Amtrak to Offer Free Wi-Fi. Should Airlines Worry?

As airlines struggle, Amtrak is trying and take a bit of their market share. Business travelers who routinely fly the shuttle -- mildly affordable, and as comfortable as can be expected -- have enjoyed wi-fi access on some airlines, but not all. Amtrak sees an opening here: It's announced plans to offer wi-fi access on Acela trains between Boston, New York, and Washington, starting in March. Amtrak's Wi-Fi will be free at first, but the carrier may impose a fee in the future.While one reason for introducing the wi-fi perk is to compete with the likes of Delta and U.S. Airways, Amtrak says the move addresses its initiatives to add services for passengers. And in this latest salvo between commuter trains and shuttle planes, the trains seem to be making headway. Between 2004 and June 2009, Amtrak's share of New York–Washington commuters' market rose to 61% from 50% against the airlines, and its New York–Boston route grew to 50% from 39%.

But can Amtrak compete with the commute itself? It takes nearly three hours to get from New York to Washington on Acela. Free wi-fi can help travelers get work done, but will travelers feel that the ability to get work done is a good payoff? Is spending the entire train trip playing World of Warcraft be a fair trade off? If the traveler indeed spends the time prepping for work, consider it time well spent.

Trains and Planes v. Cars?

Some may think so. Amtrak believes it's made "significant inroads," compared to airlines, in the past year. But the reason to make the Internet available in our transportation (and our communication tools, like smartphones) is to communicate information faster. Of course, the ease of air shuttle travel is relative. Train travel, from city center to city center, rather than an airport on the outskirts of town, beats a taxi trip to the Departures gate. (On a recent trip to Chicago, I had to dish out a ridiculous $70 in cabfare to get to a downtown meeting from O'Hare.) And airport security is getting increasingly taxing. All of that makes some commuters find train travel comparatively convenient to air travel.

Perhaps both methods of travel are really competing not with each other but with driving. And although carmakers are trying to make their vehicles more computer-compatible -- over the howls of safety advocates -- wi-fi is one area where rail clearly trumps the road.
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