UK commuters may soon be able to gab on their mobile phones regardless of whether their train is speeding through a tunnel, or riding the open rails, with the help of new antennas set to be installed on the nation's rail network.

Mobile phone operator Orange said that it had solved the problem of dropped cell phone signals in tunnels by placing a standard antenna at the tunnel entrance. The operator said that it carried out a test in a 850-metre tunnel on the UK's East Coast rail line in which calls and data connections were maintained, despite the train's speed or the type of device used.

The company plans to conduct three more trails in January and, provided the tests produce positive results, says it will roll out the equipment in all primary UK rail routes over the next two years. The coverage will be extended on commercial routes between Manchester, Leeds, London and Bristol, Orange said.

The extended coverage would only benefit Orange UK's 13.4 million customers, and not those of other providers.

Allen Oakman, head of network planning for Orange in the UK, said that tunnel projects are part of a larger effort to extend services on public transport. Orange is currently doing trials with a major English Channel ferry provider, Oakman said, with an eye on reaching agreements with other ferry providers next year. The company has also been looking into extending service to the London Underground, but that is a long term and more complicated project, he said.

Mobile phone services extended to trains, boats and subway cars could put riders at an advantage over their car-driving counterparts. A UK law went into effect this month making it illegal for drivers to talk on a mobile phone while driving, unless they use a hands-free kit.