Travelers Using Technology Find That Trains Beat Planes

A few weeks ago I wrote about choosing to travel by train instead of plane for various reasons, one of them being that I could spread out and work uninterrupted for several hours as the landscape rolled by.

Turns out I'm not alone.

A recently released study concludes that travelers most often use technology on high-speed trains. That's followed by "curbside" buses (express services), Amtrak (normal-speed trains), Greyhound and, in last place, airplanes.

Planes have several drawbacks, said Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation professor and director of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, which conducted the study.

Among them are the hassle of getting through security, being required to power off at takeoff and landing, and lack of space.

"A lot of business travelers want business-class seats (on airplanes) not even for the luxury, but to get work done," Schwieterman said. "The coach cabin is seen as a wasteland for electronics."

During two years of gathering information, researchers never observed a flight with more than half of the cabin using electronics. On buses and trains, "it happens all the time," Schwieterm an said.

The project began as a study of how people use private technology on curbside buses traveling between cities. It soon expanded to other modes of transport.

Students, Schwieterman and Lauren Fischer, the Chaddick Institute research director, walked the aisles on 235 trips across the U.S. and in Western Europe to observe the technology people us ed.

Results were broken into "visual" (such as laptop computers) and "non-visual" (such as mp3 players). Rail was by far most popular for visual technology — the kind business travelers use. Why? Visual technology usually requires a tray table, elbow room and a power supply.

"Rail is the only one that gives you all three," Schwieterman said.

Some of the findings in the study aren't so surprising, like the fact that use of portable electronic devices rose significantly in 2010 from 2009 and that travelers "are rapidly shifting toward more sophisticated devices."

What was surprising — but made sense — was how unattractive airplanes are for interacting with technology.

The results make the case for greater federal investment in high-speed rail, which has been a priority of the Obama administration.



A study by DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development measured the percentage of passengers using portable devices on various types of transportation in the last quarters of 2009 and 2010. A few findings: High-speed trains: 42.2 percent in 2009, 46.8 percent in 2010 Conventional trains: 34.4 perfect in 2009, 35.7 percent in 2010 Airplanes: 17.6 percent in 2009, 23.2 percent in 2010