Metra officials plan to roll out the first batch of Wi-Fi enabled cars to test if the rest of the system can support the wireless network.
Cellular "hot spots" will be installed on these cars for six months to determine whether customers can get dependable Internet access aboard trains, Metra said.
Wi-Fi service would be provided on a car-by-car basis and will require only installation of onboard equipment, including modems, routers and antennas. Metra hopes to have this done by January so the testing can be started.
Providing Wi-Fi for an entire line would necessitate installation of trackside equipment along the full right-of-way, a multimillion-dollar expense that Metra determined to be too prohibitive, officials said.
"We have to find out if a test like this can work," Metra Executive Director/CEO Don Orseno said. "And if it does work, then we want to see if, financially, how we can we expand the program to the entire system."
Metra said it also plans to install free Wi-Fi in the waiting areas of all five downtown stations within the next 45 days.
Commuter railroads in other cities, including Boston, have installed Wi-Fi, but with varying levels of success.
"Hopefully, the 'hot spot' concept will work for Metra and it can be rolled out on a bigger scale," said Joe Schwieterman, a transportation expert and head of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
Metra said its test program would be similar to one recently launched on the South Shore Line by the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District.
The South Shore's Wi-Fi has received lots of positive feedback so far from its riders while bugs are being worked out, said Michael Noland, the agency's executive director. Signal strength has been adequate for riders to access their email and surf Internet favorites such as Facebook, he said.
The system has its limits, however. "If everybody on board tries to stream 'Game of Thrones,' it will crash," Noland said.
The 10 Metra Wi-Fi cars will be run on different lines according to a schedule Metra will announce at a future date, spokeswoman Wendy Abrams said. Metra has 11 lines and runs more than 750 trains a day.
The Wi-Fi cars will be identified with placards similar to ones used to designate Metra's Quiet Cars.
Metra will warn customers that there may be "dead zones" along the lines and advise against using streaming video onboard because this will limit service. The agency will post information on its website about how to provide feedback on the quality of Wi-Fi service.
As the Tribune previously reported, Metra said it is completing installation of charging stations at all five downtown stations.
Metra said it has previously issued two requests for proposals asking companies how they could offer free Wi-Fi on trains at no cost to Metra. Neither effort was successful.
The six-month pilot program is expected to cost about $35,000, mainly for the equipment that Metra's own workers will install, officials said. A Wi-Fi service provider has not yet been selected, Metra said.
In 2013, Metra commissioned a study that found installing Wi-Fi could cost the agency about $72 million over a five-year period. Even a one-year pilot project on a single line, the Rock Island, would run $3.4 million, the study found.
Metra said that in a 2014 customer survey, 81 percent of respondents said they used a smartphone and 68 percent indicated that it served their online needs while on the train. Another 34 percent reported using a laptop PC or tablet on the train. Of these, 58 percent were able to access a cellular data network onboard Metra.
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