Via Rail brings Wi-Fi aboard Quebec-Windsor trains

Business travellers can start using their laptops and PDAs to access the Internet while travelling on Via trains along the Quebec City-Windsor corridor.

Via Rail has signed a five-year deal with Parsons Corp. to provide wireless access to Via 1 and Comfort class cars at 22 stations and seven Panorama lounges by November 2006. Five trains and four lounges are already up and running.

Think of it as a moving hotspot, said Keith Dunbar, vice-president of Parsons, an engineering and program management firm with an office in Toronto. “This is a wireless IP network and it just so happens to move.”

What makes it different, however, is what goes on behind the scenes. The Opti-Fi service combines satellite, cellular and Wi-Fi technologies to provide continuous wireless access to the Internet, from lounge to train.

Other trials are being conducted around the world where signals are fired at trains, in the hope that passengers will be able to pick them up. This system, however, involves putting the signal inside the train.

“This is all about giving the user the best experience,” said Dunbar. “It switches in the background so they wouldn’t know at any one time if they’re being connected by satellite, cellular or Wi-Fi.”

Parsons is developing the service, while Via is providing the customer base – and benefiting from a share of the revenues. Business travellers make up 30 to 40 per cent of Via’s business along the Quebec City-Windsor corridor, said Steve Del Bosco, vice-president of marketing with Via Rail. With Opti-Fi, business travellers can continue working and charge customers for billable hours. The service is also aimed at students.

In a recent survey on a train equipped with Opti-Fi, Via found that 38 per cent of passengers were actually using the service. “We were expecting maybe 20 per cent or so,” said Del Bosco. “What customers have told us in surveys is this will become a main reason for them to use the train more often.” Via expects this will make train service more attractive to customers, compared to other forms of transportation.

“You arrive at the station, you go into the lounge, you can get into Wi-Fi at that point, you pay for it, close your computer, get on the train, open up your computer and you’re on again,” he said. Customers can choose between pay-per-use, daily or monthly payment plans. For a 24-hour period, for example, the service costs $8.95.

“The ubiquity of connectivity is what the consumer is asking for,” said Dunbar. “They see that as something they’d be willing to pay for and probably change their method of travelling because of it.”

While Via doesn’t have plans right now to extend the model across Canada, it’s looking to use the core technology to provide commentary on its tourist trains in Western Canada. It’s already provided this service on one train in the Maritimes.

Via will also look at applications such as e-ticketing, as well as internal applications such as monitoring systems on trains and relaying that information to maintenance.

To protect the system from security breaches, firewall protection and other security measures are being taken. “It’s very difficult to hack in on a train,” said Guy Faulkner, product manager of corridor services with Via Rail. “There’s a lot of monitoring going on – we’re watching for spammers, we’re watching for other types of users.” So far, there have been no reported security-related problems.

“We believe this to be the first commercial full-fleet deployment – it’s not a trial, we’ve entered into contract with the operator,” said Dunbar. “We know it works and we can deliver service and have been for a good few months.”

All Panorama lounges and 22 stations will have Wi-Fi hotspots by March 2006. All Via 1 cars will have wireless access in April 2006, and all Comfort class cars will be equipped with the service next November.

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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