By Richard Wronski / Chicago Transportation Journal
Want free Wi-Fi on your next Metra ride? Good luck and keep your eyes peeled.
After struggling to offer the amenity for years, Metra has announced it is running one Wi-Fi-equipped rail car on each of its 11 lines as part of a pilot program to test whether the commuter rail agency can provide dependable, free Internet access.
The only problem will be catching the cars with the mobile “hot spot.”
Metra says it will run the Wi-Fi cars several times a day on each line, but amid at least 800 coach and Highliner cars running on 700 trains a day, the hot spots might be a bit hard to find.
To make it easier, Metra says it will post signs on the Wi-Fi cars and position them at the end of the trains, opposite the locomotives. Conductors will also announce if their trains have a Wi-Fi car.
Metra says hot spot usage will be limited, generally to a one megabyte download speed per user.
This will allow users to check email and browse the Internet, but isn’t intended for streaming video, Metra warns. In addition, the agency cautions that there may be “dead zones” along the routes.
Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno said customers are urged to provide feedback at www.metrarail.com/wifisurvey
“If it’s financially feasible and our customers like the free service, our agency would seek funding or sponsorships to install Wi-Fi on more of Metra’s railcars,” Orseno said.
To access the free Wi-Fi, riders can select “Metra Wi-Fi Onboard” in the settings on their smartphones, tablets or laptops. Customers will have to agree to the terms of service, Metra said.
The six-month test is costing Metra $35,000. That’s a far cry from the $72 million estimate that a 2013 study concluded it would cost to install Wi-Fi over a five-year period.
Metra is installing the Wi-Fi equipment on a car-by-car basis, rather than putting trackside equipment along an entire right of way.
In December, Metra announced it had installed hot spots and charging stations at all five of its downtown stations.
On the topic of railcars, Metra recently announced that it had retired the last six of the original Highliner cars on the Metra Electric Line. The original Highliners date to 1971 when the line was operated by the Illinois Central.
Twenty-four original Highliners have been sent to museums, including the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, Ill.; Union Depot Railroad Museum in Mendota, Ill.; Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad/ James H. Andrew Museum in Boone, Iowa.; and the Hoosier Valley Railroad Museum in North Judson, Ind.
These days, the new generation Highliners are being built by Rochelle, Ill.-based Sumitomo Corp of America/Nippon Sharyo.