Amtrak Acela train in motion, with cell towers near the tracks

Amtrak readies to expand nextgen wifi, unlocks streaming on Acela


With a shoestring budget, 44 routes covering a staggering 21,300 miles and an aging fleet, Amtrak is slowly but surely working on bringing high-speed Internet to every passenger. Its most recent achievement saw the Acela fleet, operating between Washington, D.C. and Boston, upgraded to support higher data speeds and reliability.

Acela had previously been upgraded to LTE connectivity, with each train car connected to the other wirelessly. But this created a data bottleneck between the control unit in the cafe car and passengers throughout the train in other cars.

The most recent upgrade has seen the entire onboard system revamped, from modem to access points and exterior antennas. The new wired system, which has been completed on all Acela trainsets, connects each car with gigabit ethernet, eliminating one of the major pain points of the network. It will come to Northeast Regional trains over the next 1.5-2 years.

As a result of the overhauled onboard network on Acela, Amtrak has been able to achieve something most wifi-connected airlines still find challenging – support streaming video. YouTube, Hulu, and other popular streaming services, both audio and video, have been unblocked by Amtrak for all passengers on Acela trains to use. Additionally, the new network will allow Amtrak to experiment with streaming entertainment from an onboard server, with a proof-of-concept coming later this fiscal year. Both free and premium content will be trialled, with a decision on a rollout to be made after the trial concludes.

At present, Amtrak says it sees 75-85% of active devices on Acela trains connect to the Amtrak Connect wifi system, with peaks of up to 90%. Because streaming video requires much more bandwidth than typical Internet use, Amtrak says it is closely monitoring network performance and may reconsider if it determines the overall experience has diminished.

Meanwhile, Amtrak is making slow but measurable progress in a proprietary trackside wireless network. After an initial trial earlier this year, Amtrak reports that it is getting back into construction mode, awarding contracts for another 30 miles of coverage to complete the gap between the current trial area and Philadelphia, totaling 40 miles of the Northeast Corridor’s 450+ overall miles. This is all Amtrak will be able to build out with its current funding for the project.

The trackside network utilizes 5.8 Ghz spectrum, which is on the extreme high-end for viable mobile connections. Because the spectrum being used necessitates line-of-sight, Amtrak is placing communication towers at an interval of every 8/10th of a mile, with even denser spacing through curves and urban areas.

Amtrak’s goal for the trackside network is to achieve speeds of 100 Mbps by 2019, says Lenetta McCampbell, senior director of passenger experience at Amtrak. “We’ll never be able to satisfy all the demand using commercial networks only. Our goal is to have unfettered Internet access, and we can’t do that in a cellular environment. We want an experience like a user would have at home.”

Meanwhile, Amtrak is planning a proof-of-concept trial of satellite connectivity on a western long distance train this fiscal year. McCampbell says her primary concern with this project is the size of the antenna, as numerous century old tunnels leave very little wiggle room for adding equipment to the exterior of trains. While Amtrak is encouraged by new, slim antennas in the aerospace sector, the cost of the data plan is still of concern.

For the satellite proof-of-concept, Amtrak has decided on Ku connectivity, rather than Ka. “For Amtrak, the Ku band is the preferred satellite signal we would like to test on our long-distance trains because of its signal strength and its diversity back up,” says McCampbell.

“The Ka band is the newer technology and proves to work best on airplanes that are flying thousands of feet in the air, above clouds, with a direct line of site having little to no obstructions. Ka has shown vulnerabilities working from space to ground, due to tree clutter, bridges, and degradation from rain fade (which means, radio frequency above 11 GHz gets absorbed with rain, ice, and snow). Ku band operates in the 12-18 Ghz frequency and is subject to rain fade but less so than the Ka band operating in the 26-40 GHz frequency.”

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Featured image credited to Amtrak