Working on the Train: My Experiences and Tips

Just about everyone I know who works from home has a go-to public space when they need a change of scenery. For some of my friends, it’s a coffee shop, for others, it’s the library. Today, I’d like to share my favorite workspace outside my home or office at the Barry Art Museum: the train.

The view from my latest train-riding venture in February, when I took the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago. Image: a wintry landscape at sunset with mountains, lake, and trees, as seen from a train window.

Why I Like Working on Trains

I like working on trains for several reasons, not least because I enjoy riding on them. As someone who hates driving, I appreciate any opportunity to hand over the keys and take public transit. I prefer trains to flying because I like watching the landscape change more gradually. Compared to the sardine cans that airplanes have increasingly come to resemble, moreover, trains allow for considerable movement.

Trains also offer me that perfect balance of quiet focus and external stimulation to bring my productivity to its maximum. Whereas coffee shops have too much activity going on for me to focus, trains, particularly early in the morning, are relatively quiet. They’re even more silent if you get a seat in the quiet car. They feel less confining than airplanes, allowing you to get up and stretch when needed. The train’s physical movement, and the changing views from the window, provide a sense of novelty and stimulation.

Arguably the best reason I focus though, is the inconsistent Internet connection. Some might find this a liability, and that’s fair. If you need to minimize distractions though, having no Internet is a great way to do that. Combined, all these factors make an ideal working environment for me. When I get on a train and activate my noise-cancelling headphones (a must for a misophone like me), I become a goddamn machine.

When I’ve Worked on Trains

Since coming to William & Mary, I’ve done a working stint on the train every year since 2021. Each time I’ve gone to New York, whether for research or conferences, I’ve taken the train. For my birthday last year, Brandon bought me a round-trip ticket to Washington DC so I could focus on dissertation work. When I went to Chicago for CAA, I took the overnight train so I could work.

For each of these trips, I’ve done some kind of dissertation work. Whether it was reading articles, perusing archival documents, or revising chapters, I’ve been able to do a lot of that work on trains. I’ve particularly liked the Williamsburg/New York circuit. Departing Williamsburg at 6 am, the ride lasts for 7 hours. By the time I get to NYC at 1 pm, I’ve completed a day’s worth of work. That leaves the afternoon free to enjoy the city.

I plan to continue working on trains. Whether I’m working on an article, a catalog, or an exhibition, I’ll always have something to do. I’ve even considered taking a longer, multi-day trip as a personal writing retreat.

Tips for Working on Trains I: Timing and Supplies

Having worked on the train multiple times now, I have some suggestions to make your trip productive and enjoyable.

  1. If you’re traveling for a specific event, schedule extra time: Amtrak is notorious for its lateness, a consequence of American railroad infrastructure. Amtrak trains frequently have to stop to let freighters pass, and they can get canceled if there’s something more serious like a freight derailment. If you need to get somewhere by a certain date or time then, calculate extra time into your booking.
  2. Bring proper supplies: Trains may allow more freedom of movement than planes or buses, but they’re still public transit. Make sure you have water, snacks, electric cords, and whatever else you need to ensure your physical comfort. If you’re riding the upper level in an overnight train like the Capitol Limited, bring Dramamine if you’re vulnerable to motion sickness. I also recommend bringing a set of noise-cancelling headphones. Trains may not be as loud as coffee shops, but there will be at least one loud eater or talker.

Tips for Working on Trains II: What to Book

  1. Business Class vs. Coach: business class offers more legroom, but your seat is preassigned. When I ride with Brandon, we take business class because he benefits from the extra room and I know I’ll be sitting next to him. When I ride alone, I take coach so I can pick my seat. This is mainly because I hate imposing on other people by reaching over them to recharge my computer or phone. Ultimately, it’s up to you.
  2. Know your train: different trains have different rules, so knowing their policies can help you decide what kind of seat is best for you. If you book a coach seat on the Northeast Regional, you have free reign of the train once you’re aboard outside of business class. With an overnight train like the Lake Shore Limited or the Capitol Limited, you’re usually confined to one car based on destination. And in the case of the Capitol Limited, conductors assign coach seats as you board.

Tips for Working on Trains III: The Overnight Question

My biggest regret with my train trip to Chicago was that I did not book a private sleeper car. When I was in my early 20s, spending the night in coach felt a bit like an adventure. In my late 30s, not so much. I spent most of the night unable to sleep, and when I did, everything ached when I shifted positions.

If you’re taking an overnight train and you can afford it then, book the roommette. Yes, it’s more expensive, but your body will thank you later. And I imagine the privacy will make falling asleep that much easier.

Final Thoughts

I love riding on trains, and I especially love working on them. If anything, I wish there were more trains and they were more affordable, so that everyone could experience their benefits. The next time you need a change of scenery from your home office, consider taking a train. You might be surprised at what you can accomplish.

Categorized as Misc.

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