Working on the train: from ‘dead time’ to productive and vital time
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Gripsrud, M. & Hjorthol, R. Transportation (2012) 39: 941. doi:10.1007/s11116-012-9396-7
The conventional approach to the study of travel time is to see it as ‘dead time’, i.e. time that should be minimized. In this paper, we study time-use on trains, especially in relation to the use of information and communication technology for work purposes. The empirical results are based on a survey of rail travellers in Norway in 2008. It was found that a high proportion of ordinary commuters and business people work on board while travelling by train, i.e. 35 % of commuters and 43 % of business people. Nearly every fourth commuter gets their travel time approved as working hours. Most respondents had some sort of electronic device with them on board, and 25 % travelling for work-related purposes use a laptop computer. Only 10 % report that their travel time is of no use. Knowledge of how travel time is utilized is indispensable in the discussion about the evaluation of travel time in cost-benefit analysis. The use of travel time can also be important for choice of transport mode in the assessment of travel time versus work options.
The conventional approach to the study and conceptualization of travel time is to regard it as time of disutility or even ‘dead time’, a period that should be as short as possible in order to leave time for more productive purposes. This paper challenges this by showing, through an examination of long-distance train travel, that travel time can be usefully and productively used.
There are two underlying working assumptions of traditional traffic planning: first, that travel time is seen as a derived demand, e.g. we travel to satisfy other needs such as work, education, shopping, etc. and, second, we try to minimize our travel time and costs, conceptualized as generalized costs. Based on this double logic, in appraisals of transport schemes, a saving of travel time makes up for anything up to 80 % of the scheme’s benefit to the user (Banister 2008).
This limited way of regarding travel time (and people) has been questioned and debated by several authors (e.g. Metz 2008; Lyons and Urry 2005). For as long as people have been travelling, travel time has been filled with a range of activities. Depending on the context of travel—mode of transport, travel time, presence or absence of travelling companions, accessible equipment, and so on—these activities can be both recreational (doing nothing special) and productive (such as paid work).
The examination of actual time-use during travel calls into question the implicit assumption that travel time is basically dead time, and reveals a gap between the assumption of dead travel time and the realities of travelling from the perspective of the passenger, an argument made by several authors (e.g. Lyons and Urry 2005; Watts and Urry 2008). This debate is not purely academic. How travel time is evaluated may have implications for decisions on investment in transport systems by the use of cost–benefit analysis. In today’s working life there is a tendency of increasing business travel (Mason 2002). People travel to participate in meetings and conferences, and to visit customers, partners etc. What people engage in during their travel time and the possibilities to utilize it will likely have an impact on the choice of transport mode.
In what sense can travelling be said to have value? Mokhtarian and Salomon (2001) ask how derived the demand for travel actually is, and discuss the positive utility of travel in itself. They claim that travelling has a positive component comprising three elements: (i) activities conducted at the destination, (ii) activities that can be conducted while travelling, and (iii) the activity of travelling itself. They argue that it is important to know the relative ‘weight’ of the different elements in order to be able to predict the effects of different transport schemes. In the empirical data in their article, about half of their respondents agreed to the statement “getting there is half the fun” (op. cit., p. 709).
The positive aspect of travel has also been connected with particular modes of transport. The literature on the socio–cultural aspects of the car is substantial, with the car seen as an important symbol of modernity (Brownell 1972), an object/commodity that changes the social conditions of life (Sweezy 1973), an object of mastering (Moorhouse 1983) and passion (Marsh and Collett 1986). However, it is especially the last two components of the Mokhtarian and Salomon conceptualization that are relevant for the perception of the car in this context. For example, Laurier has studied the car as a mobile office (2004), but according to Lyons and Urry (2005) it is the train that can be seen as the most potentially “productive” mode of transport. These authors discuss use of travel time in relation to the increased diffusion of modern information and communication technologies (ICT) and degree of “productivity” of travel time in relation to transport mode, ranging from unproductive (wasted time) to “ultra” productive (being able to work undisturbed, unlike at the office where interruptions are prevalent). In their analytical discussion of productivity, they claim that rail is the most productive travel context (travel by sea or by air is not included in this discussion).
Lyons et al. (2007) have taken this perspective one step further in a study of the use of travel time by rail. One of their findings was that only 18 % of participants agreed with the statement: “My time spent on this train today is wasted time” (op. cit., p. 113), which is a good indication that the majority of train passengers perceive travel time as useful in some way or other.
There are several reasons for why the train is becoming a place for productive activity. Many things can be done relatively independently of both time and place, especially with some planning in advance. Mobile ICT has been an important facilitator in this development. A range of available technologies offers new opportunities for how people on the move may use their time, allowing for activities previously restricted to a fixed place, such as the workplace or the home. The activity space has been expanded. Mobile computing and communication technologies, e.g. the new functionalities of the mobile telephone, laptop computers, netbooks, and net tablets and wider wireless connectivity are all part of this development.
Empirical research about what kind of activities people engage in while travelling by train are limited (Lyons et al. 2007; Ohmori and Harata 2008; van der Waerden et al. 2009). The aim of this paper is to get a better understanding of how the travel time is used, especially for those who commute or are on business trips. We are also interested in the role of the use of different kinds of ICTs for how travel time is used. The empirical data are based on a survey carried out on trains in Norway during summer 2008.
Since several of the questions are approximately the same as used in the British survey undertaken by Lyons and his colleagues, we will compare the results to examine both the development in use of travel time from 2004 to 2008 and national differences. The limitations of this comparison due to differences in data collection methods are commented in the section on methods and data.
How many people use their travel time on the train to work productively? Who are they and what are their work tasks?
How important is ICT in this work, and what ICT devices are used?
How do they evaluate their productivity and the use of travel time? What are the conditions that make the travel time useful?
Towards a more comprehensive conceptual framework
How can we assess the impact of ICT and the virtual activity space this offers on the use of travel time? One way of framing it is by the concept of fragmentation, as coined by Helen Couclelis. By fragmentation she refers to “activities that used to be associated with a single location (e.g. my workplace) now increasingly scattered among geographically distant locations (e.g. my office, home, associate’s home, hotel room, café, car, train, or plane).” Couclelis (2000) discusses further the extent to which ICT tends to loosen the ties, both temporally and spatially, between place and activity in a way which is instructive for use of travel time. The concept has received considerable attention lately, and several authors have tried to operationalise and measure activity fragmentation (e.g. Lenz and Nobis 2007; Hubers et al. 2008; Alexander et al. 2010).
Mobile work, also known as nomadic work, is a key concept (Axtell et al. 2008; Sørensen 2002). Sørensen (2002) has explored the development within mobile computing and the opportunities for communication on the move that these technologies provide. His main claim is that new ICTs and communication networks prepare us for a “nomadic” way of moving and working. Julsrud et al. (2002) investigate the concept of nomadic work by examining the changing practices of occupational groups whose work activities, traditionally, have been mostly at fixed locations. These groups largely consist of white-collar workers who, owing to innovations in ICT, organization and design of their workplace, have been ‘released’ from their desks. Nomadic work and the fragmentation of work activities suits the ‘new’ working life characterized by individual rather than collective agreements/contracts, performance rather than 9–5 presence and a transfer from “life-long” work relations to short engagements and loose contracts (Sennett 1998). Individual solutions, work organized as projects, task-oriented engagements and displacement of the limits between private and working life are emphasized by several researchers (Hochschild 1997; Colbjørnsen 2001). Work while on the move should be seen within this new framework of flexible organization, individualization and externalization of work. Despite the technology and change in the content and organization of work, the stationary or conventional workplace still has advantages that the work situation or context on the train lack.
Axtell et al. (2008) refer to the local context as the physical and social space that a mobile worker on the train inhabits. The physical space includes the layout, noise and other disturbance, while the social space refers to the norms of conduct in that space (op. cit., p. 903). These include other extraneous contexts which may influence mobile worker activity, e.g. expectations of accessibility even when travelling. The physical space might be a problem on the train, especially when it is crowded and passengers engage in noisy conversation. If not in a special carriage (silent or in other ways conducive to work) the norms of conduct on the train are different from the office, and do not rule out forms of behaviour that may disturb work. Compared with the office, easy access to different resources is not available and interaction with colleagues face to face restricted. The question is how these different constraints (and possibilities) in the local context on the train influence productivity on the train.
Although there has been discussion about alternative ways of conceptualizing travel time and the use of it, the number of empirical studies addressing this thematic is limited (most are mentioned earlier in this introduction). The purpose of our article is therefore to report and discuss results from our Norwegian study on the use of travel time on the train for productive purposes that will highlight some of the aspects of working while travelling, and through this contribute to the development of an improved conceptual framework for understanding how travel time is used.
Before giving the results, the methods and data are presented. The section of the results is divided into the following subsections: activities while travelling, use of ICT for work purposes, and evaluation of the work situation on board the train. In the final section discussion of the findings is presented and some questions for further research are suggested.
Methods and data
The data analysed in this study were collected from a self-completion questionnaire handed out and collected from passengers during train journeys in Norway in June and August 2008, before and after the school summer holidays (from the end of June to the middle of August). The questionnaire comprised questions on six main topics: information about the actual journey (from/to, time length, type of compartment, etc.), use of time during the trip, use of electronic devices, the amenities on the train, specifics about commuting and information about the respondent (for details see Hjorthol and Gripsrud 2008). The survey covered weekdays only. Some of the questions were comparable to those in the British study carried out in 2004 (Lyons et al. 2007).1 The British study was carried out as a mail-back questionnaire survey of 26,221 rail passengers in autumn 2004. Compared to the Norwegian survey the British sample consists of passengers travelling to more local destinations in addition to the differences in sample size and data collection methods, so the comparisons have to be made with care.
The Norwegian passengers were asked to fill out the forms near their end station and these were collected by personnel hired for this job on board the train. The distances covered were predominantly trains with regional traffic around Oslo and Trondheim (the third biggest city in Norway) and long-distance traffic between these cities, although the numbers of respondents to and from Trondheim were fewer than desired due to cancelled trains and also a very limited number of passengers on some departures.
Hamar–Oslo (June 2008)—regional and long-distance traffic. Questionnaire handed out on seven departures during the period 12–18 June 2008 (maximum travel length 500 km).
Sande–Oslo (June 2008)—regional traffic. Questionnaire handed out on six departures during the time period (maximum travel length 330 km).
Fredrikstad–Oslo (June 2008)—regional traffic. Questionnaire handed out on six departures during the time period (maximum travel length 95 km).
Støren–Trondheim—long-distance and regional traffic (maximum travel length 500 km).
In 2008 these trains had no WiFi equipment.
The survey covers the central eastern part and the middle part of the country. The western and northern part were not included in this survey. A diagram of the train lines of Norway is available on-line http://www.jernbaneverket.no/no/Jernbanen/Jernbanekart/.
The response rate was very high, ranging on average from 90 to 95 %, not counting (1) people sleeping, (2) passengers younger than 10 years, and (3) people unable to read Norwegian (in effect thereby including only Norwegians, with the exception of a few Scandinavians, but including basically everyone else). The youngest respondents were 10 years old and the oldest 88 years. There was a fairly close gender balance, i.e. 49 % men and 51 % women. Some interviewers reported that elderly passengers were a little more reluctant to fill out the forms than other age groups.
Factors contributing to the exceptionally high response rate were: (1) close cooperation with the on-board personnel of Norwegian State Railways (NSB), including in many cases announcement of the survey over the intercom system on the train, and (2) the personnel handing out the forms also collected them. These personnel were recruited by the authors.
Background demographics of the 2008 train survey and the Norwegian National Travel survey 2005 (%)
Travel time survey on train 2008
National travel survey 2005 (trips by train 100 km or longer)
University/college < 4 years
University/college > 4 years
The data analysis was done using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS). Bivariate analysis and binary logistic regression were employed.
Table 1 shows that there was a more even distribution between men and women in 2008 than in 2005, which might be connected to the fact that more of the sample in 2008 came from urban areas and would then include more work-related trips than in the nationwide sample. There were also some minor, but not significant, differences related to age and education.
Activities while travelling
What do people do during their time on the train? One important characteristic, compared with other modes of transport, is that the train allows for relatively uninterrupted time-use; you are free to undertake many activities and have generous freedom of movement on board. The journey may last longer by rail, but it is more uninterrupted compared with other modes of transport, which enables more efficient use of time on board. A typical posture of a train passenger sitting on a train might be described as a ‘lean backward posture’, i.e. a relaxed position conducive to both introvert and reflective, but also social, activities, in addition to work activities, also with the assistance of ICT. The latter has opened up new ways of spending time on board. In general, the possibilities and preferences for how time is used on board will depend on conditions such as the length of the trip and the local context, i.e. different services, the environment, other travellers and equipment.
Activities during travelling by train by purpose
Thinking about/planning personal matters
Sent SMS/called by mobile telephone, work purposes
Use mobile telephone in other ways, work purposes
Talked with other passengers***
Took care of the children
“Private” single activities
Sent SMS/called by mobile telephone, private purposes*
Use mobile telephone in other ways, private purposes*
Reading for leisure*
Listening to music/radio***
Playing games (electronic)
As Table 2 shows, both commuters and people on other work-related journeys carry out activities in all four of these categories, but there are differences between them. While people on business travel socialize more than commuters, commuters have more private (single) activities, which indicates that businessmen and women have company on business journeys more often than commuters; the actual figures are 35 % for business travellers and 19 % for commuters. Compared to the study of Lyons and colleagues, these percentages are higher.
An interesting aspect of working while travelling is the degree to which travel time is approved of as working hours by the employer. For commuters, 27 % get this approval, while 53 % of those on a business journey say that the travel time is approved of as working hours. When looking more closely at these groups, it can be seen that nearly 60 % of the commuters whose travel time is approved as working time say that work is the most frequent activity during the travel, versus 26 % of the other commuters. About 60 % of the commuters had planned how to use their travel time in advance, while nearly half of those on business journeys did so. The planning of activities indicates that the train is perceived as a suitable place for work and that people have positive expectations of this.
The probability of work as the most frequent activity during the journey for commuters and business travellers (binary logistic regression)
Travel time in min/h
Planned in advance
Elementary + high school
University < 4 years
N = 177
−2log likelihood 184.494
Travel time in min/h
Planned in advance
Elementary + high school
University < 4 years
N = 190
−2log likelihood 199.141
The planning of activities is also to some extent synonymous with the planning of bringing items on board. In line with this, there is a link between one’s enjoyment of the time on board and the degree of preparedness, as measured by the kind of items the passengers bring with them, as we will see in the next section.
Use of ICT for work purposes
Gasparini (1995) notes the important distinction between the status of “equipped” and “unequipped waiting”: an equipped passenger will be a person/item ensemble that allows for a richer and more varied use of the time on board. A defining characteristic of the train is that it allows for a particularly wide range of different person/item ensembles compared to most other modes of transport, as shown in this survey by the many activities on board, some of which require items such as a mobile phone, PC, books, newspapers, food, etc. The mobile phone and the laptop can provide the traveller with a ‘mobile office’ given network connection and a suitable ‘local context’ for work (Axtell et al. 2008). Increasingly, this combination is also complemented by the proliferation of smart phones of different capabilities.
Devices taken on board and used by travel purpose (%)
Devices taken on board
About 40 % of commuters and business travellers take a laptop on board the train, and, in total, 25 % use it, Table 4. In the British study 20 % of the business travellers brought a laptop computer, and only 7 % used it (Lyons et al. 2007). Lyons also refers to previous studies that indicate a low level of use of ICT while working on the move. In addition to the differences in the sample of rail travellers in the two surveys, the interval of 4 years (2004–2008) can also be of importance. The penetration and use of this type of electronic devices increases very fast. Data from Eurostat (2011) show that regular use of Internet in UK has increased from 56 % in 2004 to 71 % in 2008. The corresponding figures for Norway were 60 % (2004) and 84 % (2008). Nearly 40 % of commuters also bring an MP3-player, iPod and/or a radio, and many use them. Business travellers use these devices to a much lesser degree than commuters. The business travellers are older, which is the primary explanation for this difference. As in Britain, very few bring a PDA or a device for playing electronic games.
Use of electronic devices by travel purpose
Writing notes, working, planning calendar, etc.
Watching video, film etc.***
If travel time is accepted as working hours, 50 % of commuters and 46 % of business travellers tend to write notes, plan their calendar, etc. compared with 24 and 33 %, respectively, of those who do not have acceptance of travel time. For commuters, the figures for checking e-mail are 31 % for those who have their travel time accepted as working hours and 11 % for those who do not. For business travellers the corresponding figures were 26 and 10 %, which gives an indication of how important these devices are for work done on the train.
The time ICT devices are used during the journey by travel purpose (%)a
Nearly the entire journey
About half the journey
Less than half of the journey
Only a short time
More than half of all commuters and 41 % of business travellers state that use of an electronic device during the journey makes the trip more worthwhile than it would otherwise be. These figures are higher for those whose travel time is accepted as working hours (65 and 47 %).
Nearly half of the commuters and a little more than one-third of business travellers say that having access to the Internet on board is important. Our data indicate that for commuters and people on business trips information and communication technology are considered important equipment for work while they are travelling, more important than in the British study 4 years earlier showed (Lyons et al. 2007). The majority of the British rail passengers who were equipped with a laptop and a mobile phone did not use these devices.
The mobile phone in this survey is used to keep in contact with colleagues, partners or customers. The laptop is used for various types of work like writing, checking e-mail, etc. The results also show that there is a diffuse transition between the use of these devices for work-related and more leisure-like activities, mirroring the fluid boundaries between working time and leisure time that many experience.
Evaluation of the work situation on board the train
Obstacles for using the travel time as wanted by travel purpose (%)a
Type of obstacle
Lacking network, insufficient technical facilities for use of ICT
Too much vibration and rolling
Noise and interruptions
Bad indoor climate
Evaluation of travel time by travel purpose (%)a
Quality of time use on board
I made good use of my time on board today
I made some use of my time on board today
My time on board today was a waste
The probability of having a positive evaluation of the use of travel time (“I made good use of my time on board today”) for commuters and business travellers (binary logistic regression)
Travel time in min/hours
Planned in advance
Elementary + high school
University < 4 years
N = 182
−2log likelihood 198.693
Travel time in min/hours
Planned in advance
Elementary + high school
University < 4 years
N = 199
−2log likelihood 225.393
Discussion and conclusion
This study of the use of ICT while travelling by train clearly demonstrates and supports the general hypothesis of Lyons and Urry (2005): “The boundaries between travel time and activity time are increasingly blurred. Specifically, many people are using travel time itself to undertake activities” (2005: 263). An important vehicle of this change is mobile ICT, as reflected in this survey by the extensive use of laptop computers and mobile telephones on board trains. The respondents themselves considered this positive, the majority stating that the use of ICT while travelling by rail made the time pass more quickly, and about one third of the commuters and business travellers are claiming that they made good use of the time on board. ICT can also be seen as a travel-related adaptation strategy interacting positively with a person’s attitude to travel (Mokhtarian and Cao 2005).
Comparing the results with the British survey 4 years earlier indicates an increase in the use of ICT during travelling (Lyons et al. 2007), probably as a result of the proliferation of this type of technology. The Norwegian respondents are also more positive in the evaluation of the use of travel time, which might be connected to a more “productive use” among the Norwegian travellers due to the technology, but also some differences in the two samples, with more short trips in the British than in the Norwegian study. The Norwegian results indicate that the access to “silent” compartments is important for people who want to work while travelling (commuters), and planning what to do in advance makes it more likely that the activity will be done and increases the satisfaction with the use of travel time for both commuters and business travellers.
Access to ICT while travelling by rail has clear implications for a broadening of the range of activities that can be carried out. 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.
On a more general basis, the prevalence of work on board trains can be explained by Couclelis’ hypothesis of the increasing fragmentation of activities among geographically distant locations. The train has become one arena where the manifestations of fragmentation can be found in very interesting forms. Seen in a work context, the proliferation of work on board is also related to the generally more flexible working arrangements in society at large, where the locus of work is no longer exclusively the office (Mokhtarian and Bagley 2000).
The characteristics of working while travelling on trains compared to working at the office have been explored in detail by Axtell et al. (2008), both in terms of task and technology adaptation. From the passenger’s point of view, being able to undertake nomadic or mobile work requires choosing forms of work suitable for mobile situations, which to some degree involves planning for such kinds of work activity. The distinction between the “equipped” and the “unequipped” passenger, as interpreted from Gasparini’s concept (1995), is important regarding this. The train has probably always been an arena for work-related activities, but the expansion of mobile ICT and “informatisation” of work is facilitating a range of activities on board that were hitherto unknown during travel. For these reasons, it is unclear why the same set of activities carried out on board a train should have less intrinsic “value” than when carried out at the office, at home or in any other place for that matter (this way of thinking can also be generalized to any ‘non-productive’ activities carried out on board). Empirical investigations of time-use while travelling by rail leads to a far more positive appraisal of time spent on board.
In light of a presumption that travel time is dead time, this is hard to explain. How can passengers’ time a priori be assumed to be wasted (i.e. non-productive) when this assumption is not consistent with passengers’ own evaluation of their time on board. An even narrower interpretation—that time spent travelling could be spent more productively is hard to reconcile with the fact that in this survey a substantial proportion use their time on board for work-related activities (as Fig. 1 shows).
The parameters determining the degree of productivity while travelling are both individual and of a more objective nature; they are determined partly by the passenger’s own resources, adaptive strategies and motivation, more objectively by the characteristics of the mode of transport, but also by how these characteristics are shaped. This study shows that there is more work to do by rail companies that want to enable productive work for people travelling by rail. More than a third of the respondents in our study found the technical facilities for use of ICT on trains insufficient.
In this paper, we have discussed and demonstrated use of time while travelling by rail. However, can examples of work-related activities be found for other modes of transport? At the very least, productive and meaningful activities are by no means exclusive to train travel. One example is Laurier’s (2004) exploration of the manifold forms of work-related activities taking place in the car. To our knowledge, studies about time-use on other forms of transport, like bus or air are few and far between. It would be of interest to do such studies in different countries to see whether variations in work conditions and culture, standards for different forms of transport, and other factors impact on this phenomenon. This knowledge would be very valuable input to the discussion about the evaluation of travel time in cost–benefit analysis as basis for transport policy.
In an era when environmental and climate problems are high on the political agenda and discussions about measures and schemes designed to make transport more sustainable, the train enjoys a more positive image than the petrol-powered car. The high-speed train is a more effective mode of transport on longer distances than the car and in many situations competes with air travel, especially if the conditions for activities during the journey are good. Environmentally speaking, it is probably not wrong to say that the train has a better image than the car and the aeroplane, and this “green image” will become more and more important to both individuals and companies.
If the possibilities for making use of the travel time are improved, travellers might accept longer travel distances if they can use the travel time in a more productive and desirable way. The flexibility of working life imply fewer time–space restrictions on where and when to work. The possibility of ‘nomadic work’ and the fragmentation of activities due to the increased use of ICT favour transport modes that adjust for productive activities. Employers may also attract employees from a greater geographical area with a better transport infrastructure and flexible solutions. As this study has demonstrated, a considerable portion of people undertaking work-related travel get their travel time approved as working hours and thus turn their time on board from dead time to vital and productive time.
The development of internet access on trains and other transport means, and the distribution of Smartphones, net tablets and other ICT devices change and increase the ability to work and communicate while travelling. As this technological landscape changes so rapidly, it would be of great interest to follow up with further research into ICT-enabled mobile work at intervals of no longer than every two or 3 years.
This paper is one of the results from the Strategic Institute Program—the interplay between transport, mobility and ICT of the Institute of Transport Economics. The authors would like to thank the guest editors and the anonymous referees for very useful comments.