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Metra to expand onboard Wi-Fi project

Metra add free Wi-Fi to 50 more passenger cars by October after a successful six-month test on a dozen rail cars, officials announced Wednesday.

The Wi-Fi won’t allow riders to watch videos but it should provide email access and meet basic needs, Metra CEO Don Orseno said.

“There’s customers that ask for this,” Orseno said. “It’s clear from the test that this technology can meet the needs of a majority of our customers while still being affordable to Metra.”

The 62-car project is costing $2,000 per Wi-Fi hot spot, or a total of $124,000 for equipment. Metra will pay $3,000 a year per hot spot for data, or $186,000 annually.

That brings the cost of the 62-car project to $310,000 in its first year. One expert had estimated it would cost $72 million upfront for more robust connectivity in every Metra car.

During Metra’s monthly board meeting Wednesday, board member Ken Koehler said he happened to land in one of the test trains and his Wi-Fi “seemed to do everything I needed it to do.” He asked if the system could at least offer one Wi-Fi car per train, and put that car in the same location on every train set.

That would be both financially and mechanically “difficult,” Orseno said.

Metra is not yet even close to buying the roughly 300 hot spots it would need to offer one Wi-Fi car per train. Its diesel and Electric Line trains combined have a total 1,026 cars.

Because cars are moved among trains, it would be hard to guarantee a Wi-Fi car would always be in the same location on a train, Orseno said. However, all Metra Wi-Fi cars are marked on the exterior with orange decals.

Orseno said Metra hopes to find partners who would cover expansion costs in exchange for being featured as a Wi-Fi sponsor every time a customer taps into their Metra wireless service.

“Our hope is to reduce the cost to zero,” Orseno said.

To access the free Wi-Fi service, customers select “Metra Wi-Fi Onboard” from the list of options on their electronic devices and then agree to the terms listed to gain access.

As part of a connectivity upgrade, Metra last year added free charging stations and free Wi-Fi in waiting areas at all five of its downtown stations.