Trains For America

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Wi-Fi Internet access: Amtrak’s killer app?

During my break back in the UK, I traveled to Edinburgh and back to London via National Express’s East Coast Main Line service. Of course, it was amazing and insanely convenient to be whisked from the centers of two great cities at speeds of up to 125mph, or about an average of 90mph, according to a staff member. But that’s a whole different post.

What really blew me away was that National Express offered free Wi-Fi throughout the entire length of the service. I tried it out myself, and it wasn’t quite as fast as the train itself, but the fact that it’s there, it’s free, and it works extremely well is impressive enough in itself.

Apparently the train company manages this feat by alternating between wi-fi from the various stations along the line, 3G cell phone signals, and satellite service. Theoretically, this switching is done without any disruption, and I didn’t notice any during my use. Unsurprisingly, the service has been quite popular among travelers.

The next question is, of course, why isn’t Amtrak doing this? Internet access is potentially one huge advantage that the company could leverage against plane and automobile travel. But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the company is, in fact, beginning a trial run of wi-fi service. As is the case with many technological innovations, Amtrak wi-fi is getting its start in the Pacific Northwest before potentially moving to other parts of the country.

According to Wi-Fi Net News, this service is reasonably consistent, and is intended (wisely) to be free in order to attract savvy customers. Unlike National Express’s service, Amtrak seems to exclusively use cell service. And on the other side of the country, Amtrak, Spring, and the Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority are cooperating to provide free service on all Downeaster trains.

This is a great start. Although implementing wi-fi on more complex routes might be a challenge for the company, such an endeavor could really bump ridership if accompanied by a good PR campaign. Internet service would be extremely attractive not just for the generally cited “business people,” but also for students like myself or anyone who might tend to travel with a laptop.

Of course, the real challenge for Amtrak these days is getting politicians on board, not riders.

Filed under: Amtrak, , ,

24 Responses

  1. patlynch says:

    It;s great to have you back, Logan. I really hare working and tend to get in lots of trouble whenever I do.

    I have been told that the cell phone network in Europe is an entirely different animal with a much larger (and faster) capacity than the USA. I am wondering if this plays any role in the wifi success on UK trains.

  2. I think it does but what is different from what the Amtrak Cascades is during is a GSM based service on the train. GSM isn’t widely available or fast.

    I have Verizon Wireless and I am able to use my Blackberry as a modem for about 97% of the journey. I haven’t been on the train which has wifi (Mt. Olympus trainset only?) but I heard it is fairly decent but the signal goes in and out pretty frequently.

    A sat/3g combo would be much better. TGV, Eurostar, and Thalys service all use that type of setup and does great, even at 200mph. This is the type of investment that is needed in the corridor trains for sure.

    Logan, good to see you back btw! How’s it going over there?

  3. skiddie says:

    Just after National Express made the wifi service free, I had to make a number of round-trip journeys of 3 hours (Durham-London) over the course of several months. While there were some teething issues, it became obvious that people were purposely bringing their laptops for use on the train, even if they didn’t need it at their destination, and as people started to realize the service was there, it became immensely popular (especially on certain trains).

    Brilliant service.

  4. Paul says:

    Seems to me the that the satelite option could provide TV viewing options in addition to the internet. I see more revenue streams for the system with pay per view on demand movies and perhaps a speed upgrade for the internet with fee.

  5. When I went to Oxford last year, they were supposed to have wifi on the buses too. It must not have been working on my bus, but in the station I could pick up signals from other buses. They did have full 220 volt power outlets at each seat, similar to Amtrak.

    Bolt Bus and other buses on the Northeast Corridor also claim to have wifi, but I don’t know if they have power outlets.

  6. Great post man, keep up the good work 😉

  7. I kan only agree with our post. good work.

  8. Really nice post. I get your point:)

  9. billig mobil says:

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  10. a-kasser says:

    Nice articel… please keep them comming.

  11. taletidskort says:

    A lot of good argument:) nice work..

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  13. ms says:

    amtrak is putting wifi on all acelas beginning in november.

  14. rivardau says:

    even if amtrak cant get wi-fi on every train nationwide yet, what they could start with is at least broadcasting a wi-fi from stations. at least around every hour or so (on a long-distance western train) or maybe as frequent as 20 mins (like in illinois corridors), one could at least catch a signal for 3-5 mins to send/receive emails or upload/download a quick file or two, or to get a quick scan of an online news source of the headlines.
    this isnt very technical and could easily be done – if amtrak or cities or someone would pay for it. sure it would not be ideal or continuous, but it would be a huge improvement upon the current situation of traveling hours without a chance to re-fresh computer with wi-fi.

  15. ms says:

    All acelas will soon have wifi from boston to DC I understand. Not sure about long haul trains. It is very challenging and expensive to make this work using cellular systems. Via rail shut down most of their satellite systems in Canada as the technical challenges and costs there too were too much. Its coming to Amtrak and they seem committed to it big time. We hope so!!

  16. MadPark says:

    Or, you could enjoy the scenery and read a book, perhaps? Talk to some real people right there on the train? We really do not need to be in contact with the mother ship 24/7, really!

  17. mads munch says:


  18. Stony Creek Jerry says:

    As to promised wi-fi in the Northeast corridor, Amtraks recent 5-year plan says it’ll happen next year. But, here in Connecticut, where there are many dead-spots along the Amtrak right-of-way, there’s a lot of work to do, since the coverage of a number of existing cell towers is pretty sparse. Amtrak is working with T-Mobile to install some Amtrak-specific towers, and some broad-area towers along the ROW. This leads to a lot of problems, since the population density along the ROW is high (Long Island Sound), and they have managed to anger everyone. So the issue isn’t just politicians, it’s working with their constituents to find a comprimise solution. Many beleive that the solution is using what BART uses, an optical fiber backbone along the route. It can solve a lot of problems and since Amtrak Acela already has catenary poles, the solution by WiFi Rail, Inc should be a no-brainer, supporting WiMax and 4G.

  19. Bobbi Blake says:

    They are proposing a 75 foot tower in our small historic, densely populated neighborhood in CT. We are concerned for health reasons (within a 1/4 mile in considered dangerous radioactivity in some circles and my house is about 150 yards away), drop in property value (this is my retirement!), and disruption in the scenic and historic nature of the town.

    There apparently are progressive alternatives to getting WiFi (as Jerry stated) for the train without disrupting the environment, value and health of these neighborhoods so that folks on the train can get a minute of uninterruped WiFi.

    If a town doesn’t want a cell tower, Amtrack should work with us on alternatives.

  20. J.B. says:

    I was rather surprised that Amtrak doesn’t have, or at least, not consistently have wi-fi on-board, considering I know VIA Rail Canada has had wi-fi in one form or another for many years now. Heck, even a lot of Greyhound buses are AC power and Wi-Fi equipped these days.

  21. Akassenu says:

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed the read.

  22. In denmark they have no wifi in the regional train lines to, they had for a while on trial basis wifi in the public busses

    Great post BTW.

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April 2009


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