Caltrain Tests Onboard Wi-Fi

An international coalition of companies are teaming to bring successful high-speed wireless to San Francisco area train commuters.

Within a year, the Caltrain commuter rail system expects to have public wireless access available to its riders on the 80-mile line that runs from San Francisco to San Joses southern suburbs.

The rail system announced the successful conclusion of proof-of-concept testing the week of July 31. The test system isnt available for passenger use yet, but will be available once Caltrains board agrees to move ahead and provide funding for the operation of the network.

"What we just completed was proof of concept, which is to see if the technology will work on Caltrain," Rita Haskin, Caltrains chief communications officer, told eWEEK.

"It worked great. Now we move on to engineering the rest of the line, seeking money to put it in, and implementing it, which we hope will happen in a year."

The wireless equipment is provided by Nomad Digital of Newcastle, England. The company was selected by Intel Solution Services, in San Diego, a division of Intel, which was the system integrator.


Nomad Digital has a great deal of experience in providing wireless service to trains, with successful installations already being used in the UK and the Netherlands.

"Our first was on the London to Brighton route," said Executive Chairman Nigel Wallbridge. Currently the Southern rail line in the UK is using Nomads wireless equipment on 14 trains. Service in the UK is provided by T-Mobile.

"We set up seven track-side base stations on 17 miles of track between Palo Alto in the south and Millbrae in the north," Wallbridge said.

He said that at this point the installation is on two cars on one train. Wallbridge added that the installation is complex because there are really three networks involved.

"One is on the train and uses 802.11b or g," Wallbridge said. "Theres a network between the train and the trackside, and a third between the base station and the network management center."

Wallbridge said that Nomad Digital is also responding to a request for expressions of interest from the Washington, D.C. Metro system.

He declined to discuss reports that a similar system is being considered for Amtraks high-speed service, citing a non-disclosure agreement.

According to Vice Sheetz, a consulting engineer with Intel, the project was carried out by a team of four companies, including Intel, Caltrain, Nomad Digital and Redline Communications of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. "It allows them to extend their office hours into commute time," Sheetz said. "From the technological point of view, it brings a high bandwidth solution on a moving train."

Sheetz said that the installation includes an installation in the cab of the train that includes most of the radios and other electronic equipment. Wi-Fi signals are transmitted along the train with mesh-based Wi-Fi access points.

Sheetz said that one of the challenges was designing a system that would work with standard railroad operations.

"Some implementations require a specific consist [a "consist" is a railroad term for the cars and the order of cars in a train]," Sheetz said. "What weve done by putting mesh radios in coach cars is that you can mix and match the cars to make up the train. And the radios will configure automatically."

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read about the biggest wireless disappointments of 2006.

"Its one thing to make it work, and another to make it work within the operational requirements of the train. Everything has to be reliable, redundant and have remote access."

"Wed like at least some level of service thats free," Haskin said, explaining the rationale for the Wi-Fi installation.

"Where we make more money is by getting more riders to take the train."

Haskin said that Caltrain riders have been asking for wireless access for a couple of years now. She said that riders would write and point out that Caltrain was operating in the heart of Silicon Valley, so there should be wireless access while they commute.

"The challenge is that when you have something thats moving you want to keep the connection up," Haskin said.

Some portions of the Caltrain wireless network will use mesh Wi-Fi connections that will work with standard Wi-Fi clients, and other portions will use WiMax, which will handle the backhaul.

Haskin said that she hopes to see the Caltrain wireless operational over the entire length of the railroad within one year.

/zimages/2/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis on mobile and wireless computing.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...