems remarkable considering you’re hurtling along backwards – in my case – at 150mph through the countryside. Tunnels tend to cause temporary blackouts, however TCP keepalive handles this nicely. www.speedtest.net recorded my ping time as 1 second, my download rate as 714kbps and my upload rate as 34kbps. There didn’t appear to be any direct correlation between latency and train speed.

Actual browsing seemed fairly slow, but definitely usable. My surfing was at one point redirected back to the train login page, whereupon I had to log back in using my email address, but this only happened once.

So all in all, an impressive service, especially so given that it’s free. One last gem to finish with – the onboard train website has a map showing where you are. And I’ve just passed Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Dansette