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« Caddy-Fi | Main | Ekahau Releases Free Wi-Fi Heatmap Software »

March 20, 2009

Amtrak Cascades Line Tests Internet Service

It seems like a no-brainer, putting Internet service on commuter and long-distance trains: But there are plenty of difficulties in making this happen. Frequent Seattle-to-Portland Cascade Talgo rider Vaughn Aldredge alerted the Seattlest to his experience, and shared some technical detail with me; that led me to Vickie Sheehan, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) spokesperson for rail and marine issues.

Sheehan explained that a trial is underway for the high-speed Seattle-to-Portland Amtrak run in which the WSDOT and Talgo, the manufacturer of the fleet trains, are collaborating. Sheehan said the current trial replaces a previous effort in which continuity of service was problem along the approximately 180-mile route. "We don't want to put someting out there that's inferior and would have spotty coverage," she said.

The service will likely be free, an amenity to encourage more riders on the line that takes 4 four hours to traverse the route, which can be under 3 by car. Sheehan said that stimulus funds coupled with an effort in the state legislature could provide the money to complete further track upgrades, move to 8 instead of 6 round trips a day, and drop the trip to below 3 hours.

Aldredge's experience with the trial was that the service was slow and intermittent, but he said there was no way to be sure another user wasn't engaged in a high-bandwidth activity, like downloading a video. (That's about the first thing everyone does these days when they encounter Wi-Fi in odd locations.) Sheehan said that in generally comment cards were coming back with positive responses.

The trial service is backed by a cellular connection, which works reasonably well as the route parallels I-5, the major north/south highway between Seattle and Portland.

There have been rumors for five years that Amtrak was considering testing systems on its trains, and there's apparently a public request for proposals out there, but I can't find it, and an Amtrak spokesperson didn't answer the question as to where to find it.

Amtrak's fiscal 2009 business plan notes only, "Eticketing and the addition of Wi-Fi technology on trains, on-board point of sale and credit card automation sales are a few important projects planned to either start in FY09 or continue a multi-year effort."

One could imagine that with the additional funds allotted to Amtrak nationwide by the Obama Administration, that the train operator might be able to work harder to find private contractors to build a service.

Trains are a particular problem for providing Internet access. In some commuter lines, you might have a straight shot along existing rights of way with no tunnels and can simply use existing 3G cellular infrastructure, with an eye to the upcoming 4G rollouts of WiMax and LTE. That's a good 5-year plan, right?

But for Amtrak, there are now high-speed trains on certain routes for which standard cell technology might not be appropriate (Cascades with Talgo in the Northwest, Acela Express in the Northeast); extremely complicated terrain with tunnels, mountains obstructions, and so forth; and a varied ridership that might not provide the consistent revenue needed. A combination of satellite and cellular could work, except that getting satellite line of site to, say, Ku-band (way down in geostationary orbit over the equator) could be just as difficult as reaching a cell tower.

Likely, some combination of relay towers in difficult spots and varied backhaul would be needed to ensure consistent access.

Tests a few years ago on the Capitol Corridor line down in California that runs from around Sacramento to the south bay produced decidedly mixed results. Of four finalists who were supposed to test networks, not much got off the ground (as it were), and the tests produced no conclusive results. Amtrak and the CCJPA (CC Joint Powers Authority) have a shared interest in the CC line, and more work is absolutely planned there.

Finally, as with a lot of Wi-Fi being installed now in the air, across cities, and elsewhere, the combination of operational utility (remote surveillance, homeland security, communications, logistics, remote train operation, and telemetry) with public access often makes the budget work were a little bit of back office combined with a little passenger use doesn't sell the offering.

1 Comment

We already have Wi-Fi service on Amtrak's Downeaster between Portland, Maine and Boston using Sprint. The terrain is fairly flat and the service works well with one brief period of blackout (a minute or so) along the line. The service is provided free courtesy of Maine's Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority in cooperation with Amtrak and cost very little to install.