Home Asides Amtrak, now with some wireless internet

Amtrak, now with some wireless internet

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the last three and a half years of writing here, one of the recurring topics has focused on Internet access or lack thereof on the region’s commuter rail lines. The MTA has been engaged in a never-ending attempt to wire its underground subway system for basic cell service, and Sen. Chuck Schumer has called for wireless access on the MTA’s commuter rails. It truly is a matter of economics and productivity because people with Internet don’t suffer through time lost to commuting. Maybe people can spend more time with their families because they can get work done on their rides into and out of work. Still the efforts continue with no real end in sight.

Earlier this week, though, Amtrak kinda sorta joined the wireless fray. The national rail carrier announced wireless internet access for Acela Express passengers this week. Access is free on board all Acela Express trains, in stations in D.C, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Providence and Westwood, Massachusetts and in all ClubAcela lounges. Unfortunately, Amtrak says it won’t be extending access to its non-Acela trains in the near future. For a country so obsessed with productivity, the lack of non-phone carrier Internet access along our train lines is a technological step backward.

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Jonathan March 3, 2010 - 4:50 pm

I’m sure lots of Amtrak riders use some kind of wireless 3G modem that sends and receives data on cell-phone bandwidth. I’ve tried one brand, and it works great. It’s far more convenient than wifi, because you don’t have to manually go through the login/authentication every time you get on a wifi network.

The more widespread such devices get, the less impetus there will be for Amtrak-provided wireless.

AK March 3, 2010 - 5:05 pm

Jonathan, one of the problems with getting WiFi on trains is that cell-phone reception is spotty along the Northeast Corridor. Whereas one has great reception in a vehicle between Boston and NYC (and hence, Megabus and Boltbus can offer WiFi via cellular connections), the reception on the train route is much worse, especially as the train zooms along through Southern Connecticut toward Rhode Island. Therefore, even if Amtrak set up the technology used by Bolt/Mega, it wouldn’t work nearly as well and it would probably jeopardize “real” work done on trains, as opposed to the regular bus riders who are surfing the net casually (myself included).

John March 3, 2010 - 5:06 pm

I kind of agree. In many ways the time for wifi has come and gone. With smart phones and those USB modems that run off the cell phone networks, people who really need the internet won’t need wifi. At this point the money would be better spent elsewhere.

Anon256 March 3, 2010 - 6:33 pm

So in addition to paying ten times as much for my ticket as I would on Boltbus or Megabus, I also have to pay $60/month for a data plan in order to have a level of service that Boltbus and Megabus provide for free?

pete March 4, 2010 - 12:00 am

But the thing is, that $60 a month (it can be cheaper if you use Virgin Mobile prepaid dongle) works basically everywhere. On LIRR or NJT train. On ANY bus. In a taxi. At your grandma with no internet’s house. At your employer that blocks facebook on the company’s internet. At any restaurant. While your driving your car or a lawn mower (don’t drive distracted, use it to play internet radio with the screen closed for example). I’m using it right now writing this post on Metro North.

Daniel Howard March 3, 2010 - 5:09 pm

There’s not much 3G signal in the rural areas Amtrak tends to pass through. But in this economic / budget environment, I’m impressed they make any progress at all.


Alon Levy March 3, 2010 - 6:59 pm

This is big. Not many HSR lines provide wireless service: the Shinkansen doesn’t, and the TGV does only on the LGV Est. As cars and air shuttles never provide this service level, it’s a big boost for the business productivity case on trains.

By the way: wi-fi doesn’t require login and authentication. Free wi-fi never does; paid public wi-fi just prompts you for a username and password when you try to load your homepage on your browser. That’s how it works at airports and hotels and on planes with net access. It’s only secure home networks that require you to enter authentication on your wi-fi client yourself.

JE March 3, 2010 - 7:46 pm

Considering the cost of a R/T Acela ticket, forgive me for not dancing on the table. As Anon pointed out, several private bus companies, which charge customers a fraction of what it costs to ride even the rickety Northeast Regional, provide free WiFi and an electrical outlet.

Alon Levy March 3, 2010 - 9:07 pm

The premium buses aren’t the only competition for the Acela. The private car is the dominant mode of transportation on all city pairs, and on some, for example New York/Boston, Amtrak still has fewer passengers than the air shuttles.

@epc March 3, 2010 - 8:47 pm

It may just not be practical to offer wireless outside the dense NE corridor. I took Amtrak to Denver from NYP in November and had very mixed experiences trying to use AT&T 3G as well as Verizion’s 3g service. In NY State you can get 3g service pretty much across the entire state, except for a weird bit between Peekskill and Beacon. But once I got into the more rural portions of Indiana and Ohio I only got signal in the immediate vicinity of urban areas.

I switched to a Verizon wireless broadband from Chicago to Denver and had fantastic coverage to about Omaha, then nothing almost the rest of the way to Denver.

On my return trip I routed through Pittsburgh and found that neither AT&T nor Verizon had much coverage between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.

My point with this is that Amtrak isn’t going to wire the connectivity themselves (as an aside I’m curious who they’re using as a provider in the Acela). If the 3g service isn’t there for the train to connect to already, I doubt that an ISP or WISP will provide it just for Amtrak passengers.

Alon Levy March 3, 2010 - 9:08 pm

The LGV Est uses satellite connection, if I’m not mistaken.

Mad Park March 3, 2010 - 10:02 pm

I think there are many of us in the US who’d rather have Amtrak spend the paltry sums our Congress appropriates to it on actual passenger rail cars, staff training and roadbed maintenance, rather on some fancy electronics that’ll be out of date in 5 years. Fix the cars at Beech Grove first!

John March 4, 2010 - 9:48 am

I would much rather have new Amtrak routes than wi-fi on the existing routes.

Rhywun March 4, 2010 - 4:08 am

I don’t like any of this. I’m perfectly capable of entertaining myself during lengthy, predictable periods without Internet access. And call me old-fashioned and lazy, but one of the old joys of business travel was getting away from the office for awhile 🙂
Nowadays, one is expected to be “working” 24/7 – always on call. Only recently are reports pouring in that such expectations are unrealistic and even detrimental.

Miguel March 4, 2010 - 10:40 am

A WSJ piece a couple of months ago claimed that Amtrak would adding WiFi capability to its NE Regional trains during the third quarter of 2010. Has this changed?

A call for wireless access on the commuter rails :: Second Ave. Sagas March 15, 2010 - 12:01 pm

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