The commuter train service that shuttles workers from as far as Manassas and Fredericksburg to their D.C.-area jobs has been talking about adding WiFi to its trains since at least January 2011. But officials have taken it on and off the table because of cost and concerns about reliability.
Now, according to a memo, wireless Internet could also be crucial for new train safety technology that will be required for trains by 2015. It could help the agency diagnose problems with trains in real time and share information with riders about trains' actual locations. Eventually riders could pay fares with their smartphones just as Amtrak has recently said it will be able to do soon with iPhones.
The technology could even help raise advertising revenue as it would be easier to replace digital billboards than it is to send crews in to replace signs manually in every train, officials wrote in the memo.
The service had estimated last June that adding wireless would cost $1.4 million for the initial equipment, then about $230,000 per year.
The initial investment could seem large, said VRE spokesman Mark Roeber, but it could bring long-term cost savings to the system. It could also be what's needed in the future.
"In just the past year and a half, the world itself has literally changed in the [information technology] world," Roeber said. "They are moving away from using land lines to a much more fluid system."
But even so, no money has been set aside for adding WiFi, even as the riders will soon be paying 3 percent higher fares come July 1.
VRE board members are supportive of adding the service, though.
"It's something that everybody would really like to do," said board member Christopher Zimmerman, who also serves on the Arlington County Board.
Paul Milde, a Stafford County supervisor who serves on the VRE board, supports adding it, too. "The only argument I've heard against it is that the technology is changing so quickly that people won't want it," he said.