Amtrak to upgrade wifi service, but it might not help


Ever since Amtrak rolled out internet connectivity on their trains in the northeast corridor the response has been a mixed bag. Passengers are happy it exists in theory but the actual performance has been less than spectacular, particularly if you believe some of the many Twitter rants out there on the topic. Amtrak is trying to improve the situation but they’re faced with many challenges, not the least of which is providing free connectivity to hundreds of people while traveling up and down the coast. The latest step in the upgrade process is to upgrade the systems on the trains to support 4G service, up from the 3G network currently supported. There’s just one small problem with that plan: the route doesn’t have much 4G coverage.

Most of Amtrak’s problems stem from the fact that they are running on tracks where they stray rather far from civilization, and the high population density areas are where the cell towers are. Combine those two factors and the cell coverage isn’t all that great. So it doesn’t matter how fast the radio is on the device; if there isn’t coverage between the train and the base station things aren’t going to work so well. The other potential problem comes from having so many users on the system. Free services tend to attract more users and heavily loaded systems tend to struggle unless they are built to support that level of use. It does not seem that the Amtrak wifi systems were built that way. And upgrading to a 4G connection won’t solve that part of the problem.

The service is great when it works. But promising connectivity and not actually providing that to customers can actually hurt the business more than the offer of the service can help. Airlines are facing similar issues as they deal with upgrading the bandwidth on their planes. The gogo service can now support 4G with an upgraded radio on the planes (ATG4). Airlines are getting these new systems installed but it is not yet clear that the additional bandwidth will solve the performance issues which crop up from time to time. It will be interesting to see if either Amtrak or the airlines can solve this problem. The current connectivity provided by both is still challenging to users in many instances.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

21 Comments

  1. Great article and your points are generally correct. One area where you may be incorrect is the system capacity advantages of 3G v. 4G. One of the advantages of moving from 1G to 2G to 3G to 4G has to do with speed. Each successive technology is faster. But, these migrations also tend to improve capacity as well. I would bet that 4G is both faster and can handle more traffic than 3G.

  2. The capacity (assuming you’re talking about packets per second or similar) will likely increase on the “WAN” side of the link but there will still likely be bottlenecks on the “LAN” side where you have so many people hitting a single access point with limited capacity.

  3. Great post, and I think you’re right on the money. I used to fly ALB-PHL, when necessary, just because of the time savings. Lately I’ve been taking Amtrak through NYP. When the WiFi works, it’s great…but close to half the time between ALB & NYP, there’s no service at all. Increasing bandwidth is great, but that’s not going to help in those areas where service doesn’t exist, period.

  4. Much ado about nothing. I have good 4G LTE on Verizon from Harrisburg to New York with only two 10-minute gaps where it falls back to 3G (one near Gap, PA and the other somewhere around Princeton Junction, NJ). The other three hours are fine.

    AT&T’s LTE is less continuous, but with Verizon along the route to provide solid connectivity, it’s not an issue.

    WLAN issues shouldn’t be an issue. There’s one access point in each car, and each Acela business car has 52 seats. 802.11n can easily handle 50 users per AP. The bottleneck is on the WAN side, which 4G LTE should help fix, although it’s still not perfect–instead of a ~2mbps connection shared across 200 people on the train, it’s now a 20mbps connection shared across 200 people on the train. That’s still 0.1mbps per person, although obviously not everyone will be maxing out the bandwidth concurrently. Optimally, they should put a dedicated cell base station in each car, or at the very least, increase the number of wireless modem cards in the existing base station to include four from each carrier rather than the current two (four carriers–AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mo, and the base station has 8 cards), but that would obviously increase costs in the form of hardware and monthly subscription fees.

    All the above said, even on the 3G Keystones, the network is quite usable, and I usually have no issues getting about 500kbps down (and up, for that matter). As long as I can get 2-3mbps in 4G LTE areas, I’ll be satisfied and won’t bother digging my Mifi out.

  5. It doesn’t work well outside the northeast corridor, either. Basically, I don’t trust Amtrak when it comes to service quality, schedule, or just about anything else.

  6. Wow, @scottrick–harsh words.

    100 segments on Amtrak this year (90 of them on “low-priority” trains like the Keystone)…and a small handful of them (5 or so) were delayed by about 5-10 minutes. Not one single delay longer than that.

    Employees sometimes need an attitude adjustment, although some of the ones who work the Keystones are great. Coach seats are better than domestic airline F. Is it perfect? No. Can it be improved? Yes. Do we, the American people, have the guts to fund Amtrak like it deserves? Probably not. Even in its shoestring-budget shape, it does a lot better than you give it credit for.

  7. @scottrick–BTW, which trains does it not work well on off the NEC? Given that there are only a couple of routes off the NEC that have wifi, that’s a pretty small sample. Wifi on the California corridor trains worked fine for me in November–no worse than what is in the NEC. And I use the wifi on the Keystone (which is not on the NEC) all the time and have no issues.

    1. The problem, jackal, is in the NE Corridor. The rails there have a number of locations where the cell signal simply sucks. Switching to LTE isn’t going to help that.

      The signal between Portland and Seattle had troubles last time I took it, similar to the NE Corridor. My phone was dropping out at the same times so I figure it is the same problem there, too.

  8. I’ll admit I’m less familiar with the NEC north of BOS–only been on those tracks maybe 4-5 times. But I’m pretty familiar with the NEC south of NYP–especially the segment between NYP and PHL, which I took probably a dozen times last year. No issues with the on-board wifi (except being slow) there, and my VZW Mifi has a strong 4G LTE signal for virtually the entire trip, with the exception of about 5-10 minutes of 3G coverage somewhere around Princeton Junction. This is my direct experience, and I think the issues in the article you linked to are overblown, since the vast majority of the length of the NEC has perfectly fine coverage. The only gaps are a few areas in “rural” RI where the tracks diverge from the route of I-95 for a bit.

    As for the problem being in or out of the NEC, I was responding to @scottrick’s comment: “It doesnโ€™t work well outside the northeast corridor, either.”

  9. I was actually referring more to south of Philly; north of Boston isn’t the NEC anymore. And I gave an example of where it fails in the Pacific NW.

  10. Sorry, typo. I meant north of NYP.

    Yes, I noticed you talked about SEA/PDX. The article (and your blog post) mostly focuses on the NEC. The outside-of-the-NEC tangent was due to @scottrick’s comment.

    Where along the NEC, outside of perhaps some parts of CT/RI/MA, is it iffy?

  11. Clearly I need to take a little field trip south of PHL one of these days.

    I’ll contest your NJ claim, though. It’s not a weak signal problem; it’s that it drops to 3G. As Verizon upgrades their network with more 4G LTE, that problem will go away. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t recall dropping to 3G when I was on that section last month. They may have already upgraded that area to 4G LTE.

  12. AT&T, Verizon and other carriers offer many enterprise customers private cell “towers” (access points) installed in the customers’ offices just to get a corporate contract. Why isn’t this being done for Amtrak?

  13. @roaddog: how do you install an access point in something that moves 150 (soon, 160) mph? That would require a *very* long and *very* flexible fiber cable…

    1. You install the extra towers on the track easements, not in the trains. Or you use satellite which can work just fine on planes traveling 3-4x faster than the planes.

      But putting extra towers up just for the trains is way too expensive and not going to happen.

  14. I got the impression that @roaddog was talking about a microcell, not a full-blown tower. He also indicated the carrier would sponsor the installation in exchange for a corporate contract. I can see them sponsoring the installation of a microcell or other femtocell, but full towers are expensive (and have regulatory issues, too).

    That said, Verizon has lit up the tunnels under the Hudson, likely due to Amtrak’s contract with them (Amtrak uses Verizon for their company phones and data needs). But expecting Verizon to extend that to the entire route network of Amtrak is silly–a huge client with several thousand contracted subscribers can maybe get a carrier to consider a nearby tower to be constructed, but even the biggest company wouldn’t warrant hundreds and hundreds of towers, which is what Amtrak would need.

    1. They don’t need hundreds of new towers to fix the issues along the NE corridor. We’re not talking about instantly covering the entire Amtrak network in 4G.

  15. I just pulled into Metropark (so there’s good coverage from here north). Results of monitoring the connection:

    4G LTE north of PHL
    Dropped to 3G briefly about halfway to Trenton
    Back to 4G LTE nearing Trenton
    Dropped to 3G in the trench coming into Trenton; signal went to 0-1 bars
    4G LTE north through Hamilton and a good bit of the way into Jersey
    Dropped to 3G about 10 minutes south of Metropark (Iselin)
    Back to 4G LTE about 5 minutes later

    It was 2-5 bars of signal most of the way; only a couple of spots dropped down to 1 bar.

    I don’t think the coverage is as bad as originally described and certainly nothing VZW couldn’t overcome. ON top of that, even in the less-populated areas, there are still towns and roads in the vicinity of the tracks, so upgrading those particular towers to 4G LTE would not be solely for the benefit of Amtrak. (Heck, they upgraded the tower in my town, and my town’s population is 7,000.)

  16. Was that the signal on your phone or the Amtrak system? I just did NYP-WAS on a regional and it was broken through Philly (no DHCP from the APs) and crappy from there south. I spent a lot of the time tethered so I could get some work done. And decent chunks of that were on 1X, not 3G.

    I have no doubt the new will be better. I’m just not so convinced it will be really good.

  17. That was my Verizon Mifi. Fully loaded train–I didn’t bother trying the Amtrak wifi as I knew it would be uber-congested.

    I never dropped below EVDO Rev. A.

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