Off The Rails has a pretty clear lessen so far: The further north in NSW you head on a train, the less likely it is that Next G wireless broadband will work effectively. And when it does, the performance is anything but guaranteed.
At Broadmeadow Station while I waited for my train, a man reeking of marijuana and with no luggage apart from a projector covered with TAFE logos was being questioned by police. He didn't appear to have much chance of making a speedy getaway.
I didn't have to worry about that, but it became pretty evident over the next two days that the amount of speed I could run up while testing a Next G Ultimate modem wasn't going to reach the heights it had seen previously during the Off The Rails experiment.
I complained on the first day that I wasn't able to get a connection for more than 10 minutes at a time. Little did I realise that this would look like stellar performance compared to my trips between Broadmeadow and Taree and then Taree and Sawtell.
At no point past Maitland did I have a connection for longer than a couple of minutes when the train was moving. I've had strong performance figures in trains and cars elsewhere, so I don't think the speed of the train is a factor. And while the line does pass through some relatively unpopulated areas, I had trouble getting signal even when stopped on platforms for stations which were close to the relevant town centre.
While I ran speed tests whenever I could get a connection, I haven't published that data here in tabular form, because it seems to me that the general absence of signal is a bigger issue than what speeds were possible when I could get signal. The obvious lesson is that you shouldn't assume availability of any kind of mobile signal if you're going to travel on this train line (or indeed its Sydney-Melbourne counterpart).
One possible factor that needed checking (and which readers have suggested during previous tests) was whether the XPT itself somehow creates interference with the 3G signal used for data, meaning that the signal would be available more strongly if I wasn't inside a train. The absence of signal clearly wasn't an issue just for me: people weren't making use of their mobile phones inside the carriage much and the trip was punctuated by occasional flutters of text message beeps, suggesting no-one else was doing any better on the signal front. But I have two reasons for concluding there isn't an "XPT factor" at work.
Firstly, the Maitland route I successfully tested on Friday is also the first section of the journey between Broadmeadow and Taree, so I got the chance to compare performance inside an XPT with performance inside a regular train. I got more or less the same results in both cases up to Maitland, but then saw performance become unacceptable/non-existent. That suggests to me that the problem is largely an absence of signal, exacerbated by the pretty poor performance of the Ultimate software in handling that absence. (At one point, plugging the device in hung my machine entirely. I was not impressed.)
Secondly, my ongoing testing when not on a train in various regional locations has confirmed that the network can perform temperamentally even when the machine in a fixed location. My download speeds in Taree itself varied between 2.75Mbps and 12.15Mbps in the same place, and at one point the device claimed no signal at all for a five-minute period. A similar set of tests in Coffs Harbour saw the speeds halved in two tests just minutes apart, and there was an even more dramatic performance variation at Valla Beach, the kind of relatively obscure location that is never going to rank highly on mobile coverage maps.
That doesn't mean that I think a 3G broadband device is a waste of time, especially for a travelling worker like me. However, I'm still in two minds about whether the Ultimate delivers enough difference from the standard dongle for the typical worker who does a lot of regional travel, and even less convinced about the utility of 3G as a universal broadband solution. Today I'm running tests of the network between Brisbane and the Gold Coast; they'll appear on Tuesday, and the big conclusions from the Off The Rails project will show up on Wednesday.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman still wants the XPT redesigned to remove the cup holder on the tray. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.