Wireless internet. It has been the most requested feature for years, and last week - on Cyber Monday, no less - it arrived on three California Amtrak lines. In Southern California that means the 350-mile Pacific Surfliner, the second busiest route in the nation, has some happier riders.
The route with major stops in San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo can take more than eight hours end to end (luckily, there's lots of ocean views). Officials are now hoping the free WiFi service entices more people to hop aboard.
Writer's First-Hand ExperienceThis past weekend I took the Pacific Surfliner between Van Nuys in Los Angeles to Grover Beach in San Luis Obispo County.
The Wi-Fi did not feel slow and only dropped in a few spots - in the tunnels between the San Fernando and Simi valleys and around Vandenberg Air Force Base, where cell phone service did not work either.
An on-board customer service representative said some passengers with Apple computers had trouble connecting. I was using an iPad and no trouble browsing. All in all, this is a fantastic improvement as there's nothing like reading the news while cruising along the ocean.
The three Wi-Fi-enabled routes, including the Capitol Corridor (Bay Area to Sacramento) and San Joaquin (Sacramento-Oakland-Bakersfield), carry 20 percent of Amtrak passengers nationwide. During the last fiscal year, more than 5.5 million passengers rode the routes, a 7.5 percent increase from the previous year, according to Amtrak. The routes are supported by the state, but operated by Amtrak.
The service called AmtrakConnect uses bandwidth via cellular towers along the routes, meaning speeds can sometimes be slow and may even drop out. Downloading files larger than 10MB and streaming video have been blocked to help maximize bandwidth, and some sites with "objectionable content" have been blocked.
California is served by a number of company-owned Amtrak trains but only one, the Coast Starlight between Los Angeles and Seattle, carries WiFi. Other lines serving the state are the California Zephyr (Bay Area to Chicago), Southwest Chief (L.A to Chicago) and Sunset Limited (L.A. to New Orleans).