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Amtrak and Megabus tout free WiFi. So why is service patchy — or nonexistent?

Travelers line up at the gate before boarding their Amtrak train to Boston at Union Station in Washington on Nov. 30, 2018.
Travelers line up at the gate before boarding their Amtrak train to Boston at Union Station in Washington on Nov. 30, 2018. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)

On her daily commute from Baltimore to Philadelphia via Amtrak, Uschi Symmons depends on a stable Internet connection to begin the workday during the 7 a.m. ride. That means responding to emails, analyzing data and preparing for her lab work as an experimental scientist at the University of Pennsylvania.

The problem is that the onboard WiFi isn’t always reliable.

“If you cannot open a Google doc, it’s bad,” said Symmons, 34, a monthly pass rider who recently upgraded her data plan and added a mobile WiFi hotspot to manage the commute. “When I did it I was, like, ‘I can’t believe I’m paying over a thousand bucks and I have to upgrade my data plan.’ ”

It’s a maddening experience not only for the hordes of travelers along the Northeast Corridor — who are otherwise satisfied with Amtrak and welcome the included WiFi service — but also for the countless more traveling across the country on intercity bus systems such as Megabus, Bolt Bus and Greyhound.

The systems tout amenities such as WiFi and power outlets — which often factor into a customer’s decision to use them — but some passengers and advocates complain that those promised perks are spotty at best. “That’s kind of the annoying part, right? That they’re marketing this thing and then it never works or doesn’t exist at all,” said Jonathan Weidman, 29, of Atlanta, a frequent Megabus traveler who works in transportation. “One of the draws we market to [people] is they can get other things done instead of driving a car. When that’s not feasible, it just makes my industry a little more challenging.”

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It’s an inexact science. Amtrak, Megabus, Bolt Bus and Greyhound declined to say whether they measure their WiFi reliability, though developers and publications have tested the networks — with disappointing results. Megabus touted statistics gathered through passenger surveys, however, that concluded “88 percent of passengers shared that they were satisfied with the WiFi capabilities during their Megabus trip,” said Sean Hughes, a spokesman for the bus service.

Weidman was on a Megabus-contracted coach from San Francisco to Sacramento when he was interviewed on a recent Friday after attempting to connect to the Internet. A regular bus user, he found the provided statistic laughable.

“There is none,” he said of the onboard WiFi. “I already checked.”

Weidman, who paid $28 for a one-way trip, said he recently sprung for a mobile hotspot and unlimited data plan to make up for the gaps.

“If it was a Delta flight, then, yes, you can probably complain, but this is Megabus,” he said.

Services like Amtrak and Megabus provide free WiFi by working with mobile carriers to tap into cellphone networks along their routes, meaning signals are often at the mercy of available cell towers. There’s also the problem of bandwidth on crowded buses and trains. For that reason, Megabus and Amtrak limit access to streaming music and video — though Megabus, for example, lets riders pick from a limited set of movies and TV shows through its app.

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Meanwhile, savvy entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the shortcomings in the companies’ networks. Alex Gizis, chief executive of Connectify, a technology company that developed the Speedify app, said he most often hears from customers on Amtrak and Megabus. The app patches weak Internet signals by tapping into WiFi and mobile networks at the same time.

“We have a lot of users on Amtrak — we certainly get love notes,” he said. “The nicest notes that show up in customer support are always, ‘I’m on Amtrak and I’m finally getting work done.’ ”

With Megabus, which runs in areas with even less coverage, the complaints of patchy service are even worse.

“Megabus — mostly the complaints are the WiFi just doesn’t work on it,” Gizis said. (Megabus constantly monitors its fleet to ensure its WiFi systems are working correctly and is “pleased with the system we currently have in place,” Hughes said.)

Gizis said that early in his experience with Speedify he hopped on an Amtrak train from New York to Philadelphia, aiming to test the railroad’s network. What he found was that Amtrak’s service worked about half the time — and when it didn’t, a mobile network was usually available.

“Sometimes the Verizon LTE card was pretty fast, while Amtrak’s WiFi slowed to a crawl,” he said, recounting the experience on the company’s website. “At other times, my 4G card disconnected, but the WiFi was still chugging along.”

That’s the idea behind the app: create a system by which users can connect to the Internet at all times by sending data through WiFi and mobile networks, relying on Speedify’s servers. It’s a niche that paved the way for an app with half a million active users, though Gizis said many of them are in countries with spotty Internet access.

So what’s the urgency of using WiFi onboard? It isn’t to watch “Captain America,” says Symmons, a new mother who has to hop on the train home as early as 4:30 p.m.

“I’m not trying to stream a video,” she said. “I consider train time part of that work time. . . . I really expect to be able to hit the ground running — have all my emails out of the way, all my admin [work] out of the way.”

Amtrak spokeswoman Kimberly Woods said the railroad works with major mobile carriers to improve its service on a continuing basis. She said it has made “significant improvements” to its WiFi for Acela Express, for example, while upgrades were underway for Northeast Regional and other trains — including train equipment and infrastructure. Still, Amtrak said it has not moved forward with other planned improvements such as the construction of a high-speed broadband network in the Northeast Corridor — something it alluded to in a 2015 National Journal story titled “We Tested Amtrak’s Wi-Fi, and It’s Worse Than You Thought.”

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At the time, the railroad told the publication that “current coverage from cellular towers and signal strength does not provide consistent coverage along each route.”

“Consequently, we are testing the technical and financial feasibility of constructing our own trackside high-speed broadband network on the Northeast Corridor,” Amtrak said.

Amtrak was asked about the status of those plans this month.

“We’re still very much focused on quality WiFi on the trains, but are using major cellular providers’ experience and expertise to provide a high-quality WiFi network,” the railroad said, indicating it had not moved forward.

Greyhound said it has seen successes in customer satisfaction by adopting a different strategy from its competitors: tiered WiFi packages on top of the free service offered, with the option for additional bandwidth. For $3.99, riders can buy 150 megabytes of data and increase their connection speeds compared with the “limited” download speeds of the free data package — a “Platinum” package with 300 megabytes of data runs $6.99.

“From an Internet usage perspective, our tiered system allows for more bandwidth than other carriers across our Internet packages,” said Crystal Booker, a Greyhound spokeswoman.

Booker said the tiered system has been found to cover the variety of situations travelers face. “While our complimentary service is designed to work effectively for the average user, our upgrade options work well for those who are aiming to work or study over an extended period,” she said. “This often requires access to additional data.”

Greyhound also said it encounters fewer service disruptions than competitors because it taps into multiple cell carriers, though without concrete data on WiFi reliability from each bus line it was hard to weigh the claim.

Greyhound-owned Bolt Bus, meanwhile, responded to questions with a copy of its WiFi disclaimer warning of possible “unforeseen” WiFi disruptions beyond its control. The company added that it “cannot offer a refund on a free service” for customers unsatisfied with the experience.

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Gizis said the bus networks remain a work in progress.

“Amtrak is the huge success story for all of us because the way it comes and goes we can be downright magical in that situation,” he said.

Rachel Sabella, 38, a Queens resident who works for a nonprofit organization, found herself on several Amtrak trips along the Northeast Corridor beginning late last month. Twice in one week, she was on a train that lacked WiFi — on one of them, the power outlets did not work at all. It was a frustrating experience on a mode of travel that had been otherwise consistent.

“I’m not watching movies. I’m trying to just get work done,” Sabella said. “You believe that you are getting a certain level of comfort — you’re expecting a certain level of service and to not have it work so often is incredibly frustrating and disappointing.”