Amtrak to offer passengers wireless Internet on high-speed trains

Railroad plans to expand the Wi-Fi to other trains, and the service could attract more business passengers, transportation specialists say.

Amtrak plans to offer Wi-Fi service on its routes nationwide, with the offering to start in March on the railroad's premier Acela Express trains that travel from Boston to Washington, officials told Nextgov.

Shortly thereafter, the federally funded national passenger railroad will offer wireless Internet connections on its Northeast regional trains, which also serve the Boston-Washington corridor with additional routes south to Lynchburg, Va., and Newport News, Va., according to Karina Romero, an Amtrak spokeswoman. She did not say when Amtrak planned to roll out Wi-Fi service nationally.

The railroad initially will offer the service free to passengers on its Northeast corridor routes, but "no decision has been made on whether or not it will be free forever," Romero said.

The service will give Amtrak a tremendous competitive advantage in passenger rail, according to Kris Erickson, who helped manage the deployment of Wi-Fi on 13 commuter rail lines operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which serves Boston and its suburbs, with one line extending to Providence, R.I.

Erickson, who served as the MBTA chief of staff during the Wi-Fi roll-out in 2008 and 2009 and is now a consultant, said passenger feedback showed that the ability to check e-mail and to access the Web during their commutes convinced travelers to leave their cars for the trains. He said passengers said Internet access improved their productivity, giving them more time with families at the end of the workday.

Amtrak should offer free Wi-Fi because the mobile workforce views it as an amenity and has resisted paid wireless service in hotels, coffee shops and on airliners, Erikson said.

MBTA spent $1.9 million to equip the first 258 cars in MBTA's fleet, a nominal cost, he said. Amtrak has allocated $300,000 in its 2010 budget to outfit the Acela Express with wireless access. Amtrak operates 20 high-speed trains, each of which includes six cars.

WAAV Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., supplied wireless routers to MBTA, and its president, Brian Smith, said the gear costs "about a few thousand dollars per car."

Romero said Amtrak has not selected a Wi-Fi vendor yet. WAAV provided the equipment that Amtrak used in a test of the service on Acela trains in 2009, and the company plans to bid on the Amtrak Wi-Fi contract, Smith said. WAAV also supplied wireless gear used on President Obama's inauguration train in January 2009.

The WAAV routers provide passengers onboard the trains with Wi-Fi technology and uses high-speed cellular modems to connect wireless access points on a train to the Internet. He said MBTA uses AT&T as its wireless carrier, and the company recently rolled out a new version of its high-speed services that eventually will offer data rates of 7.2 megabits per second, or roughly equivalent to a wired telephone Internet connection.

WAAV can boost the capacity of the cellular network to the Internet by using multiple cell phone carriers and sells a router that can accommodate up to four cellular modems.

The Washington State Department of Transportation tested Wi-Fi last summer on its Amtrak Cascades Pacific Northwest route, which operates between Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C. The department plans to equip five trains, said Kirk Fredrickson, a state project manager.

Washington state, which partially funds operations of the Cascades service, plans to work with Amtrak and Nomad Digital of London, which equipped a Cascades train to test the service, uses technology similar to WAAV, to equip its five trains.

Fredrickson said he believes Wi-Fi will attract business customers on the Portland-to-Seattle route. "Wi-Fi is the No. 1 amenity requested by passengers," he said.