Caltrain announces $40 Million, 5 year wifi program; local tech firm offers free pilot

At Wednesday’s Citizens’ Advisory Meeting, Caltrain staff described a two-year planning process that has resulted in a five-year program to add wifi on some of its trains, at a capital budget of $42 million.    At that meeting, a representative of a local technology organization in the audience responded with an offer to deliver a pilot, starting immediately, free of charge.

Caltrain riders have been asking for wifi for years; in 2013, Caltrain allocated $800,000 toward putting wifi on the trains. In 2014, Caltrain hired the Singer PR firm to seek corporate sponsorship, and technical support to design a system.   Caltrain’s proposed technical approach is to use the fiber optic backbone that has been installed for the CBOSS train control system, and then to add 100 wayside radio antennas, during/following electrification.  The reasoning given for this design is that it is needed to provide service reliable enough to meet the expectations of Caltrain customers, including coverage in the tunnels. 

The cost of the system, based on 30% design, is estimated to be $42 million, with an additional $700,000 per year in operating and maintenance costs.  Rather than installing equipment on Caltrain’s current trains, the proposal is add equipment to the electric trains that would go into service in 2020/21. However, since the funding plan for electrification does not include enough money to replace the entire fleet, this wifi proposal would provide wireless service only on the portion of the fleet that is electric, and not the remaining diesels.  

Summary: a $42 million project, no wifi til 2020/2021, and then not on all the trains.

Listening to this proposal, several members of Caltrain CAC encouraged Caltrain to take a faster-moving approach with the private sector, asking providers to provide bids with proposed costs and service levels.

In the public comment of the meeting, Aron Hall of Hobnob, a Palo Alto-based startup providing mobile wireless systems for transit and other uses, described the $42 million as a “staggering amount of money.”   He offered to provide a pilot free of charge, and in follow up correspondence, indicated that it should be possible to provide on-board equipment on all cars for $700,000 (the cost of one year of Caltrain’s proposed operating budget), to go live immediately, providing 50+ Mbps of service.

Hobnob makes the case that adding antennas solves the wrong problem, since the cause of poor network service on Caltrain is not low signal, since there is ample public network service provided by carriers. This vendor’s approach uses onboard routers that combine wifi and existing carrier service, which could be provided with a similar operating cost and much lower capitol cost.  Moreover, according to Hobnob, if Caltrain did build out their own network infrastructure, the ongoing operating maintenance cost should be almost nil. 

While a couple of public comments at the meeting expressed concern that wifi may no longer be needed because of the increased availability of cellphone hotspot service,  a recent request to the Friends of Caltrain list found a large majority of responses still supportive of the need for wifi, and Caltrain’s recent customer survey found wifi to continue to be a common customer request. 

Given continuing customer interest, a free pilot seems like an attractive offer, and an open RFP process might generate offers for service sooner and cheaper.