May 17, 2013 at 4:20 PM ET
Never known for its reputation for speedy service, Amtrak is finally getting on the fast track in at least one regard. On Thursday, “America’s Railroad” announced it was upgrading its Wi-Fi service to take advantage of 4G cellular technology.
“This upgrade is delivering the improved speeds and connectivity required to maintain a competitive edge,” said Deborah Stone-Wulf, Amtrak’s chief of sales distribution and customer service, in a statement.
Alas, that edge doesn’t quite qualify as cutting edge as the company also announced it was restricting data-heavy activities, such as streaming Netflix or Pandora and downloading files larger than 10 MB, to avoid degrading the experience.
In other words, you’ll just have to wait to watch “House of Cards” until you get home or to the office.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, complaints about the restriction began reverberating across social media almost immediately. “@Amtrak blocked Netflix. I still have 2-3 more hours left on this train,” tweeted @cookie_wolf earlier today. “I can’t watch Doctor Who now. Why.”
The main reason, says Joe Schwieterman, a transportation professor at DePaul University, boils down to the challenge of providing decent service on a moving vehicle carrying hundreds of people using their devices.
“There’s been a big surge in technology usage on Amtrak this year,” said Schwieterman, who regularly monitors digital usage on planes, trains and buses. “It used to be about 40 percent of riders but now it’s over 50 percent. That’s way above Megabus, Greyhound and the airlines.”
The situation is even more challenging, says Schwieterman, in areas outside major population centers because, unlike highways, train tracks often travel through remote areas that are beyond the reach of transmitters.
Little wonder, then, that Amtrak’s Wi-Fi has been likened to everything from cold molasses to the pace of change in Soviet Russia.
“Trains are a nightmare,” Schwieterman told NBC News. “They’ve had a heck of a time getting it to work well so it’s generated a fair amount of ill will.”
Whether Thursday’s announcement will generate more positive feelings is open to debate. While some in the Twitterverse are applauding the move, others, like cookie_wolf, bemoan the lack of streaming capability, a complaint that will sound familiar to anyone who’s heard Louis C.K.’s routine about people who whine about poor Wi-Fi service while flying.
Still, Amtrak deserves some credit for offering free Wi-Fi in the first place and for taking steps toward better, faster service. Trains may still run late, online access may still be spotty but, if nothing else, the railroad is at least addressing complaints in a surprisingly speedy fashion.
For now, that should be a smoother experience on the Acela Express between Boston and Washington, D.C., and several California trains where the 4G upgraded has been completed. Similar service is expected to be rolled out to remaining Wi-Fi-equipped trains by late summer.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.