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Amtrak brings WiFi to the rails -- within limits

Laptop-toting travelers lost yet another excuse Monday for not being productive when Amtrak launched free WiFi service on Acela Express trains and in some Northeast Corridor stations.

amtrak_wifi_logo.jpg

The passenger railroad comes to the free-wireless market late; bus operators such as Bolt Bus, Megabus and Tripper Bus have offered free WiFi for years. Then again, if I'm going to put in some serious laptop time, I'd much rather do so from the roomy confines of an Acela seat.

A test of Amtrak's WiFi Wednesday on a ride to Baltimore and back showed two sides of the service: absurdly fast connections in stations and slow, limited access on the trains.

In Union Station and Baltimore Penn Station, the "AmtrakConnectStation" signal consistently delivered download speeds of around 3 million bits per second (Mbps) and uploads of about 600 thousand bits per second (Kbps). That's faster than many digital-subscriber-line connections, more than enough to catch up on TV viewing online or tune into some Web radio to drown out the Muzak playing in Baltimore.

(Farther north, Amtrak offers WiFi in Philadelphia, New York's Penn Station, Providence and the Route 128 station in Massachusetts.)

But on trains headed north and south, the "AmtrakConnect" network was less like, say, an Acela Express and more like a rush-hour Orange Line train shuffling its way under the Potomac. Although the connection almost never dropped -- unlike my experiences with WiFi on Megabus and Tripper Bus last summer -- download speeds topped out at 1 Mbps and were often closer to 200 kbps, with uploads at about half those speeds.

Amtrak spokeswoman Tracy Connell wrote in an e-mail that Amtrak aggregates mobile-broadband signals from AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile to provide service on trains. You can already use those services on a smartphone or a laptop with a mobile-broadband receiver, though the railroad's mix-and-match approach may yield a more consistent connection.

Even that pokier access should have been enough for Web-radio listening, but the Pandora and Slacker programs on an iPhone somehow failed to connect. The reason why emerged when I tried visiting the same sites on a laptop and saw an "Access Denied" message explaining that "AmtrakConnect blocks access to selected sites that are known to utilize high bandwidth or that may contain content that could be considered questionable by some of our passengers."

Amtrak's filter also blocked the Hulu and YouTube sites and even removed embedded video clips and some interactive ads from pages (some may consider that last item a feature, not a bug).

As for "questionable" content, I found that Facebook's shortcut address of "fb.me" fell under the blocked category of "Personals and Dating" -- but the regular facebook.com address went unblocked. MySpace was allowed; Match.com and eHarmony were not. (Note to my wife: Those sites meant nothing to me!)

The user agreement you must click through doesn't describe this extensive filtering, only saying that "Amtrak may restrict access to some websites or restrict individual customers from using high levels of bandwidth" and requesting that you not watch streaming video.

Connell said, "We will likely add more detail to our portal/splash page about the types of sites being blocked."

By way of comparison, the in-flight WiFi sold by such airlines as AirTran, American Airlines, Delta and Virgin America generally blocks just Internet-calling services. Passengers have reported favorably about watching YouTube clips from 35,000 feet -- though others have found that when too many passengers try to jump online, the connection bogs down to an unusable degree.

Amtrak's press release (PDF) says it's "initially" offering WiFi for free; at some point, the railroad will review this policy and consider expanding access to other routes and stations.

Should this service become a non-free option (and my employer weren't picking up the tab), I doubt I'd pay. It's not so much the relatively slow speeds of Amtrak's WiFi; it's more that I've come to appreciate the value of enforced offline time in which I can read, write, nap and generally clear my head.

What's your take on the prospect of WiFi access on trains -- or, if you've been on the Acela this week, the reality as you've observed it? (Bonus points to the first person to post a comment from a train using Amtrak's wireless.)

By Rob Pegoraro  |  March 4, 2010; 11:19 AM ET
Categories:  Mobile , Telecom  
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Comments

Behind the curve, overpriced and inadequate......pretty much sums up Amtrak. Please stop spending my tax dollars subsidizing this loser. Ditto for the fiscal black hole that is the Postal Service.

Posted by: hit4cycle | March 4, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Some Canadian trains have had WiFi for years. I would be interested in anyone who could directly compare the quality of the Acela and Canadian services.

Posted by: rboltuck | March 4, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

@hit4cycle:

Read the February 28 article by Postmaster John Potter. "A small annual appropriation from Congress reimburses the USPS for free mail for the blind and absentee-ballot mailing for overseas military personnel. Otherwise, we have not received taxpayer funds to support postal operations since 1982."

Your tax dollars are safe. Unlike the "fiscal black hole" of, say, Medicare Part D.

Posted by: 54Stratocaster | March 4, 2010 3:26 PM | Report abuse

I tried Amtrak's wifi on my way back from New York on Sunday:

Verdict: The connection speed is fine, but the filtering blocked legitimate websites, and the service ultimately became useless when my power outlet stopped working.

Posted by: stuckman | March 4, 2010 4:08 PM | Report abuse

Writing from an Amtrak train, but not with Amtrak wifi. My Verizon wireless through my USB port has given me quite a decent signal for most of the trip between Chicago and New York. It's dropped out a couple of times in rural areas, but mostly I'm thrilled with it.

Fan of Amtrak. Or of Amtrak's future. High-speed rail -- go for it! Embarrassing that Spain has better rail travel than we do. Where's American pride? Time to join the rest of the civilized world, cut down on oil usage and energy-guzzling airlines.

Posted by: dgsweet | March 4, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

Bits and bytes are not the same thing, Rob. They're kilobytes and megabytes, not kilobits and megabits. Eight bits to a byte.

Posted by: jamesdg | March 4, 2010 4:19 PM | Report abuse

jamesdg:

bps = bits per second
Bps = Bytes per second

Nothing that Rob wrote indicates he doesn't know the difference. Most network speeds are quoted in bits per second (eg Mbps) not bytes per second.

Posted by: wwat | March 4, 2010 5:38 PM | Report abuse

Same experience as Rob. On Acela right now to NY. Great speeds in Penn Station but once we pulled out, weak signal and VPN disconnected. Switching back to my Sprint mobility, which is working just fine.

Posted by: poconomd | March 5, 2010 6:51 AM | Report abuse

Wifi on Amtrak is fine as a feature, if you choose to use it. Please do not take away the quiet car, that's the best part of the trip.

Posted by: peter51 | March 5, 2010 7:10 AM | Report abuse

@hit4cycle: Not to turn this into a transportation-policy blog, but you should know that the Acela Express and Amtrak's entire Northeast Corridor make a tidy profit... unlike the government-subsidized highways you can see from the train. As for the Postal Service, see the story @54Stratocaster mentioned.

@rboltuck: I'd love to test Via Rail's WiFi at some point, but I don't think the Post's travel budget will cover that today.

@jamesdg: Not sure where you got the idea I was referring to bytes, since I didn't use that word and I employed the correct abbreviations for kilobits and megabits. (Thanks for the vote of confidence, @wwat.)

@poconomd: Did the service stay connected under the Hudson? I know that Sprint and Verizon phones have there; not sure about AT&T and don't think I tested T-Mobile.

@peter51: The splash screen also asks that you either turn off your computer's speakers or use headphones while online. And yes, the Quiet Car is still there--I took that on the return to Union Station. (And was thinking of the "This American Life" episode about the culture of the Quiet Car the whole time.)

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | March 5, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Hm. What if I don't want Amtrak to offer WiFi via Sprint's cellular network? Doesn't that devalue my subscription and MiFi by saturating the network? Then again, they aer blocking at least too bandwidth-intensive sites and Amtrak probably pays more to the carrier than I do.

Posted by: davezatz | March 5, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

I'm on the Amtrak Northeast Regional train right now, connecting to AT&T mobile data through my cell phone. I will be very excited when Amtrak finally starts offering wifi on the non-Acela trains as well, assuming that it actually works (my experience with the bus cos' wifi has been abysmal). Given that Amtrak markets itself on the NE corridor as the preferred means of travel for businessmen who don't want to lose valuable working time en route, I'm astounded that it has taken them this long to put wifi in place.

@RP it is true that Amtrak made a nice profit on the Acela, although I was surprised to see that after including depreciation and other unallocated costs they lost money on the regional rail. In any case, while I don't support @hit4cycle's anti-government rant, it is certainly true that Amtrak is way behind the times and astonishingly inept in the most random ways, such as when the power has been going out every time we pull into a station, causing the dining car not to be able to sell anything until we start moving again.

Posted by: yelpern | March 7, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

I was disappointed when I took the Acela for the first time a few months ago from Boston to New York. I swore I had seen commericals in the past toting their wireless connections and allowing business travelers to connect while enroute to their destination. When I tried to log on and couldn't find any signals and was forced to work via my iPhone for the entire trip, I was disappointed. How can Bolt Bus, which offers bargain prices, be blowing Acela out of the water? Just doesn't make sense!

Posted by: KKane99 | March 9, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

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