Amtrak WiFi: So Slow It Might As Well Not Exist

The National Journal tested download speeds on the AmtrakConnect WiFi service between D.C. and NYC. The few green spots along this line represent the only times they were able to connect with adequate broadband speeds. The swaths of red indicate speeds of anywhere from 0-.9 Mbps. (Courtesy: National Journal)

The National Journal tested download speeds on the AmtrakConnect WiFi service between D.C. and NYC. The few green spots along this line represent the only times they were able to connect with adequate broadband speeds. The swaths of red indicate speeds of anywhere from 0-.9 Mbps. (Courtesy: National Journal)

If you’ve ever had the misfortune to sit next to me on an Amtrak train while I was trying to write, you’ve probably heard me mutter things about the state of onboard WiFi service that — were they fully audible — would have made Larry Flynt blush. Sometimes I wondered if it was just me, or if there was something wrong with my computer (every single one of them that I’ve ever used) that made it allergic to AmtrakConnect. It turns out, the service is just plain awful for everyone.

The National Journal’s Dan Berman put the Amtrak WiFi through the paces along the train system’s busiest corridor — from Washington, D.C., to New York City — and confirmed that the service occasionally works well enough to access the Internet but is so spotty and so slow that it’s really of no use to the modern business traveler.

Riding Amtrak during peak hours, Berman first traveled from D.C. to NYC on an Acela train, and the initial speeds were promising. The average downstream speed between D.C. and Baltimore was 4.4 Mbps; not amazing, but sufficient for sending e-mails and doing general web-browsing.

However, this leg of the trip showed signs of slowness to come, with speeds dipping as low as .6 Mbps, which is fast enough for you to stare at your computer screen and wish you still had the excuse of telling your boss, “I’ll be off the grid for a few hours while I’m on the train.”

Things got worse — much worse — during the Baltimore-Philadelphia stretch. Aside from a brief stretch in the Baltimore ‘burbs where the speeds reached a blazin’ mediocre 4.4 Mbps, the rest of this leg ranged from 0-.19 Mbps, harkening back to the early days of dial-up.

Speeds actually got worse — yes, it’s possible — between Philly and NYC. On this northbound leg, the average downstream connection clocked in at an ice-cold .1 Mbps.

Berman repeated his testing on another Acela train from NYC to D.C. and this NYC-Philly leg was the only one to improve, though only to a sad 1 Mbps. The other legs each averaged a miserable .6 Mbps, significantly slower than the speeds on the northbound trip.

Remember, this entire trip was on an Acela, where a ticket frequently costs several times that of a coach fare on a regular Amtrak train following the same path. If you’re paying airline-level pricing for a train trip, you’d hopefully get more than just a comfortable seat. Alas…

It’s difficult enough to provide a decent and consistent connection for a train barreling up and down the Mid-Atlantic. Add in a few hundred people on that train all trying to get online at once and you have a recipe for disaster.

Amtrak might do better to stop marketing its WiFi. It can’t be a good idea to have a sticker on every window that reads “Your seat is now a hot spot,” implying that you’ll actually be able to go online during your trip. Instead, it may want to downplay this access in an effort to cut down on the number of travelers attempting to use the WiFi.