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On The Rails: How to work on a train


There's more to it than just rocking up with a laptop.

No normal person is going to emulate what I did last week for the On The Rails project and spend the entire week working on long-distance trains, running up 2,620km of travel in the process. But it's not unusual to find yourself on a train during working hours, especially if you're commuting into the CBD from the outer edges of a capital city. For some journeys (think Sydney-Canberra, for instance), it might actually be more productive to jump on a train than to fly.

On The Rails: The whole story

Based on my experience last week, here are the things to bear in mind if you want to work productively on a train in Australia. Most of these would also apply around the world, but we get a particularly raw deal when it comes to on-board power and Wi-Fi, which other countries might take for granted.

Splurge on a first-class seat

If you want to be productive, space counts. Every chance I could, I booked a first-class seat rather than a regular one. That meant more leg room, a quieter carriage and a better tray table for my laptop, and most of the time I didn't even end up with anyone sitting next to me. The cost difference really isn't enormous on Australian regional trains, so it's worth paying the difference. It's nowhere near as glamorous as first class on a plane, but still worth it.

Connected? Don't bet on it

Internet connectivity is a prerequisite for getting most work done these days, but you can't take it for granted on a train. For the most part, I was able to stay connected (I travelled with a hotspot, but tethering would also be an option). However, there were definitely moments when signal disappeared altogether.

Make sure you're prepared for this. If you're working in Google Docs, set up offline sync if you can. Have tasks to work through which don't rely on being connected. It also helps to plan when you'll do these. I knew the mobile network would be better closer to Melbourne, so I organised my days for offline tasks to be done further out on the line.

Bring plenty of backup batteries

One reason I chose to use a hotspot rather than tethering was that I didn't want my mobile phone running out of juice halfway through the day. But to make sure that didn't happen, I also had two USB battery backup packs, so I could recharge during the day. Remember to make sure that they're charged the night before!

Because I was working the entire day, I travelled with two laptops. If you're only doing a single journey up to about four hours, you won't need to be that paranoid. Probably.

The sun is not your friend

Even with full power, it's hard to get anything done if your screen is being bleached out by the sun. Last week's unseasonably warm April weather meant this happened to me quite a few times. Fortunately, V/Line trains have curtains. If I'd thought about this harder, I would have picked my seats to make sure they weren't in the direct path of the sun in our main direction of travel. That won't always work though: on my Friday trip, the sun spread across both sides of the train. Sometimes you just have to squint and get on with it.

My rail mania knows no bounds even after all those kilometres. Next up for me is the ongoing Trainfinder challenge, this time in Windy Wellington on Friday week. Will it be easier than Brisbane? I'll keep you posted!

Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears regularly on

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