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July 24, 2006

"Online On The Train"

Imagine this: you settle into the comfortable seat in your new M8-equipped Metro-North express to Grand Central. But rather than read your paper, you fire up your laptop and log onto your company’s computer network. You are online, productive and “on the clock”, as you zoom at 90 miles an hour to your job in the city. Far fetched? Not really.

On many commuter railroads around the world, such Internet access is already happening… not just as a passenger amenity, but as a draw to attract more passengers.

The July issue of “Governing” magazine describes how Albuquerque is building wi-fi into its new commuter rail network, based on the overwhelming success of the offering on its bus routes. Closer to home, the “Hampton Jitney” (a bus) offers wireless connectivity on its run from Manhattan to Long Island.

Even the ferry boats that ply the waters off of Seattle offer passengers the chance to log-on during their passage to the mainland. In California’s Riverside County, the wiring of just three buses in its CommuterLink service saw a surge in ridership. Of the new riders, 43% were using the Internet service compared to 23% of the previous passengers.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, one study suggested that offering wireless Internet access on the region’s commuter trains could boost ridership by 60%.

Not that Metro-North needs to do anything to attract more passengers. But it would be nice if it gave us the chance to be more productive during our commute.

Key to the concept’s success, says the California study, is getting employers to recognize that an employee who’s logged-on is already on the job and should, effectively, be paid while commuting.

But isn’t that what many of us do already… work while we commute? Whether it’s going over papers, writing e-mails on a laptop or (heaven forbid!) talking on our cellphone with clients, aren’t we already working?

So if all this online access is good enough for the rest of the commuting world, why don’t we have it in Connecticut? Good question.

The answer is: it’s coming. Metro-North President Peter Cannito is a big believer in wi-fi and has made sure that our new rail cars will have it embedded in their electronics. The new M8 cars will also be able to “talk” with MTA headquarters, updating them on train diagnostics. And space is being set aside in each of the new cars for similar electronics to allow our laptops to access the ‘net.

The cost of the service and who’ll be the vendor have yet to be determined. Metro-North is a bit gun-shy about adopting the “latest and greatest” technology, only to see it get leap-frogged in a few months. Remember the idea of pay-cellphone booths on the trains?

Right now the railroad has bigger issues to contend with… like trying to keep enough of our old cars running, hopefully with AC in the summer, to handle increasing ridership. But mark my words… it won’t be too many years before you’ll be online, on the train.

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JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 14 years. He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at jim@camcomm.com or www.trainweb.org/ct . For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see www.talkingtransportation.blogspot.com