For years, rail travel in North America has seemed more like sea travel: charming, but not especially useful. However, in Europe and Asia, trains are a vital part of the way people get around. They're fast and reliable, but most important for the business traveller, you don't have to switch off your phone when the train pulls out of the station. And increasingly, you don't have to log off Facebook either.
Onboard Wi-Fi in Europe has become as fast and reliable as the trains themselves, and this month, Amtrak in the U.S. is following suit: The rail company launched limited service two days ago, and Via has decided to upgrade its disappointing service by the end of the year.
Could this be part of a comeback for North American rail?
With some already avoiding air travel for price, hassle and environmental reasons, Amtrak is reporting significant growth on routes in the Northeast, its stronghold: Its share of the passenger market has risen to 50 from 39 per cent for New York-Boston over the past five years, and to 61 from 50 per cent for New York-Washington during the same period. Both are routes favoured by corporate travellers, and this is where Amtrak has chosen to implement Wi-Fi on Acela Express trains (aimed at business travellers, they reach top speeds of 240 kilometres an hour).
With downtown-to-downtown service making train rides as short as or shorter than air travel for short-haul trips, the addition of Wi-Fi is one big step toward rail travel becoming the preference of business travellers in the region.
In Europe, where rail is overtaking air on short-haul trips to such an extent that once-popular air routes such as Frankfurt-Munich and even London-Paris are being scaled back, doing business on a train is already commonplace. As premium seats on European airlines go empty, the Paris-Brussels rail route, with its heavy traffic of businesspeople and European government officials, has increased its market share over the past decade to 50 from 24 per cent.
With fast, reliable Wi-Fi across the continent, audio or video meetings with Skype or other voice-over-IP services are a reasonable option, with Internet connections assured even when cellphone coverage may dip in and out in alpine regions.
The Amtrak service launched on Monday, so there is not much data to indicate how useful the connection will prove to be - much depends on speed and reliability. Brian Barrett, a reporter with tech site gizmodo.com, is not sanguine. Citing bottleneck issues on other mobile Wi-Fi he has tested - the more people use it, the slower it gets - he wonders if Nomad Digital's cellular-based service on Acela will be too slow to be practical. "If it's done poorly," he says, "it could really end up detracting from the experience rather than adding to it."
That sort of problem is familiar to Via Rail.
One of the first railways in the world to introduce regular on-board Wi-Fi in 2004, Via has been plagued by spotty service, forcing the railway to offer the service for free since January (and on and off for several months before that) by way of apology for a cellular-based connection that was only occasionally connected. While this may be mildly annoying for leisure travellers wanting to keep up with social networks and e-mail, it means something else for business travellers: If you need to work en route, the service has been practically useless.
Unless you really, really like trains, that is.
Jason Shron is president of Rapido Trains, a model-train manufacturer based in the Toronto area. He takes at least one business trip by rail a month between Toronto and Montreal, a four-hour-plus journey he describes as a day at the office. "I need to be connected to my customers and everybody else," he says. So he bought a portable wireless device for his laptop. Via's service was just too unreliable.
But even the cellular stick conks out between Cobourg and Belleville, he says, which makes him yearn for a reliable on-board connection. "I've got really high hopes for it," he says. "They've got to improve Wi-Fi. The fewer short-haul flights we have the better, for the pollution factor."
And the better that rail service gets, he says, the more people may be tempted away from body scanners and pat-downs.
According to Via spokeswoman Catherine Kaloutsky, the railway has put out a request for proposals in the hopes of making the Internet connection - which is currently available only in the Windsor-Quebec City corridor - a reliable part of its service.
That would mean a significant upgrade from Via's existing Wi-Fi. "The system, new technology at the time, performed very well in the beginning," Kaloutsky says, "but into the third year of service we began to see some challenges in service with respect to meeting customers' needs of uninterrupted service, as well as the speed of service."
The current service provider, British company 21net, is the same company that provides much of that seamless European service. But according to 21net spokeswoman Marianne Alaux, the European trains use a combination of shared cellular and dedicated satellite coverage, whereas Via's is currently just cellular. As cellphone use has increased over the past five years, the system has become overloaded and the service has degraded as a result, she says.
Her company's proposal is to install the same technology in the Via corridor as is used on trains in Europe, and to have it up and running on some trains as early as April.
Nomad Digital also has a proposal in to Via for a cell-based service that operates across several networks and it promises, according to representative Nick Edouard, a much more robust and reliable connection than Via has currently. Via says it will make an announcement later this month.
Rail is never going to be an option for those whose business takes them across the country, but the eastern corridor is a real possibility if Via can get it right. The company was a leader in the field once; it's not unreasonable to think it may be again. Shron is not the only one with his fingers crossed.