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VRE working to offer free WiFi

Virginia Railway Express riders may soon enjoy free wireless Internet service during their commutes.

VRE Chief Executive Officer Dale Zehner said he is working with Verizon to add wireless to two cars on every train. The service, he said, would reach about 300 passengers seated on either the first two or the last two cars of every train. If it proves successful, wireless could be extended to more rail cars, he said.

Demand for wireless internet on VRE trains has grown over the years, but a lack of cellular towers along both the Manassas and Fredericksburg lines has posed a challenge, Zehner said during Friday's VRE Operations Board meeting.

Over the years, however, Internet service providers have added more towers and technology has advanced, making it easier to use existing structure, VRE officials said. Wireless coverage remains strong along both lines, with the exception of the tracks between the Leeland Road and Quantico stations. Zehner said Verizon plans to add an antenna near the Leeland station and once complete, that will eliminate any weak spots in the wireless system.

The wireless Internet project would cost about $90,000 up front and an additional $50,000 annually. Zehner said other transit agencies that offer wireless reported an increase in ridership and revenue as well as a decrease in complaints during service delays. Amtrak began offering free wireless aboard Acela trains earlier this year.

"All of us wanted WiFi and it looks like we'll be able to move forward cost effectively," VRE Operations Board Chairman Paul Milde said.

Zehner said he will bring a request for quotes for the router devices to the board next month. Once the procurement process is complete, VRE staff will return to the board with a recommendation. Zehner said the wireless could be in place by the spring.

Also at the meeting, the board gave Zehner the go-ahead to sell 10 railcars and three locomotives to the Army for $250,000. The Army wants the equipment to move 800 to 1,100 military personnel from Fort Lee in Virginia to Fort A.P. Hill about three times a month for training, Fort Lee Spokesman Keith Debois said.

Zehner said the details of the sale are still in the works but he hopes to come to the Northern Virginia and Potomac and Rappahannock transportation commissions next month with a final sales agreement for them to approve. Debois said the Army is also still working out several details, including where to store the trains. Right now, he said, they are considering several privately owned sites around Milford, Va.

-- Jennifer Buske

By Michael Bolden  | October 15, 2010; 1:29 PM ET
Categories:  Commuter Rail, Northern Virginia, Virginia  
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