If you’re a business traveler who depends on Amtrak trains to get to where you’re going, you might be interested in a new service that Amtrak, Yahoo! Inc. and Compaq are piloting which provides people with free Internet access on certain Amtrak trains.
Amtrak today launched three trains outfitted in special purple and yellow wraps. The trains have café cars that have been outfitted with five Compaq iPaq PocketPC-based handheld computers. Each provides wireless Internet access through Yahoo, and they’re free for Amtrak passengers to use.
Three trains have been outfitted with systems, and they’re each running on three different Amtrak lines, the Acela Regional between New York and Washington, D.C., the Hiawatha service, which links Milwaukee, Wi. and Chicago, Ill. and the Capitols service, which connects Sacramento, Oakland and San Jose, Calif.
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Amtrak spokesperson Karina Van Veen explained to MacCentral that the pilot program — which will last for at least six months — was the direct result of feedback the company received from regular riders. Van Veen said that many regular riders travel with laptops and some want access to the Internet. Although this doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to run a wireless network connection from you own seat, it does get Amtrak riders one step closer by offering wireless access from the café car.
So when you travel to the café car on one of these three trains, you’ll find a Yahoo! attendant who can help you with the access, along with five iPaqs fixed to the tables, each outfitted with a wireless modem and special software, Wireless Yahoo Christopher Wu explained (and yes that is his title).
“We have optimized the Yahoo! experience,” Wu told MacCentral. “Our mobile Yahoo! service is different from the one you use on the PC. We’re providing you with real-time access to data and services.”
“You could set up the same hardware and software yourself,” Wu confirmed, “but the big differentiation is that the Amtrak devices are free to use.”
The connectivity has been made possible because wireless carrier networks in the Amtrak service areas have set up towers along rail lines. “That’s why we’re able to provide seamless connectivity in the corridors we’ve picked,” said Wu.
On a christening run this morning, Wu said there was a wide range of Amtrak riders interested in the service. One user was an elderly woman who had never used the Internet before, but was excited to learn that she could find out how her Treasury Bill investments were doing. Another was a tech-savvy businessman who had a laptop in hand but wanted to check his Yahoo! Mail account.
So, is it feasible that this service might be extended to other passengers and different systems? In an ideal world, users would be able to surf the Web and check e-mail from their own seats using computers equipped with wireless networking cards or other paraphernalia. Wu confirmed that it’s technically possible, and he told MacCentral that he hoped Yahoo!, Amtrak and Compaq will work together to make the service more accessible.
Amtrak — which has been plagued by budget shortfalls and financial problems for years — is cautious about promising more, though. Amtrak’s Van Veen would only say that the company is open to new opportunities. She suggested that passengers interested in seeing the service expanded should speak with attendants on board or drop Amtrak a line.