Road Worrier’s Train Torture Test Takes On Melbourne To Sydney

Road Worrier’s Train Torture Test Takes On Melbourne To Sydney

You’d figure that a journey between Australia’s biggest cities and across its most densely populated state wouldn’t pose much of a challenge for Telstra’s Next G network, wouldn’t you? Think again.

Picture by ebemed

We've attempted the train torture test -- seeing how well a 3G Internet connection works on a moving train -- twice on a journey from Townsville to Brisbane, and once on the Eurostar from London to Paris. Having covered these relatively out-there locations, it seemed to make sense to run a similar test between Melbourne and Sydney, using the twice-daily XPT service that runs between the two state capitals.

My testing of this journey last Monday coincided with my switching from using Vodafone as my main source of mobile broadband to Telstra's Next G. I've always thought the Vodafone service offered a reasonable price/data combination, but the quality of the software has always been questionable, the network coverage seems to have slipped in the past year, and the roaming capacity -- one of the reasons I chose Vodafone in the first place -- turned out to be completely useless in practice. So I've switched to a prepaid Next G dongle, figuring that I'll get better regional coverage (and avoid paying for use when I'm overseas).

One of Telstra's big selling points for Next G is how good the coverage is across Australia, and that certainly seemed apparent on the first Townsville test I ran, which covered some seriously remote locations. I figured that on a journey from Melbourne to Sydney, there wouldn't be terribly many areas where signal wasn't available. However, this proved to be far from the case.

Within half an hour of leaving Melbourne, the signal had disappeared completely, and it remained absent for much of the cross-Victorian journey, which covers the first three hours of the trip. Victoria is Australia's most densely populated state, so it seems hard to reconcile Telstra's claim of covering 99% of the population with that lack of service. Unreliability continued throughout the NSW journey, with one period of more than an hour with no signal somewhere in the vicinity of Harden. Even within the greater Sydney region, Next G was absent as often as it was present.

I'm aware of all the caveats: a moving train isn't the optimum use case. Even assuming that's true, I was surprised to find myself on several occasions stopped on train platforms with no signal available either. You can add an extra antenna for low-signal areas. Sure -- but why would that be necessary near Sydney? The network isn't necessarily optimised for data. Perhaps not, but there was so signal on a Next G-equipped BlackBerry either for making calls either.

The Next G software does handle drop-outs much more elegantly than Vodafone's software, and I ultimately got enough connectivity to get my work done. But it made me rather more sceptical of Next G's claimed coverage than I've been in the past, and I plan a few more journeys into rural (but populated) areas to see how well it holds up.

Some other side observations on the XPT journey itself. There's plenty of working room in a first-class seat, but the positioning of a raised ridge to hold a coffee cup on the fold-down table means that anyone with a moderately-sized laptop would have trouble balancing it. (Seats 1-4 in those carriages have a more substantial table, so would be worth hunting down if you want to do a lot of work.)

I'd really have liked a power outlet at the seat, but can't imagine that's going to happen any time soon. There's plenty of overhead luggage space, though the train itself was less than half-full in my carriage, which doubtless helped matters. Overall, while I like train trips more than the average person, I don't know that I'll be doing this particular 11-hour marathon again in a hurry -- but I will be putting the Next G system through a few more tests.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman notes that flying from Melbourne to Sydney would probably have cost much the same. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • Interesting observations. There is one very important factor that might be missed here…

    I believe the windows on XPTs might be coated with a tint containing metal, turning your carriage into a kind of faraday cage. If it doesn’t block the signal entirely, it can certainly cause significant reductions.

    So, while your findings hold true, the cause might be more a factor of your environment than the provider’s coverage.

    Similarly, my trusty old GPS receiver is next to useless on my desk at work, even though it’s next to a huge (tinted) window with plenty of visible sky.

    • I have exactly the same problem with GPS reception leaving my phone on a windowsill in my North Sydney office. Always baffled me somewhat looking up at a huge blue sky then down at a phone that can’t seem to see a single satellite.

  • Back in blighty the newer Virgin trains are all equipped with power at the tables even in standard class. They also have a wifi hotspot (t-mobile) which uses a 3g connection for backhaul. I’m not sure of the technology used to ensure a decent signal is maintained but I used both tethering to my E51 and the wifi service to good effect. Granted the UK is geographically much smaller and easier for the operators to cover but perhaps similar technology could be utilised. Most train tracks are used as routes for inter city fibre connections so there’s a chance it could be achieved. Costs would be high though which we, the consumers, would have to pay.

  • You might not be able to get NextG Melb-Sydney but, you can get a reasonably consistent signal from Port Augusta to Perth all the way across the Nullarbor, if you take train. Next G towers have been installed to enable train control to improve their signalling and train operations.

  • I’m a Vodafone refugee also though I have hedged my bets with a prepaid long expiry option.

    I switched to the $129 unlimited Optus phone plan with 2GB of data last year (now 4 GB) and have found Optus coverage fairly good around the capital cities and major rural areas – tethering by cable or wifi (HTC HD2) with my phone works well so now I have 2 options when out and about and find one or the other always works fairly well.

  • I use Exetel at a flat rate of $15/GB. Runs on Optus with good coverage through the Illawarra and Southern Highlands with sppeds regularly into the 2Mbps

  • My experience on the Optus network is that coverage is much better on the Hume Highway than the rail line.

    Driving between Sydney and Canberra I’ll see 3G almost all the way, dropping back to EDGE in a few places. On the train, though, all signal drops off a little way south of Campbelltown, and only crops up going through towns.

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