WiFi-enabled cars are rolling out to each of Metra’s 11 lines in the Chicago metro area, the Chicago Tribune reports.
Each line will receive just one, clearly designated WiFi car for now, while rider feedback about the service is collected. After six trial months, Metra will decide whether installing hot spots on more cars is financially feasible and attractive to riders.
A DePaul University study from last year suggested that passengers will be pleased. Researchers observed 44 percent of Metra riders performing “sophisticated visual tasks” on mobile devices — tasks like texting or watching videos. By installing WiFi, Metra has an opportunity not just to satisfy existing riders who would save on smartphone data usage, but also to attract new ones.
“Heavy users of mobile technology are finding train travel to be particularly amenable to their digitally oriented lives,” Joseph Schwieterman, who conducted the DePaul study, said. “Many relish the idea of using their devices from origin to destination, giving this historic mode of travel a new competitive edge.”
Metra’s WiFi will be low bandwidth, ideal for checking email or browsing the web, but not fast enough to stream video, the Tribune notes. The six-month, 11-car test period will cost around $35,000, while equipping cars systemwide could cost $72 million.
With newly installed outlets in trains and stations, and a new mobile ticketing app, Metra is prioritizing tech-savvy commuter rail along with many other U.S. cities. Boston installed WiFi on the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s commuter rail lines — and commuter boats — in 2014. Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Northstar system has offered onboard WiFi since 2013.
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.