(TNS) -- Metra plans to expand the number of rail cars with free cellular Wi-Fi hot spots by 50 cars to a total of 62, officials said Wednesday.
At the commuter rail service's monthly board meeting, CEO Don Orseno said the decision to expand Wi-Fi was based on positive customer response to the current program. The startup cost will be $100,000 and the annual cost about $186,000. Metra is looking for partners to help offset the costs, Orseno said.
The hot spots will work for checking email and internet browsing, but not for more elaborate functions such as streaming video. In 2013, Metra looked into offering more extensive service for all cars, but found the $72 million upfront cost too steep.
"This is kind of a stopgap," Orseno told the board.
He said the test showed the technology can meet the needs of most customers while still being affordable.
The program expansion will be completed by the end of October, spokesman Michael Gillis said. To get Wi-Fi on specially marked cars, riders can select "Metra Wi-Fi Onboard" from the list of options on their electronic devices.
Chairman Martin Oberman noted at the meeting that many riders can already get email and internet on their devices without the need for onboard Wi-Fi. Regarding the need for more advanced service, Oberman said he guessed just a "small number" of riders would want to watch a movie on the way to work.
"It may be that going forward the system is sufficient for what our customer demand is," Oberman said.
Board member Ken Koehler, of Crystal Lake, said he gets more questions from riders about Wi-Fi than anything else.
But a July report by TransitCenter, a New York City-based policy and advocacy group, found that transit riders surveyed nationwide listed service frequency and travel as the most important factors driving satisfaction with transit, while power outlets and Wi-Fi were the least important improvements.
Metra also reported that ridership in the first half of the year over the past two years had been up by 3.3 percent during peak travel and "peak direction" times, when people are going to work downtown in the mornings and leaving for home at night. Lynnette Ciavarella, senior division director of strategic capital planning, said this could be due to an improvement in the economy.
Indeed, employment in the region went up over the period.
The agency, however, saw a dip in ridership for nonpeak times, such as Saturdays and midday, which may be at least in part due to lower gas prices, which make people choose a car for nonwork travel instead of the train, Ciavarella said. Saturday ridership was down 12.5 percent between the first half of 2014 and the first half of 2016, and 4.2 percent in the evenings. It was up for Sundays, by 2.9 percent.
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