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.

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