Why no Wi-Fi on trains and city buses?
The nearly $1 billion spent on Metro-North’s new M-8 rail cars will bring commuters all the benefits and comforts of modern train travel.
Except wireless Internet.
Though Wi-Fi has steadily become a virtual necessity to most people, Connecticut commuters still won’t find it on trains or on CTTransit buses. At here not yet.
The proliferation of mobile devices, especially smart phones, has made connectivity a growing expectation to many, and can be particularly helpful to commuters looking up important ambien generic information, working, or just passing time on long rides.
But don’t expect to see them on city buses any time soon. Jim Stutz of the state’s Department of Transportation said that while the option was even considered for the new buses that entered the state’s nearly 500-strong fleet over the past year, costs ruled it out (see related story this issue).
“We couldn’t raise fares since not every person would use Wi-Fi, so it would have required more operating subsidies from the state, and we’re not able to get that,” Stutz explains. “It’s not that we don’t want to benefit our customers, but we’re looking at reducing expenses right now. It’s difficult to justify putting in Wi-Fi when we’re trying to make cuts elsewhere.”
Mary Tomolonius, executive director of the Connecticut Association for Community Transport, says having Wi-Fi on the city buses would be a worthwhile enhancement to everyone’s ride, but doesn’t see it as high a priority as simply maintaining the service of the buses.
“It’s a nice-to-have [amenity], but I’m not convinced that someone won’t ride the bus because it doesn’t have Wi-Fi,” says Tomolonius. “Someone who’s riding the bus to get to work every day isn’t as concerned. They just want to get to work in an economical manner. And given the current economic climate, when you’re looking at cuts in the budget, we need to make sure we have as much [bus] service as possible.”
Connectivity on interstate bus travel is a different story, as those riding a Peter Pan or Greyhound Express bus can enjoy free Wi-Fi on board. The Dattco bus company is one of several companies that provide nine coach buses to the state under contract. With the exception of the CTTransit buses, all of Dattco’s charter fleet is Wi-Fi-capable, including its Megabus fleet.
Peter Pan and Dattco spokespersons says the receivers on their buses use cellular signals to transmit Internet wherever phone service is available. Each company’s Wi-Fi service is part of a bundled package with their GPS providers, and costs between $50 and $100 per month for service, while the hardware costs roughly $1,000 per bus. But the cost of the connectivity was not passed down to customers, they assert.
Dattco Coach Group Vice President Dennis Lyons says Wi-Fi is factored into the company’s overall business costs, and is seen as a way to attract more riders.
“With the number of miles we run, we decided to just make it another amenity on the bus,” Lyons says. “It’s very popular with the younger crowd, especially college students. If we can attract more young riders to bus travel we’d have them for life, so it’s a worthwhile investment.”
Peter Pan spokesman Steve Manning says offering free Wi-Fi on board is a good move for maintaining a competitive edge.
“It’s very much expected in interstate bus travel; I think customers would refuse to ride the bus without it,” Manning says. “On a three-hour drive, you can simply boot up and enjoy yourself and be productive, though I’m not sure how it would be on a city bus where people are riding for just a few minutes.”
\drop cap\For those who take to the railways, particularly on Metro-North trains, there is cause for optimism. While none of the rail cars — even the 34 new M8 cars fresh on the tracks this year — have wireless Internet capability, the wheels are already in motion to change that. Officials are currently seeking proposals to install Wi-Fi on Metro-North and Long Island Railroad cars, as well at the train stations. A contract is expected to be announced later this year.
“We recognize the benefits Wi-Fi service provides our customers and we’re actively engaged in bringing it to all parts of the transportation network as fast as we can,” Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) spokesman Aaron Donovan says.
Donovan said wireless Internet would be installed into the new cars and retrofitted into the older fleet of rail cars still in use.
On July 19, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced plans to purchase 25 additional M-8 rail cars in addition to the 380 already on order, at a price of $3.3 million each.
The MTA also has its sights on the New York City subway system, with plans to equip all 468 stations with full Wi-Fi and cell phone service. A pilot program involving six stations along the 14th Street corridor in Manhattan will conclude by the end of the year. Donovan says the remaining stations would be outfitted within four years after that.
He adds that the authority is also in the early stages of working with four service providers to build out Internet and phone service for the length of the Park Avenue tunnel from 97th Street to Grand Central Station; frequent riders might be aware that service in the tunnel — the final stretch of the New Haven line’s trip into New York — dies out shortly after traveling underground.
Jim Cameron, chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, says outfitting the Metro-North trains with Wi-Fi is “long overdue” since it’s available and well received on other commuter rails like Amtrak. He points to the MTA’s reluctance as stemming from its investment in phone booths on the trains a decade ago — just as consumer mobile phone use exploded and public pay phones began to go the way of the dodo.
“They are extremely reluctant on doing that again,” Cameron says. “They want to put the burden more on the providers themselves. But it’s definitely a passenger amenity that I think people would be willing to pay for because it would give them incredible productivity on some of those long rides.”
Cameron says some members of his group have opposed a proposed offer from Cablevision to provide service on the trains, giving free Wi-Fi to existing subscribers, but charging others. Donovan confirms that Cablevision is one of 15 service providers that have made proposals, but since the offers are still being reviewed, he says he could not comment on whether there would be any pay scale for on-board service.
“If it’s a pay model, keep it affordable,” Cameron says. “And the market will decide what level that would be. It’s most important that [the service] is reliable.”
Stutz says that while the option has been considered, there are currently no short-term plans for Wi-Fi connectivity on Shore Line East (SLE) trains, which fall under the state Department of Transportation’s purview. However, he says there could be an impact to that plan if any of the new M-8 cars make their way to the SLE tracks.
Amtrak travelers can get free Wi-Fi on the Acela Express, Cascades, and Coast Starlight trains, as well as in stations along the East Coast, while networks from other carriers can be found on Downeaster trains and in several other stations, including New Haven.
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