Rocky Mountaineer Vacations sets up a network on rails

A passenger train service that runs through the Canadian Rockies has upgraded its local network to improve the way it handles customer transactions.

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations offers a two-day rail trip that departs from stations in Vancouver, Calgary, or Jasper, Alta., with an overnight stay in Kamloops, B.C. While riding the rail, passengers can purchase drinks and souvenirs. That transaction data was once kept in laptops and Palm Pilot handhelds on the train, but the travel company recently upgraded to an IBM point-of-sale (POS) system.

Each IBM terminal is connected through an 802.11g Wi-Fi network; the data is dynamically captured and uploaded the instant the train hits a station. Once the station senses that the train’s network is within reach, local servers grab the transaction data off the IBM terminals, explained Ben Guanzon, IT manager for the Vancouver-based company.

“Because the train is traveling through the Rockies it is hard to fulfill any online transactions while the train is actually traveling. We decided the application should capture the data locally . . . when it has the opportunity,” he said. “That’s when the transactions are uploaded to the main server that’s located in Vancouver.”

By moving the data around wirelessly, the company is able to process credit card transactions more quickly, said Guanzon. When Rocky Mountaineer Vacations was using laptops and Palms for its data management, it could take up to eight days to capture and act on credit card data.

The company also runs a reservation POS system, which is maintained separately in Vancouver. The two data sets (reservations and on-train purchases) are later reconciled via a PeopleSoft application for accounting reasons.

Prior to adopting a Wi-Fi infrastructure, the company used a 1XRTT connection for wireless data transactions. The system was essentially the same, but 802.11 provides more flexibility and improved bandwidth, said Guanzon.

The company enlisted the services of Toronto-based integrator Compugen Inc. for the upgrade. Compugen opted for a Cisco wireless network solution, including Cisco Aironet 1300 series access points with integrated antennas. The upgrade was undertaken during Rocky Mountaineer Vacations’ busiest season, but was completed on time earlier this year. It was also ruggedized to handle outdoor environments and is able to operate within a broad temperature range.

“It’s kind of different from putting a point of sale system in a building because then you’ve got the infrastructure built in,” said Guanzon. “(With trains), we really had to think about how to transmit the data because that’s really the bang for the buck in terms of making sure the capture transactions on a timely basis.”

Rocky Mountaineer Vacations’ implementation was unusual because it’s essentially a network on rails, but Wi-Fi has become a standard for all kinds of retail operations, said SeaBoard Group analyst Brian Sharwood.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot of (Wi-Fi) in enterprises for different applications. A train is kind a moving enterprise,” he said. “The challenging part is getting it back and forth to the outside world.”

The station/train connection has solved that problem for Rocky Mountaineer Vacations, said Guanzon, but there could be room for further upgrades in the future. Increasing the network’s bandwidth is not an immediate consideration, he said, but “it certainly opens up avenues in terms of other data applications on the train” such as entertainment applications that could be used by passengers.

The travel company operates all year but transports 140,000 travelers during the April-to-October vacation season.

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