Working on Trains

Working on Trains

Last week I rambled about workplaces beyond rules. But when it came to naming my favorite workplace of all, I noticed how dependent it is on the work I want to do or the mood I’m in. But, as I said, if I’d have to choose one single place, it would probably be on board of a train somewhere in Germany.

The Marvels of Working on Trains

Why a train, of all things? As with the other places, vibe is a major factor. The atmosphere on a train is leisurely yet overall somehow concentrated: People are reading, watching a movie on their laptops or engaged in a relaxed conversation. Depending on the train, they might be talking some pretty weird (and often inspiring!) stuff – but if it gets too much, I simply put up some music and gone they are. (Ear plugs might work if you need silence to focus.)

There’s no dreadful radio music (as in many coffeeshops!) and, most of all, no wi-fi! I know that many people hate that and prefer taking one of the newer trains or routes that provide internet access for their passengers, but I personally hope that most trains continue to be offline territory. It’s precisely what seems to help to create the atmosphere that I enjoy so much.

On trains, dead time can easily be transformed into creative time. Watching out of the window and seeing the landscape pass by helps me more than anything to find the right words when crafting a new article or book chapter. You can get a coffee or some simple food in the dining car, but apart from that, distractions are low. You can walk around a bit whenever you feel like it, but it isn’t really incentivized. Preferably, you just remain seated and do some work. (And keep watching the landscape, of course!)

Talking of seats: Even the second class in the German train system is nowhere near as cramped as economy class on airplanes. Seats are bigger, there is sufficient space to use a laptop, and more often than not you’ll be lucky to have another free seat right next to you, allowing you to use two tables to have more space for your documents and paperwork.

Best of all, working time on a train comes with a hard deadline. As a regular reader, you might know already how important I deem these to be for higher productivity. A train ride might last 30 minutes, four hours, or maybe even a whole day. But when embarking, you know already that by 8.26pm you will reach your destination. That’s the time you’ve got, so there is no excuse not to use it.

The Cons

How about the downsides? Screaming children account for some of the negative experiences I have had. They simply aren’t helpful if you want to focus on your work. Overcrowded cars are worse. (Expect them during rushhour on commuter trains and before important holidays, like Christmas.) Overcrowded cars with lots of crying children… well, you get the idea!

The worst thing to encounter on a train, to be honest? Drunken football fans (that’s soccer in the US). They mostly ride regional trains (because they are incredibly cheap, especially for larger groups) and if they are in a bad mood, they will not only make work impossible, but life on trains in general. Fortunately, these guys are easy to avoid by simply not traveling during their peak hours. (Saturday afternoons, mostly. Sundays aren’t that bad, probably because most of them have to work the next day or face their spouses at night.)

One other major downside of working on trains might be the price! While competetive in comparison with airline prices, travel on German trains isn’t cheap – especially if you are a spontaneous traveler that doesn’t book his trips weeks ahead. A regular ticket from Hamburg to Munich, for example, will set you back 135 euros.

There are several discount cards available, though, that normally pay off over the year: Buy them once and get 25 to 50% discount on any ticket you buy later. The biggest temptation for me is the “BahnCard 100”: For about 4000 euros ($5200 USD, give or take) you get to travel as much as you want during a whole year. Just think of the possibilities!

Given my addiction to working on trains, I’m pretty sure that if I ever have that much spare, I might as well just get one of those cards and become a full-time train writer exploring every single city in the country. Until then, I’ll probably continue to work on the cheap regional trains, as long as there aren’t any football fans around!


On December 25th, I embarked on an 8-hour train trip to Cologne, in order to join a big Christmas dinner on December 26th. That train trip wasn’t work-related, to be sure: One of my best friends and a good bottle of red wine accompanied me on that unconventional Holiday celebration on the road, and made 8 hours seem like 20 minutes. Conclusion: As a nice office, trains lend themselves for much more than just work!