Happening Now

You Aren’t The Only One Who Wants Better Wi-Fi

May 10, 2024

By Jim Mathews / President & CEO

Judging from my email inbox and social-media comments, better Wi-Fi access on Amtrak trains is near the top of a lot of wish lists for a lot of passengers. Some are getting pretty grumpy about it, pointing out that Wi Fi seems to be everywhere – malls, fast-food joints, cruise ships – except on the train they’re riding.

It turns out you’re not the only ones who want better Wi-Fi, though; Amtrak does too, and they’ve asked Congress to consider giving them $30 million in Fiscal 2025 to start testing creative solutions for some genuinely tough technical challenges, to speed investment in newer-generation replacement Wi-Fi equipment on existing trains, and to bring in smart expert employees to make it all work.

“The Wi-Fi Improvements initiative would support expansion of Wi-Fi availability on the National Network, and also improvement of Wi-Fi quality on the Northeast Corridor and elsewhere,” Amtrak says. “While initial investments would not directly close all remaining managed network operator cellular coverage gaps, they would lay necessary groundwork for future expansions and improvements — particularly if the initiative were funded across multiple years.”

“More than 90% of Amtrak passengers can connect to the Internet via free on-board Wi-Fi service,” Amtrak tells Congress in its annual legislative report and FY 25 grant request. Well, yes, that’s technically true, but that’s also because most of those riders are concentrated in the Northeast Corridor and on state-supported routes where Wi-Fi is more readily available.

“On certain routes, however, Wi-Fi remains unavailable,” Amtrak says.

That’s right: certain routes that go across rural America, where millions of Americans rely on trains to get to work, to school, to medical care, and for vital travel.

“Moreover, the speed, reliability, and bandwidth of available connections are still limited by various factors. Some of those factors—including decisions by outside service providers (e.g., national wireless carriers); the availability of certain technologies; and the physical terrain through which trains travel— lie outside of Amtrak’s control,” Amtrak notes. “Even so, investment from Congress could enable Amtrak to significantly expand and improve upon current Wi-Fi offerings.”

Here's my periodic reminder to readers that Wi-Fi is not magic. It’s just broadcasting a signal in your house, in a restaurant, or wherever, to which your device can connect to the Internet. But crucially, that signal is NOT the Internet itself. In whatever way your Internet access arrives where you’re using it, Wi-Fi simply takes that and re-distributes it on your local wireless network. If you don’t have cell service or a satellite bringing you Internet...you don’t have Wi-Fi.

Look out the window next time you’re on the Empire Builder or the Southwest Chief and note the distinct lack of cell towers nearby. That’s why you don’t have Wi-Fi.

A $30 million appropriation from Congress to Amtrak in Fiscal 2025 could do a lot of good.

“Many gaps in Amtrak’s Wi-Fi service (mainly on Western Long-Distance trains) are the product of challenges for which simple solutions may not exist. Closing these gaps will require innovation, and Federal funding could support the kind of experimentation — including field tests and pilots — needed to achieve network-wide coverage,” Amtrak says.

Remember, airplanes bopping along at 30,000 feet are by and large traveling in a straight line, and there is little to nothing getting between the top of the airplane’s fuselage and the satellite sending data packets to the aircraft-mounted receiver. Trains wind their way through canyons, past towering woods, and through and around many kinds of obstructions. Maintaining connections is a much bigger challenge than you might think it is.

“Funding could enable Amtrak to accelerate already-planned upgrades or replacements of aging equipment — improving connections sooner than would otherwise be possible,” Amtrak told Congress. Moreover, “Wi-Fi systems are intricate, complicated, and at times delicate; sustaining connectivity nationwide requires continual activity by highly knowledgeable workers. Funding could enable Amtrak to grow Wi-Fi-related staff capacity—ensuring that when challenges arise, they can be identified and resolved as quickly as possible.”