Amtrak WiFi can be infuriating. Here’s how to make it work for you.

by Сашка

If you’ve ever tried to Zoom on the Northeast Corridor, you feel this

Earlier this summer, Kim Key boarded an Amtrak train in Atlanta and embarked on an experiment. During the some 16-hour trip to New York City, the PCMag security analyst attempted to use the rail car like a home office. Her biggest challenge wasn’t the motion or the subpar coffee; it was the temperamental WiFi.

“Sometimes Amtrak WiFi is just not going to work for you,” she said, “but I brought a little help with me.”

Amtrak’s free WiFi works well … until it doesn’t. Common frustrations include buffering videos, frozen teleconferencing calls, failed web searches and disconnections. However, understanding its limitations — and bringing backup technology — can vastly improve your online experience.

“If you’re planning on working on Amtrak, you need to bring your cellular-connected device, because that’s more likely to be reliable than the onboard WiFi,” Key said.

WiFi on planes has improved in recent years, but why does Amtrak’s service remain so frustrating?

Amtrak introduced free WiFi in 2010 (most airlines still make you pay), when streaming and online videos were incipient and digital nomads were mythical creatures. Acela was the first train to offer the amenity. According to Amtrak, passengers can now connect on more than 30 short-haul and long-distance trains across the country. The company plans to upgrade to 5G. The new Acela fleet, which is scheduled to debut next year, will be the first to adopt the next generation of wireless technology.

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“As it rolls out, the towers will be upgraded, and then the modems on the trains will be upgraded,” said Russ Clark, a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “So in general, it should be better. The primary reason being, there’s just more capacity in 5G.”

Until then, passengers must learn to navigate the relatively slower and stickier 4G while traveling at speeds of up to about 150 miles per hour.

“Expect disruption, no matter what your origin and destination stations are,” said Mike Wuerthele, managing editor of AppleInsider.

How WiFi works on a speeding train

Amtrak uses local cellphone towers lining the route, unlike planes, many of which rely on a hybrid system of ground towers and satellites and charge for the service. As the train zips along, its routers must keep up by hopping from tower to tower. A gap between sites can interrupt service. On stretches with underdeveloped infrastructure, such as rural areas, passengers will find themselves time-traveling to a pre-internet era.

“Even though you might be connected to the WiFi in your rail car, there might be no connection between the rail car and the wireless infrastructure, because there are no towers around the region that you are passing through,” said Harpreet S. Dhillon, a wireless communications expert and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech.

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A well-spaced series of towers does not guarantee a seamless connection. Heavy usage can slow service. The demands of car, bus and train travelers in addition to local residents and workers can create a wireless logjam.

“If the rail car is passing through a very crowded region, then the rail car is sharing the wireless tower with other users,” Dhillon said. “So there’s a lot of pressure on that tower from the people on the railway and from the outside world. This could result in slow internet or even dropped connections.”

Natural and man-made features, such as mountains, tunnels and skyscrapers, can also impede the connection. For example, Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said passengers can expect choppy service entering Manhattan from northern New Jersey because of the tunnels.

“There’s going to be an extended period where the ability to access WiFi will be limited,” she said.

Conversely, Key discovered that Amtrak’s WiFi came through on several occasions, putting her cellphone to shame.

“I went through a lot of places that didn’t have coverage and my phone had no bars,” she said. “That was when the Amtrak’s free WiFi was awesome. I was in the middle of nowhere and could still get my work done.”

Don’t stream or video conference

Amtrak is candid about the limitations of its service. “For now our WiFi does not support high-bandwidth actions like streaming music, streaming video or downloading large files,” it states online. For a smoother experience, the company recommends downloading large files, such as a work presentation or entertainment, ahead of your trip.

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Generally, web browsing is available,” Woods said. “But some customers know to download content before traveling.”

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It also recommends signing on with only one device and familiarizing yourself with the train’s WiFi capabilities. On some trains, only certain cars have access.

Key had no issues using the WiFi for lighter tasks, such as scanning the internet, emailing, messaging on Slack and Discord, and listening to audio. The system struggled with more data-intensive media, such as YouTube, Netflix and Zoom. She said that, for heavier lifts, riders should pull out their phones. On her trip, she listened to podcasts and watched YouTube videos on her T-Mobile-connected device.

“It might be easier to do a Zoom call from your phone if there’s a tower near enough that your cellphone provider is associated with,” she said. “But there’s another layer to this: Do you have an unlimited data plan? Make sure of that, so that you don’t come back to huge bills.”

If the WiFi connection is spotty or disappears, you can try activating your phone’s hotspot. However, if there is no tower nearby, your hotspot will not work either, unless your phone uses a different wireless carrier and its tower is within range. But be aware that a large number of passengers using their phones simultaneously can clog the connection.

“It’s like when Waze tells us there’s a traffic jam ahead and everyone get off this exit,” Clark said. “Then we create a new traffic jam at the exit.”

In the tower deserts, none of your gadgets will connect. In these instances, pick up a book or stare out the window at the scenery.

If the WiFi is faltering, Woods recommends asking the staff for help. Though conductors can’t erect a tower where one does not exist, they can provide information about upcoming stretches or stations with a reliable connection.

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Don’t forget to protect your privacy

Key arrived at the Atlanta train station prepared to work, toting her office supplies in her luggage. One of her lifesavers was a power bank with multiple USB ports, plus the dongles for her various devices.

“You’re going to need something to plug in everything, because there’s maybe only one or two places to plug things in, even in the bedroom,” said Key, who booked a sleeping cabin.

To expand her area of coverage, she carried a cellphone with T-Mobile service and a Verizon hotspot. “I basically made it so that I had three options at any time for connectivity,” she said. “That’s how I was able to maintain connection throughout my whole journey.”

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Because Amtrak’s WiFi network is public and unsecured, Key stresses the importance of protecting your privacy and sensitive material. She recommends using a VPN and making sure that your anti-virus software is active. Always use your password manager, she added.

“Make sure that you’re not entering your passwords willy-nilly and that it is not the same password that you’re using everywhere around the web,” she said. “That is a recipe for disaster for you and your family.”

More travel tips

Vacation planning: Start with a strategy to maximize days off by taking PTO around holidays. Experts recommend taking multiple short trips for peak happiness. Want to take an ambitious trip? Here are 12 destinations to try this year — without crowds.

Cheap flights: Follow our best advice for scoring low airfare, including setting flight price alerts and subscribing to deal newsletters. If you’re set on an expensive getaway, here’s a plan to save up without straining your credit limit.

Airport chaos: We’ve got advice for every scenario, from canceled flights to lost luggage. Stuck at the rental car counter? These tips can speed up the process. And following these 52 rules of flying should make the experience better for everyone.

Expert advice: Our By The Way Concierge solves readers’ dilemmas, including whether it’s okay to ditch a partner at security, or what happens if you get caught flying with weed. Submit your question here. Or you could look to the gurus: Lonely Planet and Rick Steves.

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