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Train of thought

Commuter at station
Ticket? Check. Free paper? Check. Battery recharged? Check.

By Stephen Dowling
BBC News

A rush-hour train or bus is typically soundtracked by the rustle of newsprint, and the tinny beats leaking from headphones. What about those just sitting there doing nothing?

It used to be that the commuting classes occupied themselves with a neatly folded broadsheet newspaper or perhaps a book. Or even a cigarette.

Now, a commuter might read a free newspaper. Nod along to the private beat of their MP3. Text their mates. Play games or catch up on TV on a digital media player. Catch up on sleep. A very, very few take the time to look out of the window.

We lead increasingly crowded lives, often cajoled into listening to this album, reading that book, or following another TV show (and made to feel culturally bereft if we don't). Time without connecting into our dizzying global culture seems wasted time.

Commuter Ann Johnson on the train
I look at what's gone up since my last journey
Ann Johnson

On a Wednesday morning train service into London, the rush-hour peak has subsided but the carriages are still full of workers, students and shoppers. On one service through Clapham Junction, most read Metro or pick their way through paperbacks.

Every second person seems to wear headphones. Others are texting or making calls on their mobiles. As the train crosses the Thames, only a few glance up to gaze at the muddy river. Reports of the latest celebrity sightings are more compelling.

Ann Johnson, 63, is one of the few making the journey without distractions. She has a copy of the Daily Express at her side, but it's for her sister, who is in hospital.

"I don't normally have a paper. I don't have an iPod, I couldn't have that in my ears," she laughs. "I look at what's going on, what's gone up since my last journey."

Today, for instance, she's been thinking about her sister in hospital. If she's on a shopping trip she'll work out what she needs to buy.

What does she notice about her fellow travellers habits of shutting out the world around them?

"Just that they all tend to be on the phone. I can't help but listen to their conversations. I think people used to talk more. If you're on a long journey and someone's sitting opposite, you'd start a conversation."

Laura Jenner
I've been thinking of how I can get more people to sponsor my charity run
Laura Jenner

On the same service is Laura Jenner, 30, who works for Lewisham Council carers' support. She has her bike on the train, and her backpack on her knees.

"Normally, I've either got a book or I'm listening to an iPod," she says, but today she's tired from her bike ride and just wants to relax.

She's been thinking about a charity run she wants to take part in, in memory of her father who died from cancer two years ago.

"I've been thinking of how I can get more people to sponsor me, so I'm thinking of setting up a Facebook page. Nothing too deep and meaningful.

"I used to drive to work and this is much more relaxing. I would rather go on the overground now."

OK commuter

Student Steve Bamigboye, 34, from Mitcham, would normally be reading the paper but this late-morning trip from London Bridge to Earlsfield is his second journey of the day - he's already read his free newspaper. "I don't want to read it twice."

Steve Bamigboye
I don't want to read Metro twice
Steve Bamigboye

"I've been thinking about so many things," he says, but won't elaborate.

While he sometimes listen to music on his phone, he thinks it's a shame so many people shut out the outside world. "You can't talk to people when they are listening to music."

On the train to Epsom an hour later, Julia Malykh, a 24-year-old geologist originally from Russia, takes the trip in her stride.

Compared to the 18-hour train ride from Moscow when she visits her family back in Russia, the short journey to work hardly registers.

She spends the time looking out of the window, "thinking about my friends, the new friends I have made here in Britain.

"In Russia the trains are a lot busier and a lot more crowded. It's not really convenient to read a newspaper."

Julia Malykh
In Russia the trains are a lot busier - it's not really convenient to read a newspaper
Julia Malykh

But might we be better served if we just sat and watched the world go by more often?

Dr Angela Carter, an occupational psychologist at Sheffield University's Institute of Work Psychology, says there are several reasons why we feel the need to envelope ourselves in words, games or music.

One is to protect our time and personal space, using an activity to take ourselves away from the reality of a crowded carriage. This helps create the bubble needed to daydream, perhaps, about lying on a beach doing nothing.

"People tend to use their time very differently," says Dr Carter. "Some of them will use it to read a newspaper, some like to reflect, some have to have time to use their gadgets."

A commute for some people now might be anything up to three hours - and our modern human minds, it seems, just can't take that amount of time without stimulation.

"If you engross yourself in something, you can make the time pass quite quickly," Dr Carter says.

But you have to choose your distraction carefully. A laptop's no good if you can't get a seat.

"If you're jammed up against someone in a sweaty carriage, then music is a fantastic way to achieve that experience."

Me time

Sometimes, our ability to deal with this dead time is decided by our background.

Running from work, watching an action movie on a device and then running off somewhere else to me doesn't sound very relaxing
Dr Angela Carter

"If you're an only child, then you're used to being by yourself and you can manage that time quite well.

"You either like spending time by yourself, or you don't. Three hours on a train, for some people, is almost like a divorce."

But, Dr Carter says, it might help to occasionally turn the iPod off, put the book down, and allow our brains to recharge with some time off.

"It's just a personal viewpoint, but I think it's good to have some me time. Just to be more effective. We've got to give ourselves a rest.

"Running from work, watching an action movie on a device and then running off somewhere else to me doesn't sound very relaxing.

"We talk about taking mental holidays - train travel is a perfect time for that. Why wait for your two-week holiday when you can have some of it now?"


What do you do while commuting? Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I watch for the gradual change between urban and rural and then back to urban again. It gives me time to think and to block out other distractions. I've tried reading books and magazines but I find myself drawn back to looking out the window for deer, kestrels and other animals you just don't see in a city.
Ian Coady, Bournemouth

My day is ruined if I forget to charge my MP3 player. I've got some decent noise-cancelling headphones and love the sensation of walking through busy London terminals completely surrounded by crystal-clear music.
Al, London

I've started to complete customer train delay forms to claim compensation for my delayed or cancelled trains.
Mark, Kings Langley

When I had to commute to London once a week for six months, I used to doze off for the three-hour journey, until I realised my snoring annoyed the other passengers. Then I read or did sudoku, anything to keep me thinking about work. When I travel by train for non-work related things however, I love looking out the window and just watching the world go by, my mind emptying like a blank slate. Wonderful.
A Sinclair, Weston-Super-Mare

Practise yoga-breathing - very relaxing, good for stress.
M Wardle, Stevenage, UK

Knitting gloves is my current pass-time. Also enjoying the lovely view. Noting the passing of the farming year. Talking to other regular commuters. Knitting is good. Less fiddly than sewing when you go over speed bumps or round roundabouts.
Louise, Galashiels-Edinburgh

I'm finishing my degree part-time while I work full-time and the commute is an ideal time to catch up on the piles of reading.
Kit, Belfast

I invariably talk with the friends I have made on the commute by train - I don't always see everyone at once, as some have different start points/destinations. About half a dozen of us meet up for a meal and drinks every couple of months or so.
Gareth, Bexhill-on-Sea

I commute from Cardiff to Swindon every day, and have done for the last 10 years - that's one heck of a lot of thinking, looking out of the window, drinking cider, reading and chatting. And that's just on the way in. Recently, though, I have taken to watching Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Firefly, and at the moment 110 episodes of Babylon 5. Just hope I get my contract extended - there are 180 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation to get through.
Wilf Jones, Cardiff

I spend huge amounts of time working on my PC so when I travel by train, I relish the opportunity to read a proper newspaper (usually I read them online). I love looking out of the window and enjoying the views, whether urban or rural. I also strike up conversations with other passengers as I like to chatting to people - it can often turn out to be very interesting.
Louise B, Manchester

My commute is half an hour along a canal, either on foot or in a kayak, and I spend it looking out for herons, kingfishers and the like. I'm dreading the end of my contract and having to do a real commute again.
Ed, Runcorn

I sleep or do Sudoku but often my imagination drifts off to fantasy land and I imagine what ifs. What if I was a millionaire, or a famous writer, or a superhero. It's frivolous and geeky but it becomes like sensory deprivation. The world fades to a blurry muffled state. Which, let's face it, is what most distractions are supposed to be.
Luke, London

I find it relaxing to just sit on the bus in the morning, it helps me wake up before I go into lectures. Also there is so much going on outside the bus it seems a shame to miss it by distracting myself. I'm an only child and I've always enjoyed having me time. The bus journey gives me this without taking time out of my day.
Rachel Oxley, Manchester

Audiobooks are my distraction but every once in a while I will just stare out the window, particularly if it's a nice day or snowing.
Kyle Noad, Perth

I often travel abroad for meetings and always take work in the hope that I will get some of it done in my "free" travel time. However, rarely get much done because I like to look out the coach/train/plane window and get amazed at noticing so many things or patterns that I have not seen before.
Mahesh Anand, Milton Keynes, UK

I read the newspaper; check email; do the crossword or sudoku; think about solutions to problems; listen to music I enjoy; see the flood level on the rivers we go over; sleep. Anything but talk to anyone.
Andrew, Eastbourne, UK

I do my best introspection to a musical accompaniment - particularly against a backdrop of a grey sky and a few fields.
Kat Murphy, Coventry

I usually read a book, or talk to my fellow passengers; there are several regulars on the service I use. We all know each other by sight if not by name, so quite often we'll chat unless we end up dispersed throughout the the carriage, in which case the books come out.
Paul, Taunton

I used to cycle to uni which took only eight minutes but for the past two years I've taken to walking. The time I have gained to absorb myself in my own thoughts is very precious to me. And that's not to mention the obvious health benefits.
SL, Oxford, UK

I cycle to work so for me it's podcasts all the way. It's a good use of my time, I get a work out and get to listen to things I haven't had a chance to catch earlier.
Alex, Birmingham, UK

I commute an hour a day and I love to people watch. I love guessing where people are going or what job they may do. It helps to fill the time.
Mrs Gammon, Upminster

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