Ten things every train commuter needs to know

A couple of years ago, a black and white photo of a crowded 1950s commuter train was making the rounds of social media. Not only did many of the gents in the image wear hats, but everyone in shot was reading a newspaper.

We don't live in such a different world now - those hectares of newsprint have now been replaced by smartphones in every hand. However, is there a better way to use your commute than playing Stack, or bantering with Facebook friends?

As commuter trains in our biggest cities have filled up in recent years, even those services bringing in "tree changers" from rural areas, it's become more of a challenge to use that time effectively. Here are some ideas for getting the most out of it.

1. Be seated

Let's start with logistics. You'll get more work done if you can sit for your commute, and even more if there's a tray table on which to place a laptop.

If you have the option of travelling first class, it might be worth the extra outlay in order to secure more space for productivity. If you drive to the nearest train station in the morning, consider driving to an earlier station on that line to increase your chances of gaining a seat.

If you are able to work flexible hours, you could arrange your travel times to maximise the chance of a seat (and an off-peak fare, where applicable).

At the very least, observe which part of the train is usually least full, and stand at that point on the platform each day to board.

2. Save time

It's not worth the risk of missing your train because you have to queue up at a ticket machine. Save time and simplify fare payment, by setting up auto-pay on your public transport smartcard.

3. Stay silent

Both NSW TrainLink and V/Line trains have designated quiet carriages on most of their commuter services. If you choose a seat in one of these, you'll maximise your chance of concentrating while tackling some work en route.

4. Stay connected

Though there's been talk about outfitting commuter trains with free Wi-Fi in the near future, it remains in the "maybe" pile for most travellers. There's no reason you can't work on a laptop on a train, however.

Most smartphones can act as a Wi-Fi hotspot for your laptop, or alternatively connect via Bluetooth. You'll be using up your monthly 4G allowance, of course, so temporarily turn off any data-heavy processes (eg automated backup or updates) while tethered.

5. Work offline

If you don't have the data allowance to spare, or regularly pass through mobile network blackspots, there are apps which can help you work offline on a mobile device.

"Documents to Go", for example, can sync MS Office documents from your regular computer, allowing them to be amended offline. When back online on the same Wi-Fi connection, the changed files are updated on the original computer.

6. Add a keyboard

You may not have enough space for a laptop on your crowded train, but there might be enough room to pair a Bluetooth keyboard with a tablet or large-screen phone. It's a good way to knock off a bunch of emails or write a document, with more speed and accuracy than using your fingers to tap virtual keys.

7. Brainstorm by phone

For jotting down ideas for future projects, the Evernote app is ideal. It allows you to create a note, then attach photos or audio recordings to it. There's even a tool that allows lines to be drawn by a fingertip or stylus. Having synced, these multimedia notes can be accessed via Evernote's desktop software.

8. Use the cloud

Embracing cloud computing is a great way of extending your useful work time. In addition to the Evernote app, there are plenty of other apps which work seamlessly between devices.

One of the most popular is Dropbox; keep your most needed files in one of its folders, and they're accessible from any device. Microsoft Office is available for both Apple and Android mobile devices, and the Google Docs app also allows for Word doc creation and editing.

9. Save power

If you're using your phone for reading and don't need to be online during your commute, you can conserve your device's charge by switching it to flight mode. This is particularly helpful if there are mobile connectivity blackspots along the way, as the phone will churn through power looking for a signal.

10. Chill out

It's great to be able to work during your commute, but no-one will benefit from you being burnt out by excess email obsession.

There's a great psychological benefit to allowing a busy mind to move off work matters for a while, and fiction is a great means of achieving this. Read a novel, indulge in some escapism, and your subconscious will thank you for the break.

Tim Richards is a freelance journalist who has tackled email and Word docs on trains across four continents. His train-heavy novel Mind the Gap is available as an ebook.