Productivity of trains as mobile offices a factor in mode selection

By Robbie Webber

Although driving or flying may be faster door-to-door, trains offer something those modes do not: uninterrupted time to work. And this additional work time is starting to be a factor in transportation mode choice for many workers.

Although many people attempt to work while driving, making phone calls while driving is documented to be dangerous. And texting, reading, or typing are completely out of the question unless you have a personal chauffer. The daily commute by car generally means not only traffic frustrations, but zero time to catch up on personal or professional work.

Work trips by air are likewise times of no or low productivity. Besides an entirely separate trip to the airport, flying frequently means waiting at the gate, standing in line for security screenings, and finally limited electronic access once on the plane. A one-hour flight can mean several hours of lost work time.

However, rail passengers are finding a much more welcome work environment, as trains are outfitted with Wi-Fi, work tables, electrical outlets, and even designated quiet cars. A 2008 study of train passengers in Norway revealed that more than a third of commuters and 43 percent of business travelers work while on board the train. And nearly 25 percent of train commuters and half of business travelers have their travel time approved as work time. These numbers are likely now be even higher, since wireless internet access and cell phone technology have advanced significantly since the survey was done.

Surveys in the U.S. also show that virtually all travelers plan to access wireless or mobile devices at some point during their trip. Commuters without internet access on board are complaining and demanding upgraded service. Riders now have the same expectation of connectivity while traveling or commuting that coffee shop patrons do. Those lines which do not provide access are hearing from unhappy customers.

Ownership of smaller, more powerful mobile devices reduces the requirement to be at the office and has made commuting and travel time much more likely to be work time. Remote work is not new. However, as trains and even buses offer increasingly reliable internet connections and comfortable workspaces, the additional time these modes require over driving or flying may become moot. If productivity is factored in, as well as actual travel time, trains may win out.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.