Under the slogan “Life is Hard. The Train is Easy,” Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District serves more than 7,000 riders each day in Northwestern Indiana, 95 percent of whom are commuting to work in downtown Chicago. Monday through Friday, NICTD’s South Shore Line operates 43 trains along an 19-station route that spans more than 90 miles.
With thousands of passengers heading to and from downtown Chicago each day – most of them commuting workers from as far away as South Bend – the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District offers a compelling alternative to the traditionally expensive and stressful car-based commute. But those commuters also have increasing expectations for connectivity and productivity as they make their way to and from the office.
“More than ever before, our thousands of passengers are expecting to be able to connect through local Wi-Fi throughout their commute,” said Boris Matakovic, chief information officer for the transit agency. “For passengers boarding at our South Bend terminal, for instance, it can be a two-hour trip each way, so the ability to stay connected and productive for as much as four extra hours a day is an important requirement. Our passengers don’t want to just sit and listen to wheels clink on rails. Other transportation providers, such as buses, are offering passenger Wi-Fi, and we wanted to match that.”
Twice previously, NICTD had explored initiatives to bring Wi-Fi to its passenger service, only to encounter obstacles. “We had two different companies approach us with plans to install Wi-Fi service and charge passengers a small fee and create a modest revenue stream,” said Matakovic. “But the investment was too high, and the payback wasn’t significant enough. And our passengers loved the concept, but weren’t thrilled with the cost and inconsistent quality.”
In 2014, still aiming to make passenger Wi-Fi happen, the management team at NICTD took a DIY approach. “Passenger satisfaction is an important consideration for us, so we decided to provide connectivity ourselves and make that a free service for our passengers.”
The foundation of this new service for train riders is the Digi TransPort® WR44R, a compact, mobile-access LTE router that scales to provide Internet access for up to 120 clients while simultaneously maintaining secure priority links for onboard systems. A configurable splash page requires first-time users to accept the agency’s Internet policy and enables the transit agency to promote popular or promotional websites.
Digi’s unique device-health reports built on the Digi Device Cloud SaaS platform provide remote system-level and device-specific charts that show fundamental performance metrics such as uptime, signal level/quality, and network response time. Optional transparent integration with third-party content filtering and embedded in-browser content messaging keeps out unwanted content and provides a path for network monetization. Finally, the Digi TransPort® WR44R’s 50-channel high-performance GPS receiver delivers reliable service, even in tough urban environments, supporting location-based applications.
“I’ve known Digi for a long time and have always found that their products are super-reliable,” Matakovic said. “So we decided to try a pilot program on 10 of our 82 cars, and it has worked very well.”
NICTD has chosen not to throttle its bandwidth. “We didn’t want the additional task of managing that,” he explained. “Bandwidth consumption is a self-correcting issue, and we haven’t had any significant issues with that. We send all of our traffic through AT&T and never have to worry about it.
“And it’s a pleasure to work with Digi. They’ve given us lots of support and it’s great to be working with people who know what they’re doing.
According to Matakovic, the Wi-Fi-equipped trains have quickly become popular among passengers. “It’s only in about 12 percent of our cars, but we have decals on those trains that say “Wi-Fi-Equipped” – and passengers will very deliberately hunt and look for those cars so they can use their commuting time productively. It makes the time go by much faster when you can be answering email or even taking care of personal business online.”
The Digi pilot program has been so popular, that NICTD is moving forward with full implementation of the Digi WR44R across all 82 cars. “We’ve made the commitment to bring Wi-Fi to our entire fleet, and all of our passengers will have no-cost Internet access at all times,” said Matakovic. “As people start to realize that they can get on the train and get meaningful work done, the value of a ticket on our transit line increases significantly.”