Full disclosure, I take Amtrak trains in the Northeast region a lot. Yes, Amtrak has had free Wi-Fi service on their trains since 2010, however I have not once had a single positive experience using it. The reason being is that the current system is just 10 Mbps per train, and that even comes with restrictions put in place by Amtrak limiting Wi-Fi use to basically just sending emails and reading web pages . Don’t even try to stream Netflix on your morning 90-minute commute.
Whenever I have been offered to take a quick survey by Amtrak after one of my trips I usually do, and everytime there has been a question or two about the Wi-Fi service. So judging from the changes to the Wi-Fi service that Amtrak is embarking on it is safe to say that I’m not the only passenger unsatisfied with my Wi-Fi experience.
So what are the changes you ask? Wired reports that Amtrak plans on boosting speeds from 10 Mbps per train to 25 Mbps (which is about as fast as an entry-level cable connection) of bandwidth to each train running between Boston and Washington, D.C. with the overall goal of eliminating all restrictions. While this sounds like a massive improvement, and it is, the problem is there is no system in place to support the plan. Currently the Amtrak Wi-Fi comes in at 4G speeds pulled from local towers along the rail routes. Amtrak is keen on the idea of a dedicated track-side network or a satellite connection or some combination of both – truth be told Amtrak does not know what they want, and they are relying on proposals from vendors to lay the plan.
Money is tight for Amtrak right now, in Amtrak’s 2015 budget request to Congress Amtrak asked for $1.62 billion; an increase of 16% from their allotment in 2014. While high speed Wi-Fi is nice, I for one think high speed rail would be money better spent especially for a rail system that in parts is over a century old.
However there is an argument that a more comfortable ride with the enjoyment of high speed Wi-Fi could lure new customers to Amtrak, and with that comes an increase in cash. Time will tell and soon as the winning proposal is to be tested as early as winter on 10 miles of track south of Wilmington Delaware.