Wi-Fi Riding More Rails

By Eric Griffith

June 11, 2007

Across the globe, more train commuters are getting the added advantage of wireless.

Next to Wi-Fi on planes, having Wi-Fi on trains, commuter trains in particular, is a dream for some -- though, in the case of the rail cars, it's actually becoming a reality.

Local reports in the San Francisco Bay Area have recently indicated the arrival of Wi-Fi on popular rail lines. Altamont Commuter Express (ACE) is testing Wi-Fi on the line between Stockton and San Jose. All the trains are equipped with satellite units for the backhaul. No word on what it’ll cost, since they’re still in the feedback stage, but ACE -- which is running the network itself -- plans to make a deal with the online University of Phoenix, which will subsidize the network by co-marketing, hoping to get commuters to take its online courses.

What about the Wi-Fi in the train stations? The Contra Costa Times says the BART service in the Bay Area was so quiet in its roll-out that most passengers don’t even know it's there in the Embarcadero, Montgomery, Powell and Civic Center stations. However, Wi-Fi Rail Inc. of Irvine, California started deploying it in April. The CEO of the company says there has been no marketing yet, but people are finding it -- 1,000 riders so far. That, however, is just a fraction of the 172,500 people in those stations each day. It’s free for now, but will eventually cost $10 a day or $30 a month -- or $300 per year. Wi-Fi Rail thinks it will take 300,000 paying subscribers for it to make back its investment in the network.

Wi-Fi on trains is really taking off overseas. In London, Grand Central Railways is working with U.K.-based Icomera to install its Wireless Onboard Internet in all train carriages. Icomera provides the Wi-Fi that's used by the Great North Eastern Railroad (GNER) in the U.K., as well as Sweden’s SJ, which has had more than 50,000 users to date.

Finally, there’s nothing like planning ahead. Colubris Networks said today it will be providing access points to be built into the train cars created by the transport arm of Alstom. The first railways to use them are on Italy’s Pendolino service, the Trenitalia and Cisalpino railways, which already have 26 Wi-Fi equipped cars.

France’s high-speed TGV train is also getting a Colubris trial. It’s a unique setting, as the train has the world speed record of 357 miles per hour. Tests in France will start in September 2007. If successful, Alstom and Colubris will put Wi-Fi on all 52 TGV trains, using 2,400 access points. Alstom makes trains for systems around the globe, in the U.S, Europe and Asia.

Colubris makes some high impact APs, including those that used to run in the planes powered by Connexion by Boeing, until it went under last year.

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