Frederick Dennstedt/Flickr

But merely providing the service isn't enough. It needs to work well, too.

Last week, Amtrak announced that it's expanding its free Wi-Fi service, known as AmtrakConnect, to eight corridors in the Midwest. These routes carried more than 3 million people in fiscal 2013, and one of them, the Lincoln Service between Chicago and St. Louis, made Amtrak's biggest relative ridership gain for the year, up nearly 10 percent [PDF]. All told, free Wi-Fi coverage now reaches about 85 percent of Amtrak passengers.

As travelers increasingly see the train as a sort of mobile office, free Wi-Fi becomes less of an amenity and more of an essential service. Until travel times themselves improve, Amtrak's ability to offer more productive travel time, at least compared with driving or flying, represents one of its chief competitive advantages.

Indeed, there's some evidence that AmtrakConnect serves as a tool to recruit new riders. A research team led by transport scholar Patricia Mokhtarian recently considered that possibility after Amtrak installed free Wi-Fi on its Capitol Corridor in California, which travels between San Jose and Sacramento. At the time, Amtrak indicated that even a 1 to 2 percent jump in ridership would have made the investment worthwhile.

Mokhtarian's team concluded that Amtrak had met this goal and likely exceeded it. In one analysis, based on on-board surveys, the researchers calculated that Wi-Fi was responsible for a 2.9 percent jump in trips. A separate model based on trip data estimated a similar Wi-Fi boost (2.7 percent) — with AmtrakConnect much more important to new or low-frequency riders (expected to make 8.6 and 6.2 percent more trips due to Wi-Fi, respectively) than to regular riders (1 percent).

Those findings are encouraging (if somewhat speculative), but Amtrak's bigger problem is that in a short time its free Wi-Fi service has acquired a reputation for being extremely unreliable. Some of this is the type of unreasonable demand placed on the world that Louis C.K. describes in his famous "everything's amazing and nobody's happy" rant. Some of it is a projection of Amtrak's broader reputation — marginally real, mostly perceived — for clumsy service.

Fair or not, Amtrak has to deal with that problem. It's certainly trying. Its broadband technology was recently upgraded to improve Wi-Fi speed and reliability in select corridors. Anecdotally, in the Northeast Corridor, that effort has made things better, though service remains spotty at times and certain activities (e.g. video stream and large downloads) are still restricted so individual users can't monopolize the service.

A legitimate fear is that, at some point, poor on-board Wi-Fi might cancel out whatever ridership gains the service attracts. In that sense, Amtrak is wise to see Wi-Fi as a key low-cost investment — especially until federal funding catches up with more substantial needs regarding track upgrades and food operations and long-distance costs. It would be even wiser to do everything in its financial power to make sure the service works well.

Top image: Frederick Dennstedt/Flickr.com

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