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5/12/2008
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Amtrak's Choice: Wi-Fi Or Die

Train travel, glamorized by film noir, is in vogue once again, thanks to soaring oil prices and the dismal state of air travel. But attractive prices alone won't fill those railcars with business passengers.

Train travel, glamorized by film noir, is in vogue once again, thanks to soaring oil prices and the dismal state of air travel. But attractive prices alone won't fill those railcars with business passengers.Commuters are abandoning their SUVs and minivans and riding the rails again, now that gas prices are approaching $4 per gallon. For many in Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, it has become cheaper to ride the subway or commuter train to work than drive the gas guzzler in the driveway.

And for inter-city jaunts, Department of Energy stats show that travel on Amtrak is 18% more efficient than flying or driving.

No wonder train travel is up. During fiscal year 2007, more than 25.8 million passengers traveled on Amtrak, setting a record for the most passengers ever since Amtrak began operation in 1971. Total ticket revenue for fiscal year 2007 was more than $1.5 billion, an increase of 11% over the previous year. It was the fifth straight year of increases for Amtrak. And for the first quarter of fiscal year 2008, more than 7 million passengers traveled on Amtrak, an increase of 11%, and revenue was up 14.6%, to more than $434 million.

Amtrak is so giddy about the uptick in ridership, that it celebrated its first annual National Train Day on Saturday, May 10. You can't blame Amtrak for giving itself a pat on the back. The national passenger railroad has been struggling financially for years, losing "a half billion dollars annually, a total debt of $3.4 billion, deteriorating infrastructure, and a White House that for the last seven years has wanted to see it dismantled," according to the Boston Globe.

On the surface, things are looking up for the little railroad that might. But the nation's passenger railroad has a long way to go before it becomes solvent. If Amtrak wants to retain the new business travelers it's attracting these days, it's going to have to get serious about providing Wi-Fi access.

Sure, Amtrak has contracted with T-Mobile to provide wireless in five key stations along the Northeast corridor: New York, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. But what about all the other stations? And more important: What about Wi-Fi access onboard, where passengers spend the bulk of their travel time?

In the Bay Area, arguably one of the most connected communities in the country, efforts to put Wi-Fi on CalTran never left the station.

Compare that with activity on the East Coast railway route in the U.K. Since free onboard Wi-Fi was introduced last year, "usage has tripled the number of users to date," according to a National Express spokesman. More than 85% of customers carrying a laptop use the Wi-Fi service.

Why aren't we being offered the same level of service here in the United States? Business travelers are Amtrak's bread and butter. It should be hustling to make Wi-Fi a priority -- to make it free, make it fast, and make it available in every car on the line. This is the time to do it. High oil prices are placing a golden opportunity in Amtrak's lap.

If Amtrak doesn't act fast, it will see its numbers take another dive. Travelers have found an even cheaper option. That would be the bus, where the glamour quotient is admittedly low, but the Wi-Fi is there for the taking.

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