Virgin’s BEAM: online streaming for the entertainment age

The launch of Virgin Trains’ BEAM app, which streams films, TV, games and magazines to users’ devices, represents a big leap forward for onboard entertainment in the railway industry. Rod James takes a closer look at BEAM, what the future might hold and the technological limitations that first need to be overcome.


Virgin BEAM

For many, even the very well-travelled, a long-distance flight is not just something to be endured but an experience in itself. Free alcoholic drinks, the latest films and TV shows, and an array of games add genuine value to the price of a ticket and mean that even the most easily bored passengers have few reasons to complain.

While the rail industry has dallied with onboard entertainment, it has never come close to the comprehensive services offered by airlines. Some TOCs feel such offerings are not worth the money, given that train journeys tend to be shorter and audiovisual equipment can quickly become technologically obsolete (a problem faced by airlines, too). Increasing numbers of operators offer Wi-Fi, allowing passengers to access media on their own devices. However, onboard Wi-Fi is notoriously bad, reliant as it is on the train’s location enjoying good 3G and 4G coverage. In large swathes of the UK this is not the case. 

Combining the variety of the air with the personalisation of the rail

A recent service launched by Virgin Trains on its tilting Pendolino trains aims to offer the best of both worlds. BEAM is an onboard entertainment system that gives passengers access to a large library of films, TV programmes, games and magazines. All content is stored on a server onboard the train and streamed over a localised Wi-Fi network, making access to external wireless networks or mobile data unnecessary. The passenger accesses the content through an app, which, ironically, due to onboard bandwidth limits, must be downloaded before getting on the train.

"BEAM gives passengers access to films, TV programmes, games and magazines."

Allowing individuals to use their own devices is a big step forward and one that Virgin Trains CIO John Sullivan is particularly proud of.

“I thought about the number of tablets that are out there, the number of phones,” he tells us. “These are the most personal pieces of kit you’re going to have and the resolution is very good. I thought rather than [roll out] a somewhat dated airline system, why don’t we let customers use their own devices? Generally the airline industry is far advanced in terms of entertainment, but the thing I’m thrilled about for the business is that [with BEAM] we’ve jumped ahead. Hopefully, it brings a new image to the rail industry.”

Onboard Wi-Fi  to improve, if slowly 

Since roll-out in early June, feedback has been largely positive. Sullivan posits, only half in jest, that the unveiling of BEAM was the only time a train operator has trended on Twitter for a good reason. As well as enhancing the passenger experience, BEAM frees up Wi-Fi bandwidth for those using their own devices for work, rather than to access data heavy media. 

That said, Virgin Trains is not giving up on the idea of rolling out reliable onboard Wi-Fi. In Sullivan’s view the idea of building large, track-side fibre masts especially for trains is too expensive and risky an idea. The company is instead collaborating with mobile providers to assist them in expanding 4G coverage. While these partnerships are still being agreed, meaning that no details are available for the time being, Sullivan is confident that a collaborative effort will see onboard Wi-Fi improve significantly in the next 18-24 months. 

“Before coming here I worked at Gondola Group, which runs chains like Pizza Express and Byron Burger,” Sullivan says. “We had 700 restaurants and we rolled out Wi-Fi in half a year to all of them. Here I’ve found that rolling out Wi-Fi on something that moves is far more challenging… I think we will make progress but it will be based on improving the mobile signal. Can we make sure the 4G coverage gets better than it is? Can we make sure its seamless, so when you are making a phone call you don’t get that continuous interruption? It’s about time we made progress in this area.”

In-journey information and personalisation will define the future 

Now that this digital channel has been created, Virgin Trains is already thinking of what else it can do with it. One idea being considered is allowing passengers to access information about their journey through their personal devices, whether that’s the position and speed of the train or information on possible delays. Sullivan is also keen to offer personalised information; for example, if you are going to London, information on relevant cultural or sporting events could come up on the screen. 

"Hopefully BEAM brings a new image to the rail industry."

“To do that we’ll have to upgrade our train technology infrastructure,” Sullivan says, with a hint of caution. “We are looking at doing that though nothing is definite yet. When you start a new digital channel like we’ve done a roadmap is important. It’s like a website - you have to keep evolving it, progressing it. Innovation is important.”

At the same time, the company will analyse passenger viewing habits and use that data to guide the acquisition of new films, TV programmes, games and magazines. By doing this, it is hoped that the train will become a place that passengers actually look forward to travelling on. 

“We had Richard Branson come down to Euston just to see BEAM a couple of weeks ago and he loved it,” Sullivan says. “There was a series that he was watching and we had the full series on BEAM. He said, ‘It would be great if you could get the next series for next year’, so that’s what we’ll do. I know that’s Richard Branson but it’s a good demonstration of how the system has to evolve.”