Thursday, May 7, 2009

Learning to Live With a Train Commute

This week, I switched my normal driving commute to a train commute.

On paper, this makes absolutely no sense. I live in Delaware and work in a suburb of Philadelphia. When I drive to work, I bypass the city, and the total drive takes about 30 minutes. (If there's no traffic. More on that later.) When I take SEPTA (the Philadelphia-area public transit system), I have to commute through the city and take two trains, and the total commute time is about an hour and a half.

Here's the crazy thing: I don't mind it. Not one bit.

I did this commute for a few months last summer, back when gas was around four bucks a gallon. I hated it back then and spent most of my time cursing the economy for making it too expensive to drive to work. I switched back to driving in September.

But this spring I was faced with a choice. GrammarHubby nd I currently share a car, and that's been working out well for us. He started a new job at the beginning of the year at an office in downtown Wilmington. His shift starts two hours earlier in the morning than mine does. So for the past four months, I drove him into work every morning, went home, put in an hour of freelancing, and then drove myself to work. He took the bus home, and it was a pretty good arrangement. But at the beginning of May, his position moved to Newark. And suddenly our fantastic arrangement was impossible. My choices were: a) buy a second car; or b) start taking the train again.

I really didn’t want to buy another car. *grin*

The funny thing is, everyone else seems to think it’s this huge chore to do a long train commute. And honestly, before this week, I probably would have agreed. But I find it so much more relaxing than driving. When I drive, the morning commute is usually relatively painless, but the drive home is always congested with traffic. It’s not unusual to have my evening commute stretch to 45 minutes, an hour, or more. When you’ve just had a long day at work, the last thing you want to do is sit in traffic. Not to mention you can’t take a catnap on a stretch of highway when you’re driving.

So since this is how I’m going to get to and from work for the foreseeable future, here’s my Top 5 List of Things I Love About Train Commuting.

1. I now have three hours a day of uninterrupted time for writing. When I commuted on the train last year, I was just getting started in freelancing. I took a serious hit on my freelance work during the three months on the train, because I didn’t have a usable laptop and I didn’t have a lot of time in my evenings once I got home. Now I have a laptop to take with me, and WOW, what a difference it makes. SEPTA doesn’t offer Wi-Fi on their trains, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s unfortunate because it means I can’t do research for my articles and projects on the train. On the other hand, it takes away the constant online temptations of trolling Facebook, obsessively checking e-mail, and reading blogs. I’ve been doing research at night, copying and pasting my findings into a Word document. Then when I’m on the train, I simply bring up the Word document and begin writing using the research I found the night before. And it’s amazing how much work I can get done when the Internet isn’t just a click away.

2. I have time to read. Of course, I don’t spend all three hours of the commute working. Generally, an hour or so of solid writing is enough to keep me on track with my current projects, assuming I can put in an hour of online-based work once I get home. So the other two hours serve as glorious “me” time. The freelancing has been going extremely well lately, but combined with my regular job and housework and time with the husband, I haven’t had any time to do one of my favorite things: read. And I hate not having time to read. I always feel like my writerly polish goes down the drain if I’m not regularly reading other people’s work. So it’s nice to have the commute time set aside for that. Right now I’m reading Austin Grossman’s Soon I Will Be Invincible (on GrammarHubby's recommendation) and also working my way through Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Once I’m through with those, I’m planning to scrounge up my old library card, pay off the very very past-due late fees on it, and get a slew of books from the library. Anyone have suggestions for anything I must read? I’m not partial to any specific genre; I just like a good story.

3. Is it naptime yet? It’s amazing how getting up at 6:30 am seems more possible when I’m able to tell myself that I can catnap on the train. And if I’m feeling particularly crappy at work, it’s nice to know that I won’t have to force myself to stay awake for a long drive home.

4. The quiet car is my best friend. Earlier this year, SEPTA introduced a Quiet Ride program, which they’ve now rolled out to all their peak-hour trains. It is amazing. I don’t take it all the time---as a writer, almost nothing is more valuable than an overheard snippet of interesting conversation---but it’s a lifesaver on the last leg of my trip in the evening. At that point, I’m pretty much spent. All I want to do is stare out the window or nap on the 45-minute ride from Center City to Delaware. The Quiet Ride system lets me do that without being bothered by loud conversations, music, or cell phones. All I have to do is snag a seat in the first car on the train and I’m guaranteed a peaceful ride home.

5. People watching. When I’m not looking for a quiet car, taking the train offers some of the best people-watching you can get in normal everyday life. I have about 20 minutes in Center City between my two trains in the evening, and I usually take that time to stroll around the station (or even go outside) and just observe. We spend so much time rushing from place to place, looking without seeing, that it’s incredibly valuable to be able to take a few minutes to study what’s around you. Even if all that’s around you is a train station, it’s a wonderful opportunity to surreptitiously watch people as they go about their lives.

And of course, there’s the obvious savings. My monthly train pass saves me untold dollars on gas and wear and tear on the car. I don’t take advantage of the tax savings at work (did that last time and it was way too much of a headache), but even without that, the savings are pretty substantial. And it’s nice to not have to watch the mileage on the car rocket up over the course of a month.

Any other train commuters out there? Do you love it or hate it?


Dottie said...

This was fascinating to read. Sounds like a great set up, once you figured out how to take advantage of the situation. Are you still commuting by train?

If I don't bike commute, I take the train, but it's the L train in Chicago - like an above-ground subway. Still better than driving, but not possible to work or nap while standing up. I love riding "real" trains, the Metra commuter train out to the suburbs and the Amtrak up to Wisconsin, for all the reasons you mentioned.

Angela said...

Hi Dottie! Yes, I still take the train, and although I do have days when I wish I could get home more quickly, I still love being able to relax and not sit in traffic. I love reading about your commutes and wish I lived close enough to my office to commute on my bike!