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Why is Metro-North the only major commuter railroad in the U.S. that doesn’t offer its riders Wi-Fi?   That’s a question I’ve been asking for many years and I still can’t get a straight answer.

Four years ago the Connecticut legislature gave the Department of Transportation $23 million to get Wi-Fi onboard, but it is still not there.  Gov. Ned Lamont promised us 5G Wi-Fi, but there’s still zilch.  Why?

A little history of this technology quest might help us to understand.

Ten years ago New Jersey Transit successfully demonstrated Wi-Fi on its new double-decker cars under the leadership of Jim Redeker, then that railroad’s Assistant Executive Director for Technology.  When Redeker came to CDOT he wanted the same tech for Connecticut commuters and told then-Metro-North President Joe Giulietti as much.

Giulietti was reluctant, given the railroad’s bad experience of trying to bring tech to its riders when they introduced pay-cellphones on the trains.  Months after they were installed the tech had advanced so much that everyone had a cellphone in their pocket and those pay-phones sat idle.  Burned by trying to be an “early adopter,” Giulietti hired the consultants at McKinsey to prove why you can’t put Wi-Fi on trains.  Being a good consultant, McKinsey took the pricey contract and told their client, Metro-North, what they wanted to hear.

Never mind that Amtrak has offered free Wi-Fi since 2011, admittedly with some problems, since resolved (too many people and not enough bandwidth).  European railroads have been offering connectivity since 2008, so the tech does exist and it works.

Fast forward to the Lamont administration and guess who’s the new Commissioner of the DOT… that’s right, Joe Guilietti from Metro-North.  Once again, no progress on Wi-Fi… until 2019 when then-State Senator Will Haskell (D – Westport) introduced a bill requiring the railroad to get wired and allocating $23 million to make it happen.

The bill passed and became law and CDOT was given the money.  But we still don’t have Wi-Fi.

Struggling to recover from COVID and still trying to persuade commuters to get back onboard, you’d think that CDOT and Metro-North would embrace Wi-Fi as an enhancement to taking the train.  Imagine how much more productive you’d be on your way to your job.

Even the CDOT’s own “Customer Experience Action Plan” mentions “enhanced wireless connectivity” as item #26 on its long list of initiatives.  Its status?  “In progress.”

The problem is that Wi-Fi on the trains is only as good as the cell signals along the tracks.  Train Wi-Fi doesn’t work with satellites, as airplanes do, but with good old cell signals.

So CDOT seems to be blaming AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile for dragging their feet on installing new cell towers to cover the “dead spots.”  But Amtrak’s Wi-Fi, running on the same tracks, seems to operate just fine.  So what’s the problem?

While CDOT says it remains committed to Wi-Fi and is “evaluating various options” to make it happen, Connecticut commuters are the real losers.  Wi-Fi is everywhere, even in the New York City subways, but not on Metro-North.

Our commuters deserve better.

Jim Cameron is founder of the Commuter Action Group and advocates for Connecticut rail riders. He writes a weekly column called "Talking Transportation" for CT Mirror and other publications in the state. Read past Talking Transportation columns here. Contact Jim at the Commuter Action Group.