Wi-Fi on Metra: Where studies and balance sheets differ

Metra provides over 300,000 passenger trips a day and thousands of Chicagoland customers have come to rely on personal electronic devices -- anything from cell phones to laptops to iPads and Kindles -- to ease long commutes.

Since 2009, the Tribune has reported on how Metra has been behind the times when it comes to the latest transit technology: Using credit cards to pay for tickets, for instance, or putting life-saving automatic electronic defibrillators (AEDs) on trains -- as well as installing wireless internet access to better enable the electronic devices more and more riders use.

Metra has since starting accepting plastic and recently bought the defibrillators. It was in 2011 that Metra came aboard with the idea of putting Wi-Fi on trains, and started to come up with a plan.

Just in time. An ongoing DePaul University study shows a sharp increase in the number of Metra commuters who are “digitally connected.” Today, about half of Metra riders use personal electronic devices. This is more than twice as many riders than did so in 2011, the study found. For this growing number of riders, Wi-Fi would be a godsend.

But the quest for Wi-Fi on Metra trains has suffered a setback with a consultant’s report that equipping trains with Wi-Fi would cost tens of millions of dollars, without some sort of way to recoup that money with advertising sponsorship. 

And officials fear that even after installing Wi-Fi, Metra won’t be able to keep up with ever-evolving technology.

Stay tuned. The Tribune is watching as Metra’s staff and board of directors try to sort through this dilemma. We'll let you know when we get a signal.

-- Richard Wronski

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