Saturday, December 17, 2011

Connecting California

... in more ways than one. California's state-supported Amtrak routes, which I've mentioned before, provide a fantastic, hassle-free way to get around our state. Combined with their dedicated, guaranteed bus connections, there is pretty much nowhere of any significance in California that is out of the reach of the Amtrak California system. (And yes, the bus connections are *very* good. They generally use clean, comfortable coaches, and they will wait for the train if it's late. The train will also wait for a late bus.) Few people that I talk to in daily life know about this system, and I'm always asked "Did you drive or fly?" when I'm in the Bay Area, but it is a great way to move about the state.

And it just got better. Amtrak has announced that it has deployed free wi-fi across all three state-supported train routes. While business-class passengers on the Pacific Surfliner have long had access to the Internet, now passengers in coach on the Surfliner, as well as riders  in both classes of the Capitol Corridor and aboard the single-class San Joaquins can also enjoy Internet access as well.

The technology used by the system, which Amtrak calls AmtrakConnect, is cellular-based. During my trip this summer, I had the opportunity to use the wi-fi aboard the Cascades and Downeaster (before the latter hit a truck). The service is a bit more reliable than tethering a cell phone, as it will use whichever provider has a stronger signal in that area. (The difference in rural areas between my provider, T-Mobile, and Verizon is pretty significant.) It's not going to win any speed awards, but it's plenty to use for e-mail, Facebook and other general web browsing.

The trend of transportation providers offering free wi-fi is an exciting development. On the East Coast, low-cost bus providers have been offering Internet access for some time. (Also, many Crucero bus routes in the southwest offer such access.) One of the benefits of taking either transit or intercity ground transportation is that your time in transit isn't simply wasted looking out the windshield. Seeing providers recognize and capitalize on that is a hopeful sign for alternative transportation.

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