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

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Environment

    Let's All Swim in the Once-Filthy Canals of Paris

    Unlike many cities, the French capital has made good on its promise to re-open urban waterways to bathers. How did they do it?  

  2. Transportation

    5 Reasons to Be Wary of Elon Musk's Hyperloop

    High-speed vactrains might be the ticket for a Martian colony. As a practical transit investment for Earth, the technology has a long way to go.

  3. Life

    Say Goodbye to Spain's Glorious Three-Hour Lunch Break

    Catalonia plans to shorten work hours—but don’t call it the end of the siesta.

  4. Uber drivers sit in their cars waiting for passengers.
    Equity

    What Uber Drivers Say About Uber

    Researchers conducted in-depth interviews and discovered a lot about the pitfalls of working in the rideshare business.

  5. The Salk Institute, near San Diego
    Design

    This Is Your Brain on Architecture

    In her new book, Sarah Williams Goldhagen presents scientific evidence for why some buildings delight us and others—too many of them—disappoint.