If you're evaluating a commute or an intercity work trip on travel time alone, the train doesn't always look so great. Annoying as traffic can be, driving is usually quicker from home door to office desk. And while it can take a while to reach an airport, once you're en route nothing travels faster than a plane.
But not all travel time is created equal. When it comes to productivity in transit, for instance, the train bests its alternatives beyond a doubt. You can't even begin to consider working as you drive (that is, unless you're part of an automated "road train"). And airplane travel, with its limited use of electronics and generally disruptive procedure, isn't very conducive to prolonged focus.
The underrated importance of being able to work on the train is underscored in an upcoming report from the journal Transportation. In it Norweigian researchers Mattias Gripsrud and Randi Hjorthol of the Institute of Transport Economics, in Oslo, argue that how we use our travel time — as opposed to travel time alone — should be factored into any cost-benefit assessment of a transport mode.
Gripsrud and Hjorthol argue that especially today, with the ability to work from anywhere expanded by information and communication technology (I.C.T.), train travel in particular has shifted from "dead time" to productive time:
To a certain degree, the train has become a mobile office. Our findings mostly confirm that the local context, the physical and social space on board, is suitable for work (cf, Axtell et al. 2008). Important prerequisites are changes in work life, the flexibility of the train and the fact that many forms of work are based on processing information by means of ICT. The rapid uptake of smart telephones since this survey is likely to further reinforce this development.
In support of their ideas Gripsrud and Hjorthol recently analyzed a survey of train travelers conducted back in 2008. They focused on regional commuters or long-distance business travelers (numbering roughly 300 and 250, respectively) whose trips didn't exceed about 310 miles. Most of the surveyed trips terminated in Norway's capital city of Oslo, with one terminating in Trondheim, the country's third most-populated city.
Their data supported the idea that the train is a desirable place to work. More than a third of commuters and 43 percent of business travelers said they worked on the train. Their ability to work on board was so reliable that a quarter of commuters and half of business travelers had their train trips approved as office hours. Little surprise that technology facilitated this effort: 37 percent of commuters, and 27 percent of business travelers, reported using some type of electronic device for "nearly the entire journey."
Most telling, perhaps, was that only one in ten work-related travelers considered their train trip to be "wasted" time.
If anything the work of Gripsrud and Hjorthol underestimates the prevalence of working on the train. In the past four years mobile devices have become considerably more powerful. At the time of the study wireless internet wasn't even available to the surveyed passengers, with a third complaining about on-board technology. An American report from last fall confirms that nearly all U.S. travelers, across all modes, expect to plug in during their trip.
The challenge now is for trains to keep up with expectations. Amtrak recently introduced Wi-Fi on its regional trains in the Northeast Corridor, but early reports have found the service unreliable. Metro North, the country's busiest commuter line, recently expanded its "quiet car" program by popular demand; Gripsrud and Hjorthol found that seats in the "silent" compartment had a significant effect on a commuter's ability to work. At some point all trains may need to address the problem of the noisy cell phone talker. (May we suggest shaming them, as Japan does?)
Travel time will always be one of the most important factors when comparing transport modes, as it should be, but we risk overvaluing it unless we also consider how that time is used. Paul Krugman wrote last year that he's willing to travel by train even if that makes his trip longer, because "it's much higher-quality time." Many others recognize that trains aren't necessarily the fastest way to travel in and around cities — and also that if they're done right, they don't have to be.