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Amtrak to Expand Free WiFi

Expansion begins this fall on West Coast

There’s good news for engineering executives and others in the industry who ride Amtrak regularly. The train service says the free WiFi on its high-speed Acela Express trains between Washington and Boston has been so popular it plans to expand it to other routes and beyond the higher-priced Acela service.

The train operator began offering “Amtrak Connect” in March; it says a customer poll shows 39% of Acela passengers use it every day. Acela has about 115,000 passengers per month. Amtrak believes keeping the WiFi free will support ridership growth and notes planned upgrades to the system include increased bandwidth to allow for more access to video files.

To support the expansion, Amtrak just issued a request for proposals for vendors to “identify, procure, install and maintain” WiFi on its passenger trains nationwide.

Except for Acela, Amtrak trains do not operate with a fixed set of passenger cars, so whatever WiFi system is chosen must work in different train configurations, including when different types of cars — coach, diner or sleeper — are mixed up or when groups of cars are split from one train or connected to another train.

The plan is for work to begin this fall, starting with Amtrak California routes, followed by the “Northeast Regional” service and then routes in the rest of the country.

(Here’s a fun tidbit: One of the Amtrak California routes, the Pacific Surfliner, celebrates 10 years of service under that name by honoring its 25 millionth rider at 10 a.m. (Pacific) today at the Santa Fe Depot in downtown San Diego. The Pacific Surfliner travels the California coast between San Luis Obispo and San Diego. Surfboards count as carry-on luggage on these trains.)

Amtrak obviously feels it worth it to invest in network upgrades to offer expanded WiFi, though I notice it didn’t mention costs. It will be interesting to see how the mobile industry handles the upgrade given that carriers have been struggling with increased data use by smartphone users for awhile. Should radio be making a pitch here?