I've done a lot of testing of how well 3G broadband services work on trains, including two separate attempts at maintaining a connection while travelling to Townsville on high-speed trains. Last week, I upped the speed ante again, seeing if I could maintain a broadband connection while working on the Eurostar between London and Paris.
Picture from Wikimedia Commons
The quick journey time (around 2 hours and 20 minutes), the relatively straightforward security check-in (compared to an airline) and the fact that you start in the middle of London and end in the middle of Paris mean that the Eurostar now dominates the UK-France route. It's also got quicker and quicker over the years, as proper high-speed lines have been built in Britain. (The French, whose TGV trains form the basis for the Eurostar, have had high-speed lines on that side of the Channel right from the start in 1994.)
While that boost in speed is good news for travellers, it potentially posed a challenge to my plans to see how well I could maintain a 3G broadband connection on the train. I wasn't going to test the connection in France, since I didn't have a roaming deal for there. But I wanted to see how well my pay-as-you-go broadband from 3 in the UK would work on the train during the 30 minutes or so before as plunging into the Chanel Tunnel. As well as meaning the train goes substantially faster (up to 300 kilometres an hour), the current high-speed link to St Pancras also involves a lot more tunnels -- and tunnels are the enemy of on-train mobile reception.
That definitely proved to be the case in practice. The service worked fine on the platform, but within two minutes we plunged into a tunnel. The next 10 minutes were a series of constant disconnections, reconnections and unlikely claims about the available speed (shifting from 0.2 to 76 to 368kbps and then back to 1kbps in the space of a few seconds).
However, once we'd cleared the tunnels and were in open countryside, the connection maintained itself easily. I've always found train speed to be a bit of a challenge when connecting with 3G broadband, but this wasn't the case this time around -- it was more than adequate to update Twitter, surf various sites, and even check out a few YouTube videos via my headphones. I'd have been even better off using a smart phone, which will reconnect itself automatically, unlike PC-based mobile broadband.
One other note: the Eurostar easily wins over any other train I've tried when it comes to offering decent desk space. I was in an economy-class seat, and the slide-out desk offered me oodles of room. I travel with a pretty compact notebook anyway, but even a 17 inch model would do OK on this surface. If there was a power outlet available, I could happily work there all day.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman can't help noticing that the second-class seats on a TGV are bigger than the first-class seats on Countrylink. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.