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Wi-Fi and Amtrak: Missed Connections

It was a Thursday morning, and Robert Treat, the chief technology officer for an Internet company, was looking forward to some uninterrupted time to get work done on the train from Baltimore to New York. Leaning back, hot cocoa at the ready, he logged on, scrolled through a few e-mails and then ... no more Internet. He logged on again, managed to connect for a few minutes, and soon enough: nothing.

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Was it just him? He glanced up to see the woman across from him looking around too, with a similar expression of annoyed concern. “Death by a thousand cuts,” he said resignedly. Another commute. Another agonizing attempt to use the Internet on Amtrak.

For rail travelers of the Northeast Corridor, the promise of Wi-Fi has become an infuriating tease.

First introduced on the Acela amid a heavily promoted marketing campaign two years ago, its press release promising “fast, reliable and consistent connectivity,” Amtrak’s wireless service has instead turned into a source of mockery on blogs and a daily source of angry messages on Twitter and other social media.

“Couldn’t get enough signal on my laptop to complain how bad the Wi-Fi is on my train,” wrote MattSullivan101 on Twitter last month. “Well played, #amtrak,” he continued, “but you missed my phone.”

In late October Amtrak extended wireless service to non-Acela trains as well, promising the perk of long hours of productivity to non-Acela riders along the Northeast Corridor. But rather than provide the competitive edge that Amtrak officials hoped would lure customers away from planes and buses, the wireless service has become a symbol of the problematic state of train travel in the Internet era.

Customers complain that it either doesn’t work at all or is unbearably slow. “It’s like dial-up pretending to be Wi-Fi,” said Carrie Strine, an artist in New York, who frequently rides the train to Lancaster, Pa. “You almost expect to hear that sound that AOL used to make when you logged in.”

And in a cruel but irresistible irony, those who want to send e-mails or update their Facebook page while traveling the busy Northeast Corridor might be better served by, say, the Delta Shuttle, which offers Wi-Fi on flights between New York and Boston (though they charge for it), or a bus; many lines offer free Internet access.

“I can’t believe it’s even marketed as Wi-Fi,” said Erin Gates, an interior decorator and fashion blogger who lives in Boston. Ms. Gates, a regular train rider, initially expected the service to work as smoothly as Wi-Fi on JetBlue or Virgin America airlines, but she has given up on it and bought a wireless card from Sprint.

Amtrak officials have heard the silent, hash-tagged screams and say that they are updating equipment on most trains and that passengers should see improvement by the end of the year. But they also point out that some of the biggest problems with the service are beyond their control, like the placement of cellular towers and the fact that so many users are all vying for the same service.

All of which leaves riders wondering why Amtrak has spent so much effort advertising its free Wi-Fi as a reason to take the train when the service is so unreliable. “They oversold the service, and now customers feel like they are not getting what they were promised,” said Jean-Pierre Dubé, a professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

Amtrak’s well-traveled and tech-addicted customers, unfortunately, don’t seem to care whether this is a case of poorly managed expectations. They just want the Wi-Fi to work.

Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for President George W. Bush who is now a CNBC commentator, recently had an extended Twitter exchange about the service with an Amtrak official that left him as pessimistic about it as before.

“The Wi-Fi is so bad as to be more of a nuisance than a help,” Mr. Fratto said. By contrast, he said, he recently found the wireless Internet service on the Métro system in Paris to be fantastic and consistent. (That said, intercity rail passengers in Europe have also frequently complained about wireless service there, which suggests the technical issues of providing a reliable wireless network on a train is not unique to Amtrak.)

To their credit, Amtrak officials are not defending the status quo. “It’s not where we would like it to be in terms of performance,” said Matt Hardison, Amtrak’s chief of sales distribution and consumer service.

But they point out that their challenges are unusual. Buses, for example, have many fewer riders than an Amtrak train does, while planes have the benefit of being thousands of feet in the sky, where there is relatively little competition for bandwidth.

Amtrak’s Wi-Fi comes from cellular towers along the tracks that transmit signals to a router in the cafe cars, Mr. Hardison said. As the trains move, they travel in and out of different mobile carriers’ cellular coverage areas.

In some cases the handoff between cell towers and carriers is smooth, and users continue to get service. And in some cases, well, the handoff stutters. (This can happen on buses, too, by the way.)

With so many travelers toting laptops, smartphones and iPads around, congestion is another problem.

Airlines with Wi-Fi generally limit users by charging a fee to connect to the Web, a step Amtrak has resisted because it wanted to use the free service as part of a marketing campaign. Amtrak does restrict the use of data-intensive activities like streaming music and video or downloading large files, but this has not seemed to help with the speed.

Mr. Hardison said the company is updating software and equipment on its Acela trains, which make up 25 percent of ridership. The work should be completed by the end of the year and improvements to other trains will be made when financing becomes available. The plan is to upgrade to the faster so-called 4G networks, which will increase bandwidth available through its Wi-Fi system by five times its current capacity.

Still, these steps will not completely solve the problem, Amtrak concedes. Not all areas will have 4G. And there are still gaps in the cellular network along Amtrak’s northeast route, particularly between Baltimore and Wilmington, Del. and in parts of Connecticut, Mr. Hardison said.

Stephen Rayment, chief technology officer at the telecom giant Ericsson, said part of Amtrak’s Wi-Fi issue had to do with the wireless carriers.

“It would be nice if Verizon or AT&T optimized their networks along train tracks, but typically they don’t,” he said. “They target capacity where they have the most users.”

Mr. Rayment said Amtrak could put wireless equipment closer to the tracks or buy dedicated service from the wireless carriers that only it could use, but both options would be costly.

Still, Amtrak’s Wi-Fi service has its defenders. Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, who rides the train nearly every day, said he is generally pleased with the service.

“Sure there are some areas where the service is spotty, but I have the same problem with my phone,” Mr. Coons said. “I think Amtrak has done a great job.”

And passengers have found ways to cope. Many congregate in the cafe cars of regular trains where the wireless router is located and the signal is strongest. For others, a portable wireless device like an air card from Sprint , Verizon or AT&T solves the problem.

Then there are those who see the glass as half full, like Ryan Whitaker, who works in real estate in Washington and frequently takes Amtrak to Philadelphia or New York City for business.

“It’s a mandatory break from work, since I can’t connect,” Mr. Whitaker said. “Maybe they are doing me a favor.”

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