It needs to be emphasised up front: a long-distance train is never going to be the perfect environment for any sort of wireless broadband connection (or indeed for a mobile phone). When you’re moving at high-speed through relatively uninhabited areas, there’s bound to be the occasional dropout moment. The question is whether those dropout moments are so frequent as to render the service unusable.
Last year’s Townsville Train Torture Test tried out a best-case scenario: Telstra’s Next G network, which claims close to total national coverage, and Queensland Rail’s Sunlander Train, which takes 24 hours to go from Brisbane to Townsville and thus rarely achieves a connection bothering speed. Combine that with a single-berth cabin with its own power outlet and you’ve got a fairly good travel work scenario.
This year, I decided to make the scenario more difficult. Rather than the Sunlander, I chose the Tilt Train, which does the same journey in 18 hours and on occasion tops 120 kilometres an hour, which is enough to throw most any communications system. The Tilt Train doesn’t offer sleepers, but it does have a power outlet at every seat, and the pull-out table actually makes extended periods of PC work easier. There’s also a strangely addictive camera channel which shows the show from the front of the train on your at-seat entertainment system, though sadly this stopped working partway through the trip.
And instead of Next G, I tested Vodafone’s network. Vodafone has never made a major selling point of rural coverage, but an expansion of its network in May meant that it did cover much more of the Queensland coast than before. In Townsville itself, high-speed 3G worked pretty much everywhere, replacing the much less impressive GPRS connections I’d experienced on previous excursions.
That meant that I had a good high-speed link as I departed from Townsville on Sunday afternoon. However, with 20 minutes or so, the connection had died. I connected regularly via GPRS after that, but on the whole I was lucky to get more than five minutes before a lack of network availability cut me off.
As with pretty much every provider, the buggy nature of the connection software was a major nuisance (VMC is particularly keen on throwing up multiple dead connection windows which you can’t close). My BlackBerry proved to be a useful measure of whether there was any connection worth finding, but as often as not, by the time the software had made a connection, the option had disappeared.
What did surprise me was how much of a problem this was even as we got closer to Brisbane. 30 minutes outside the city, I was still experiencing the same connection woes that had happened near such northern hotspots as Carmila, even though 3G was often said to be available.
As such, I didn’t get to replicate the YouTube upload I’d managed on Next G. But despite seemingly endless visits to the connection dialogue, I did manage to stay on Twitter when I wanted to, to work through the Lifehacker US weekend feed, and to write and upload this post and some others. So I’ll offer a passing grade — especially when the much cheaper pricing for the Vodafone service is borne in mind.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman gets a strange sense of unease when his Internet connection dies. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.