By Eric Jaffe, December 23, 2013
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.