E-mail and Web access arrive on rail service

Passengers aboard the Royal Canadian Pacific cruise train, which began its 2001 operating season last week, can relax in the same...

Passengers aboard the Royal Canadian Pacific cruise train, which began its 2001 operating season last week, can relax in the same luxurious staterooms that once hosted British royalty and Winston Churchill. Now, they can also access their e-mail and the Internet, which could well be a first in passenger rail service.

The Royal Canadian Pacific, which operates summer-only excursion trains through the Canadian Rockies, is the first passenger train "to offer e-mail and Internet service in North America and possibly the world," said Steve Barry, editor of Railfan & Railroad magazine.

David Walker, managing director of the Royal Canadian Pacific, said demand for e-mail and Internet access from passengers during the train's inaugural season last year, pushed the company to retrofit the 1920s-era cars with a mobile communications system.

Each passenger stateroom, as well as the train's lounge, contains a standard telephone and modem jack, with ordinary twisted-pair copper wiring connected through an onboard private branch exchange (PBX), said Jim Provost, owner of Tele-Com Application Services. Tele-Com did the wiring and phone and modem installation on the train over a four-month period this winter.

The hardest part of the job was the between-car wiring runs, which were subject to the stress of train movement, according to Provost. "This was the real challenge," he said. "We had to allow some flexibility so the wires would not break."

The PBX is linked to a wiring closet that contains six rack-mounted cellular telephones, which are in turn connected to antennas mounted on the roof of the rail car.

Don Wilkat, service manager at Caltronics Communications, which supplied the wireless gear for the train, said each cell phone is connected to a black box called a "tip and ring generator," which emulates a standard wired phone connection.

"When you plug your laptop in, it thinks it's connected to a landline," Wilkat said. Total cost per line for the gear was nominal, he said, at roughly $300 (£209) for the phone and another $300 for the phone emulator.

Passengers should experience connection speeds of 4.8 to 9.6Kbps, Wilkat said, depending on the distance of the train from a cell tower and the topography. While far slower than standard dial-up speeds of 56Kbps, it will easily outperform recently introduced Internet access services on airplanes, which are limited by low-speed satellite links to 2.4Kbps.

Wilkat described the Royal Canadian Pacific wireless system as simple technology, using older but proven 3W analog cell phones and standard telephone wiring. "Yes, it's simple. But it's a good idea to keep things simple," he said. "And it works." He added that other rail carriers could easily and cheaply offer an equivalent service, depending on the mobile phone coverage along their tracks.

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