Good news for travelers who prefer the train over the plane: Amtrak is bringing Wi-Fi to more of its train routes. Starting today on the East Coast (with California to follow by the end of the year), train riders will be able to surf to their heart’s content via AmtrakConnect. This follows the addition of WiFi to high-speed Acela trains and hotspots in a growing number of stations and terminals. Now you won’t have to suffer those long rides or the long waits without your Internet lifeline.
Of course, the system will likely be less than perfect to start. Amtrak will utilize the same mobile broadband networks as a passenger with a mobile hotspot would. If you’ve ever taken a long train trip you know that it’s common to enter long stretches where there’s low or no connectivity at all, especially out in the country or in the mountains.
According to their press release, Amtrak is working with wireless carriers to boost the signal and minimize the downtime.
I suspect that even when the train is moving through an area with strong connectivity the WiFi might be slow if a large number of passengers are on at the same time, just as with airplane wireless. I also wonder how the number of mobile phones on the train will affect the signal.
Amtrak does specify that the connection can only be used for basic surfing and not streaming music, video, or downloading large files. That may help with the speed, but means passengers won’t have as many entertainment options.
Twelve East Coast routes will get the service: Northeast Regional, Keystone Service, Empire Service, the Carolinian, Downeaster, Ethan Allen Express, the New Haven-Springfield Shuttle, and the Vermonter. Some routwes will only have access to the WiFi in specific cars: Adirondack, Maple Leaf, Palmetto, and Pennsylvanian.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Amtrak for several years. When I was in college I started taking the train back and forth between New York and my home in Ohio since sometimes the fare would be less expensive (especially if you’re just going one way). And I once spent two years traveling the country by train visiting friends and relatives.
The train is a very slow mode of transportation. And you’re at the whim of very limited schedules, which often means arriving or leaving at very inconvenient times of night. Though the seats are more comfortable than those you’d find on a plane, sitting anywhere for 12 hours in bound to make for aches. And if the train is full or the conductors surly, your trip could feel more like torture than travel.
The addition of outlets made the long, long trips much less painful; not just for me, but also for the many small children who would be bored without laptops or portable DVD players to keep them engaged. And when I finally started traveling with a mobile hotspot two years ago, I found it even more useful than in-flight WiFi. No having to wait for 10,000 feet.
So kudos to Amtrak for finally giving your riders a much-needed amenity. Though the issues may take some time to work themselves out, it’s a good step forward for the company and may even get more folks on the train.