Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Gayle Letherby and Gillian Reynolds (2003) 'Making Connections: the Relationship between Train Travel and the Processes of Work and Leisure'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 3, <>

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Received: 14/5/2002      Accepted: 22/8/2003      Published: 31/08/2003


Many volumes have been written cataloguing and detailing the long-term or historical changes in the process of work. Similarly, much attention has been given to 'doing leisure'. What most, if not all of these works have in common is that both work and leisure are seen as taking place either 'in' or 'away from' the home. The space between home and the place of work or leisure is seen as a separate entity: the 'travel' for which one normally requires a means of transport. Transport then is theorised as simply a way of getting from A to B. Indeed, those who study and theorise about transport are more likely to be in the discipline of engineering than of sociology. In this article we challenge all of this through a consideration of the work and leisure that individuals undertake on the train. We draw on our own experience and on empirical data from a pilot study of train users and also outline our future research and writing plans in this area.

Leisure; Place; Space; Time; Tourist Gaze; Train Travel; Work

Choosing the Route and Buying the Tickets: Introduction

In this article we explore experiences of train travel with reference to the processes of 'doing' work and leisure, within the context of time, space and place. Our aim is to begin to make visible an area of everyday life previously largely ignored by sociologists. Although transport is an area that has been explored (e.g. de Boer 1986), this has more often been in the process of examining exclusion, poverty, inner city life or urban planning. As de Boer notes '(t)here is hardly a tradition of studying the social aspect of transport' (1986: 4). Those who study or theorise about transport as a separate entity are more likely to be in the disciplines of engineering, economics or history. A consequence of such emphasis is that transport is most often theorised as a way to move people or materials from A to B (e.g. Rallis 1977, Hamilton and Potter 1985, White 1995, Page 1999).

As with a great deal of sociological research and writing, the motivation for our work in this area is autobiographical (for further examples see Special Edition of Sociology 1993, Mykhalovskiy 1996, Ribbens and Edwards 1998, Journal of Auto/Biography 1993 ). We each travel on the train for both work and leisure i.e. we use the train to travel to and from work commitments and leisure activities. Also, we each engage in work and leisure activities on the train. Thus, for us the train is a both a space for, and a place of, work and leisure. Clearly, we are not alone in this and prior to the research we were aware of others who used trains similarly.

In this article we are concerned with our early work in relation to the social aspects of trains and train travel. In it we draw on a small pilot study undertaken in 2000 in which we were concerned to explore the relationship between work and leisure and the train. For the study we used convenience sampling and all respondents are known to us as family members, friends and/or work colleagues. We appreciate that our respondent group had particular and specific things to say. For example, as several of our respondents are academics, some of the work that they do can be undertaken on the train. This is not the case for all professions/occupations. Therefore, we do not claim that our work is representative of all individuals, but we would suggest that it does have value in explanatory terms and might be relevant to those who find themselves in similar situations (Clyde Mitchell 1983). Since conducting the research which we report on here our interest in this area has developed and in this article we also report on our continued and developing work in the area of trains and train travel.

The rest of the article is divided into three main sections. In 'Stoking the Engine' we begin with a brief consideration of the links between the concerns of our pilot study and other research and writing in the areas of work and leisure, space, place and time. In 'The Train Arriving at Platform One' we detail our method and draw on data from our pilot study to consider the practice and meanings of work and leisure activities on the train. Finally, in 'Reflecting on our 'Brief Encounters'', we continue those themes and issues that appear to raise pertinent questions for further exploration and outline the links between these and our future work in the area.

Stoking the Engine: Background issues


Countless sociological volumes have been written over the years, cataloguing the long-term or historical changes in the process of doing work (here, assumed to mean mostly paid employment, but fully recognising the fundamental problems of that assumption - Brown 1997). From embourgeoisement to proletarianisation; from professionalisation to de-skilling and dumbing down; from individual work to unionisation and closed shop and back again; from the work ethic to the leisured society to the achievement ethic; from the masculinisation of the factories to the feminisation of the workplace, sociologists have traced the subtle changes in work patterns and structures.

As previously noted, as a result of our convenience sampling method most of our adult respondents were academics. With specific reference to this profession there has been a considerable amount of recent work detailing the changing nature of life in Higher Education. The drive towards open access, increased student numbers, modularity and credit transfer are all part of the contemporary Higher Education experience (Trowler 1998). Further to this, it is clear that large numbers of students are intended to be processed through the system as cheaply as possible which fits with the broader 'New Right' marketisation of public services (Epstein 1995). Added to this the phrases 'quality audit and quality assessment' and 'publish or perish' are significant for all academics. Thus, management and market have become increasingly important to the changing culture of academia and have led not least to more students and fewer resources (see Letherby 2000 for further detail). Of course all of this has had an impact on careers and daily working experience of academics. In terms of career the historical (often male) linear model from undergraduate to smooth progression through the ranks is now outmoded. New systems have opened up new career opportunities, but alongside these positive changes has been an increase in insecure positions and a reduction in career satisfaction and progression (Weiner 1996). Furthermore, although we are not arguing that academic life has ever been a 'doddle', the current pressures in Higher Education (including increased numbers of students and measures of accountability) have dispelled forever the myth of 12 weeks holiday in the summer and very little to do most of the rest of the time.

Leisure and Tourism

Similarly, much has been written on the practices and process of 'doing' leisure, representing, as Rojek and Urry (1997: 1) point out, an 'expansion of social science interest in mobility, in the mobility of peoples, cultures and objects'. Analysis of this aspect of life has also been explored by historians, sport psychologists, and social geographers. More recently, as leisure and tourism have been increasingly packaged for a capitalistic global market, the academic discipline of leisure studies has emerged in its own right. This growth of leisure studies has led to the problematisation of the phenomenon known as 'tourism' (Rojek and Urry 1997). For some people (e.g. Hall and Page 1999, Page 1999) 'tourism' necessitates not only undertaking journeys but also staying away; for others, a question mark remains as to whether a definition that makes a distinction between 'tourist' and 'visitor' is actually possible (e.g. Masberg 1998). Williams (1998: 3) notes that the word 'tourism' has a number of meanings and interpretations:
...dictionaries commonly explain a 'tourist' as a person undertaking a tour or circular trip that is usually made for business, pleasure or education, at the end of which one returns to the starting point, normally the home. 'Tourism' is habitually viewed as a composite concept involving not just the temporary movement of people to destinations that are removed from their normal place of residence but, in addition, the organisation and conduct of their activities and of the facilities and services that are necessary for meeting their needs.

Whatever definition of a tourist or traveller is used, transport is clearly a vital element in any discussion of tourism:
Transport provides the essential link between tourism origin and destination areas and facilitates the movement of holidaymakers, business travellers, people visiting friends and relatives and those undertaking educational and health tourism. Transport is also a key element of the 'tourist experience'...and some commentators view it as an integral part of the tourism industry (Page 1999: 1)

Links to the Study

Both Page's (1999) and Williams' (1998) definitions of tourists are relevant to our study because they enable us to further conceptualise ways in which travel is itself incorporated into the process of work and leisure. Specifically, then, we explore some of the evolving processes of work and leisure in the context of train travel and use. Such exploration, however, cannot be conceived, as it were, in a vacuum. Travel - and especially train travel, which is often for longer journeys than those incorporating cars or buses - takes place within the broader concepts of time, space and place. Unlike Hamilton and Potter (1985), we argue that in contemporary UK society 'the train' is not merely a series of boxes on wheels to move people from one place to another, but the journey itself is frequently a work-time or a leisure-time. Our aim, therefore, is to extend in an empirical way, the theoretical definition of a tourist by exploring these activities which, although not peculiar to being on a train, are emphasised by issues of both constructed time and constructed space (Adam 1990, Nowotny 1994, Thrift 1996).

Time, as Adam (1990: 1) points out, is a fact of life. But all too often, time is perceived as 'natural', 'fixed', and 'unproblematic'. In our research, time itself is constructed in a number of different ways:

As Nowotny (1994: 113-114) notes however:
Every treatment of the subject of time never deals with time alone. The conflicts over time which are coming to light are strategic battlefields, political arenas.... in which it is a question of better understanding what directions social processes are pursuing and what options are open. Shifts in the patterns of the allocation of time....produce highly meaningful chronograms of a society. So much time for ourselves: so much time for others; so much time for work (paid): so much time for work (unpaid); so much time for buying: so much time for making; so much time for fundamental needs: so much time for luxury; so much time for waiting: so much time for getting things done.... Every categorization says something about the content and its quality at the same time, since the assessment results from the relation with the remaining pattern of allocation.

With respect to trains and travel the issues of time and space are considered in detail by Schivelbusch (1986). In his book on the development of the railroad (particularly in Europe) he refers to the railroad as the 19th century symbol of modernity. He argues that the railroad was seen as a key agent in the annihilation of space and time in that it denaturalized transport by speeding it up and changed our perception of the landscape from detailed to panoramic:
Transport technology is the material base of potentiality, and equally the material base of the traveler's space-time perception . . . . If an essential element of the given socio-cultural space-time continuum undergoes changes, this will affect the entire structure; our perception of space-time will also lose its accustomed orientation. (Schivelbusch 1986: 36)

Further, for Schivelbusch with the development of the railroad the journey itself ceased to be an active part of the journey, with only departure and arrival as the real events. This of course does not acknowledge the train as a place in and of itself.

Rather like time, the concepts of space and place have been problematised as much by those from other disciplines - in this case, cultural theorists and social geographers - as by sociologists. A number of varying definitions of the concepts have emerged, sometimes in contradiction to each other (Massey 1993). In this article, the train as well as being a physical place is also a 'space' denoting 'a limited area: a site, zone or place characterized by specific social activities with a culturally given identity (name) and image' (Shields 1997: 188). Because such social activities routinely take place on a train, that train also constitutes a 'place' that 'only exist(s) within the minds of individuals and groups. Places are seen as 'centers of meaning constructed by experience' Tuan 1976:266)' (cited by Mowl and Towner 1995: 110).

The Train Arriving At Platform One: The pilot study


You must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine it and interpret it. In this sense craftsmanship (sic) in the centre of yourself and you are personally involved in every intellectual product upon which you work . (Mills, 1970: 216)

The data considered here were collected qualitatively through semi-structured interviews and interviewer-led focus group discussion with 12 respondents: 10 adults (age range 24 - 55) and two children (brothers aged six and nine) and an equal gender balance. All respondents are white and UK born. Extending the autobiographical, we are ourselves included in the respondent group, explicitly making use of the fact that all research is in some ways auto/biographical (e.g. see Stanley 1993, Mykhalovskiy 1996). We have attempted a grounded analysis which of course is influenced by our own experiences and views both as respondents and researchers. As such we acknowledge the intellectual and personal presence of the researcher at all stages of the research process (Stanley and Wise 1990, Cotterill and Letherby 1993). All respondents, including ourselves, have been given pseudonyms.

As with all research our study is time-specific. Of particular historical significance is the fact that our interviews took place before the floods of Autumn of 2000 and the unusually high number of rail accidents in that year and the next, and the resulting disruption on the tracks. Had our interviews been conducted following these events our data may have been very different and we reflect on this briefly later.

Introducing Themes and Issues

Among our respondents the frequency of train use varies. The most regular user - a non-car driver - travels by train on average approximately eight hours a week:
I use trains more than anybody I know. I travel into work and back 2, 3, 4 times a week, on average about 40 weeks of the year. . . As well as that I must go somewhere else for work at least once a month. And lots of times for leisure as well . . .Basically, if I want to go anywhere, I go on the train. (Gerry)

At the other end of the scale are those who use the train infrequently on the rare occasion when they consider it to be more convenient than using their car:
I only ever use the train if I am going somewhere for business reasons. I would never really consider using the train for leisure unless I am going into central London, which I don't do very often. (Kenneth)

The reasons for travel and the use of train space were also variable. For example in terms of travelling from A to B our respondent group included:
. . . there are people who travel FOR work. Now I do do some travelling FOR work, but a lot of people who travel for work, I think they're the people that things like the Club Class cater for - travelling FOR work because work is paying for them. . .There are distinct kinds of journeys for me - leisure journeys and work journeys. (Gerry)

Further, in terms of use of train space (i.e. what goes on on the train) we have respondents who:
I write letters and references and . . . I always break up the journey by looking out for the sea. I give myself a little bit of a stretch by looking at the sea when we hit that part of the journey. . . I'll read a novel or just stare out of the window, which I do find very pleasurable, particularly at certain points on the journey (Rhian)

Having introduced the context of our research we have outlined our interests and our respondent group. In the next two sections we specifically consider work and leisure on the train.

The Office Now Boarding

Of our twelve respondents, seven use or have used the train for travelling to and from work and/or travelling for work. Of these seven, six spoke about how they use the train as a place and space of work.

Shared Space

Working on the train means seeking out a space in which to construct an office. Constructing such a 'place' can be likened to contemporary 'real' office practices of open access and 'hot-desking'. In hot-desking, for example, 'workers do not have their own desks but are allocated work space according to their personal needs, keeping their personal belongings in lockers or filing cabinets' (Quinion 1996 unpaginated). Our respondents found that sharing such spaces with others involved competition and issues of privacy. Kenneth, for example, outlines his own needs:
Kenneth: . . . the ideal situation is where you have a whole table to yourself but that isn't always possible but minimally you want the seat next to you free so you can put things on it because there is usually a big pile of papers that's worth spreading out. . .There was a chap the other day . . . and when [he] went to the bar or the buffet I moved over there and had to move some of his stuff over the table so I could spread my things out, so there was a bit of negotiation there.

GL: Did he say anything when he came back?

Kenneth: No, no he smiled, very friendly. I don't think he was deliberately commandeering the table for himself, he was just using the space available to him but I do think . . . that people behave in a very territorial way in trains.

Whereas Kenneth requires as big a space as possible, Gerry on the other hand values privacy. Her account highlights the fact that shared working space in not just about territorial quantity of space but also involves negotiating appropriate etiquette for private work in a public space:
. . . even though it's not as easy to work, I prefer the 2-seater ones because they're a bit more private.

One [woman] was on a mobile phone continually for an hour. She was making call after call, and being called - it was constant. So the other woman said to her 'I think it's really inappropriate that you keep using your mobile phone on the train'. And the woman using the phone, said 'some of us work, you know'. So she was working, she was doing her job. For me, mobile phones get in the way of me doing my job, whereas she had to use her mobile phone for her job. (Gerry)

The space in which the work takes place - the train carriage - may not initially conjure up images of public libraries, but, in terms of 'private' work being undertaken in a very 'public' space, several respondents noted the similarities and differences:
... he [she related a conversation with a colleague here] said 'going on a train is like being in a public library, and I really like these places that are public but people are doing things on their own'. That's really interesting, isn't it? You have this little space - except that they don't have signs up saying 'no talking'. (Gerry)

. . . if someone were to come and look over your shoulder in a library, you'd think they were abominably rude. But if I'm sitting over the table from someone who is working, I'm really itching to look at what it is. So people are forcing that private work to become public. (Grace)

As Ribbens and Edwards (1998a: 8) point out ''public' and 'private' are tricky and ambiguous concepts, which cannot be identified by reference to physical locations of home, neighbourhood, workplace or government. Like the library the train is a public space but unlike the library there are no obvious rules of interaction between passengers, nor between passengers and staff:
It doesn't happen very often, but people do try to talk to me when I'm working. I've got this piece of work, and I've got to do it before I get into work. And I leave it for the train. And if someone tries to talk to me on the train, then that's difficult to cope with. (Gerry)

There are a number of times when I have travelled when there have been quite a few incidents that have been quite interesting that have distracted me from working. There seems to be quite a lot of hassle that people working as guards on the train have to put up with. That can be quite distracting because you are put in a position where you think do I get involved? . . . (Rhian)

Hierarchical Space

The concept of hierarchical space refers to the ways in which the design of buildings (especially administrative buildings) reflects the social relations being conducted by the organisation within the architectural space. Space on trains - particularly space for working - is also distributed in a hierarchical way, from the 'director's suite' (First or Club Class) where one person is allocated a disproportionately large space, to the cramped conditions of the most menial clerks (standing room only in Standard Class). Gerry, our most frequent train traveller, complains about this:
. . . that's one of the things that bugs me about [name of train company] where they cater so much for those in First Class. 'They're so important, and they have to work, and we have to give them little signs to put on their desks - tables - that show they don't want to be disturbed, and we must give them email and internet facilities - this, that and the other'. But every person on the seven o'clock train has got their laptop out or reads. (Gerry)

On the other hand Kenneth, a much less frequent traveller, has a more pragmatic view:
I would never pay myself to travel First Class as it's a ridiculous waste of money but if someone else is paying it seems no reason why not and yes I did have a First Class ticket on the grounds that I would be working on the train. But I can't say it obviously made much difference. . . All I want is a table.(Kenneth)

There are of course always more clerks than directors employed and problems of space therefore impinge disproportionately at that level. When difficulties occur, it is likely to be those in Standard Class who are most affected. Standard Class, then, represents the antithesis of the Director's Suite and like clerical workers, occupants of Standard class are more likely to have their work disrupted by circumstances beyond their control:
It's a work shaped space. A bit like a portacabin on wheels. (Grace)

. . . the train was late and I then was rerouted to various places and it ended up that the only way I could get home was to get a different train to Rugby in which I had to stand for 2 hours very, very cramped. . . there was no way when you could barely find enough room to stand that you could possibly do any work. So any work I had planned to do at that point was totally out of the window. (Janet)

Productive Space

Productive labour does not only take place in the workplace. For many years, and increasingly, workers - especially those defined as professional - have been able to 'work from home', which is distinct, of course, from the highly feminized 'homeworking'[1]. With reference to domestic labour, feminists have redefined the concept of work to dissolve the distinction between the private space of unpaid work and the public space of paid work (Witz 1993). We would suggest that, just as housework was historically ignored, so now is train work. There are differences in that the work people do on the train may be more highly valued than housework; but although the tasks are highly valued, the space in which these take place may not be. How many office diaries allow employees to record 'working on the train' as a legitimate activity? New technology, such as the mobile 'phone, may make the office space on the train more credible yet, as highlighted earlier, this may have a negative impact upon the tasks of other workers.

Despite the problems identified above (see Hierarchical Space) and the train as a contested workplace, our respondents - most of whom usually travel Standard Class - do manage to achieve their productivity goals on the train and effectively extend their working day:
Gerry: Well I'm in every day at 9 o clock and that means I leave the house at 6.

GR: But what's interesting there for me is that you say 'I'm in for 9 o clock', you don't say 'I get to work at 9 o clock'.

Gerry: Oh no, because I start work on the train.

GR: So actually your working day starts at?

Gerry: 7 o clock.

Furthermore, the train provides an opportunity for work which is not available when using other forms of transport:
. . . the thing that distinguishes rail travel from driving is that you have the space and time to be able to work through it . . . There's nothing else to concentrate on - it's such an obvious thing to say but it's important to say it. If you're a driver you've got to be focused on the driving itself. (Jeremy)

I know people who travel to work, who don't really live that far away, that take 45 minutes, and that's completely dead time if you're using a car. There's not much that you can do unless you're dictating into a Dictaphone or something. But I know people that travel to my place of work, who spend 35-45 minutes in that car, well in that time on the train I could have marked 3 essays or written a first draft of a few letters or.... (Gerry)

Respondents spoke about the different tasks that they undertake on the train, providing of course the appropriate space is available. In order to use the space and time effectively a certain amount of planning is necessary both prior to the journey and also on the train. So working on the train, just as working anywhere else, involves time-management, organisation and planning:
. . .you have got long periods of time when you tend to be fairly uninterrupted so you can actually get into your work quite well. You need to get a long run at it so the longer journeys I do find them quite useful for working. . . Access to a table, not just one of those pull-down ones, distinct lack of people partying or playing with electronic gadgetry, be it children's toys or phones, it doesn't have to be that there is no-one else sitting anywhere near you, but those kind of things. So there is enough space to arrange your papers and write. (Janet)

I finish quite early on a Thursday afternoon and I take with me administration that I would have stayed and finished. . . I'm quite careful where I sit so that as much as possible I'm not going to be bothered by noise, but also it's something to do with I've got myself into a system where I say that I'm going to have done so much work by a certain station (laughs) so actually that's quite a good incentive. (Rhian)

Dey (1989: 465) suggests that nowhere are the conventions which govern our perception and management of time more reified than in the world of work where 'time is typically taken as an objective medium in terms of which economic activity can be organised and measured'. He adds that the 'discipline of work-time, in the form of the working year, the working week or the working day, has become a central but taken-for-granted characteristic of all industrial societies'.

As we have highlighted above our data challenge these conventions. The train is a place that provides a space for a variety of tasks:
Janet: For example the last train journey I took was for a conference . . . but the time of year was at the beginning of June, which meant that we were in the middle of exam marking so I spent my time on the train marking final papers, which tends to be mostly what I do on the train. Or if I am going to a final exam board as an external examiner at other institutions I will be revising or familiarising myself with what I've already said in terms of marking and what I am going to say at the meeting. So preparation for the meeting. . . . I may also do things like plan future work. . . working out teaching schedules for the next session or working out staffing the sort of administration that needs to be done a fair bit in advance because you have got limited resources and you are trying to work them through or in some cases writing memos or letters that the secretaries will write on official notepaper later. (Janet)

GL: When you go to an exam board do you work just on the way there, and not on the way back?

Janet: I tend to try and do both. Work in both directions. Usually on the way there it's work for the exam board and because of your workload you tend to carry some work with you for on the way back.

Thus, the train provides a space for the management of workloads. Indeed, there are some tasks that frequent train users leave specifically for the train:
. . . I'll do anything moveable away from the office I'll use that time. (Rhian)

And on Sunday morning when I'm trying to do some work, I think 'what can I leave for the train?' There are lots of things that I leave, that I only ever do on the train now. (Gerry)

In this section we have considered how our respondents who work on the train negotiate a private productive work place within a shared hierarchical public space. This illustrates that for those of us who work on trains, academic discourses of work and of travel are simplistic and inadequate.

All aboard for the Play Station

Dey (1989: 466) suggests that:
. . . work-time itself is contrasted with time spent on activities defined as 'not work' work as leisure time or play time . . . work time . . .implies a period during which work is undertaken primarily for payment.

However, we would argue that this demonstrates yet another problem in terms of defining work. Some occupations, or tasks within an occupation, are perceived and sometimes experienced as more like leisure than work (e.g. artists, actors, writers, tour guides, gardeners). Futhermore, discussions concerning work may take place during leisure activities (e.g. during a game of golf, during an evening social event) and leisure sometimes takes place during the working day (e.g. 'popping out', surfing the net, playing computer games, doing the crossword). Train travel is another example of a place where work and leisure activities overlap. All our respondents, including those who worked on the train, spoke of using train time as leisure time:
I'll read a novel or just stare out of the window, which I do find very pleasurable, particularly at certain points in the journey. I'll sometimes do a bit of my own writing - I don't do that very often. I'd like to do it more, that's very pleasurable (Rhian)

Game Space

As with those who work on trains, space is also an issue for leisure travellers. There is, however, a subtle difference between the ways in which the train space is used. Whereas people who are working tend to actively construct a 'work place' in their minds, those who engage in games tend to work more passively within whatever space is available[2]. Most leisure activities undertaken on trains tend to be those which can be achieved within a limited spatial area because of the design of the constructed space:
[If you can't get a seat with a table] you can pull out the little table in front of you...and you can put your stuff on there. There's usually enough room, and also sometimes there's a net there as well, and if you're not using something at the moment you can put it in there. So if your table starts to get too crammed, you can get the thing you're not using and put it down, and put the thing you WANT to use on the table (Jake aged nine)

Like our work travellers did with specific tasks, several respondents spoke of saving particular leisure activities for train travel. A difference here is that leisure activities on trains are more likely than work activities to be jointly undertaken[3].
We only play our Travel Connect4 on trains - it's become a kind of tradition that we get it out for train journeys. Also (my son) hardly ever looks at comics except on a train. (Julie)

Well, I like it better than most transports. For one thing, you don't need - all the people who are there with you, one person doesn't need to be driving, like in a car. . . . I just like to play one game or something, and take my Gameboy. If I can complete a level, then that's enough for me and I turn it off. (Jake aged nine)

It's like you have lots of fun playing games. And it's like really good. When we go with our Dad, he's got this mobile phone that he takes with him, and we can play games on it, and that's really fun. I like playing with my Mum and Dad, and I can't play with them when I'm on a car journey cos my Mum's got to look for the right way. (Mark aged six)

Interestingly, leisure was sometimes described as a way of filling time:
On the way to Cornwall we usually play two games of Scrabble. Each game takes about an hour so that's two hours of the journey gone. (Jeremy)

It may be that work is also something used as a way to fill the time but this was not the case for our respondents. It would be interesting to explore further the specific relationship between work, leisure and time.

Although a place of leisure itself the train, particularly when moving, provides the opportunity for incorporating the space outside of the train as part of the leisure activity:
And we play I-Spy on the train because you can often 'spy' something out of the window that's gone before anyone can guess it. It puts a whole new angle on the game of I-Spy! (Julie)

Romantic Space

So whilst playing games is a major leisure activity which focuses attention mainly on the inside of the train space, looking out of the carriage window focuses on the outside of the train space; on the passing 'spectacle' (Green 1990). Much of the romanticism (Campbell 1987, cited in Featherstone 1995: 24) of train travel is connected not so much to the train itself as to that passing spectacle. Sightseeing has a long history. Urry (1990: 4), for example, reflecting on the growth of tourism between 1600 and 1800, argues that 'There was a ...... visualisation of the travel experience, or the development of the 'gaze', aided and assisted by the growth of guidebooks which promoted new ways of seeing . . .'

These new 'ways of seeing' are unpacked further by Kracauer 1995), who comments that:
More and more travel is becoming the incomparable occasion to be somewhere other than the very place one habitually is. It fulfils its decisive function as spatial transformation, as a temporary change of location... Travel has been reduced to a pure experience of space. (Kracauer, cited by Rojek and Urry 1997: 6)

Rojek and Urry (1997) argue that the tourist uses sights along the journey to give shape to their passion for travelling. Travelling on a train, however, differs from travel in its traditional sense based on the Grand Tour. In the context of being on the train, the space inside is not a temporary change of location in the same way as the sights outside the train. Those sights can be of an extraordinarily short duration, as short as a few seconds of clock time. There is, however, little doubt that some sights do form 'signifiers' of images of times past:
. . . the train system was established from the 1840s and so it went through particular countryside. The bus systems rely on motorways and so it's quite a different concept. (Jeremy)

In his discussion of nostalgia, Strangleman (1999: 729) argues that 'The railway industry is perhaps one of the most fruitful for exploring notions of nostalgia because of its place within the nation's psyche'. It is clear that, for some of our respondents, railways represent an important link with the past:
I look out for the unusual, like spot a steam train or something, going in the opposite direction. Something like that draws a lot of interest, even if you're not actually travelling on it. People come down photographing, in my experience, and video-recording, and watching it through bridges and things. (Colin)

Colin's account suggests that some sightseeing can be conceptualised as 'visual scavenging' - the possibility of seeing something unusual. This is not always a pleasurable experience:
At one point the train slowed down and the driver came on the PA system. He introduced himself and then said 'Please do not - I repeat, do not - look out of the windows on the left hand side of the train'. Well, of course, everyone craned their necks to have a look, and it was a body lying beside the tracks. After we'd gone past and the train was speeding up, the driver came on again and said 'I just wanted to spare you that'. It was quite bizarre really. (Grace)

Although problematised by Craik (1997) as normatively male and structured by voyeurism, there is a tourist gaze which seeks out the unusual or the darker side of sightseeing (Urry 1990). Urry (1990: 9), however, is clearly more concerned with the 'packaging' of tourist sites, rather than unexpected sights, when he argues that the gaze of the tourist:
.... will involve an obvious intrusion into people's lives, which would be generally unacceptable. So the people being observed and local tourist entrepeneurs gradually come to construct backstages in a continued and artificial manner. 'Tourist spaces' are thus organised around what MacCannell (1973) calls 'staged authenticity'.

Urry also argues that there is a 'spatial fixity' (1990: 41) about tourist services, but this again does not fully apply to the spaces outside the average train. Those spaces are rarely designed with tourists in mind - indeed, the sense of historical time (or even illusion of timelessness) is part of the attraction - but they do undergo a cultural transformation into a form of ritual and spectacle (Green 1990) to train travellers. This tends to reinforce the conception of train travel as a social and life activity within itself:
When we go to Cornwall particularly, there are rituals about different parts of the journey. I know it so well, I could fall asleep really and wake up and know where we were almost. But like there's one bit - Dawlish and Teignmouth - it's like a ritual. Whatever I'm doing I have to stop and look at the sea while we're going through Teignmouth and Dawlish. It's such a wonderful part of the journey, especially when it's rough and the sea is coming over the train. It's kind of like 'we're there now, we're there' - but there's still another 2 and a half hours to go! (Gerry)

. . . there's a part of the journey that goes through the Fens, and my heart ACHES because I love it so much. It's so flat and you can see for miles and miles. And because you can see for miles, then after a while you get to know each individual house and so on, even in the far distance. In winter it's very brown or grey, and if you go in spring it's bright green - the colours are variable. (Grace)

In this section we have looked at the ways in which people engage in leisure on the train both for its intrinsic value and to fill train time. Leisure activities can focus entirely upon the space within the train or they can transcend the space and engage with the places and spaces outside of the train. Like work that takes place on the train, the leisure activities undertaken by our respondents challenge the prevailing view of the tourist and tourism.

Throughout the article we have referred implicitly to embodied time. Time for embarking and disembarking from a train, for example, have different consequences for activities such as leisure or work. We have noted how leisure activities such as I-Spy, or the 'romantic gaze' use the spaces outside the train to connect the eye to time as well as to place. The activity of working on the train - partly because of the portable nature of the work - brings sharply into focus the embodiment of work with reference to time. Both activities are structured also within the planned times of departure and arrival, which are not always the same as the actual times.

Reflecting On Our Brief Encounters: Reflections on the research and links to further work

The Pilot Study

Through our small piece of empirical research we have begun to identify ways in which different perspectives of time, place and space are drawn together in that experience. 'Time' on a train, however, is not itself experienced in such a reified way: instead it is experienced as a series of activities - sometimes 'work' and sometimes 'leisure'.

It is important to note some methodological limitations in our empirical research to date. The opportunist nature of data collection has meant that as far as work is concerned we are referring to a limited group of people - those described by Grint (1991) as 'high-trust' workers, who have some degree of autonomy over the time and place of their tasks. We are also referring to a limited type of work - namely portable work (a bricklayer, for example, could not do their bricklaying on a train!). What we did not explore with respondents was whether or not working on the train enabled them to have more leisure time at home or merely extended their working day. We appreciate that there is a gender issue here. Women are still more likely to bear the brunt of the 'double-shift' of labour (Hochschild 1990, Witz 1993). Evidence suggests that this is as true for women in Higher Education as it is for other women (e.g. Weiner 1996, Trowler 1998, Letherby and Cotterill 2001). What is clear, for our respondents at least, is that work begins when you leave home and not when you arrive at work. When does it end?

With reference to leisure we did not explore the experiences of people for whom the train itself is a leisure pursuit (e.g. trainspotters, rail enthusiasts, steam buffs). However, our data demonstrate that the train is a significant leisure space and place. The changing processes of leisure are less obvious than the changing processes of work. Processes are more likely to encompass changing technology in the games being used rather than in the use of games. Romanticism, ritual and spectacle are not new past-times but take on a different significance in what is increasingly an urban environment.

As well as exploring all of these issues in more depth we would also like to consider further the way in which individuals negotiate their train time for both work and leisure:
. . .sometimes if it's been a really busy week, I might decide to have a train journey off. So I'll be at work in the middle of a meeting, and I'll think 'I can read a magazine on the train journey tonight', and that's a real treat because I'm not doing any work on the train. So when I get on the five o'clock train I can stop work. (Gerry)

As we noted earlier it is likely that if we undertook this research at a different time respondents would focus on different issues and concerns. However, it is not the case that respondents did not talk of issues of safety, environment and politics in relation to train travel: they did. We also have data relating to issues of gender and ethnicity and the train. These we intend to explore in future writing. Yet, following a series of train accidents and disruptions (not least in relation to making train travel safer); the introduction of new timetables and services (which we are told will make our journeys quicker and more comfortable but on the whole do not appear to) and an increasingly confused Governmental approach to the 'transport problem', train travel in 2003 is very different to train travel in 2000. An example of this from our own experience is the increasingly number of disruptions we experience that we are told by train staff are due to 'incidents that need the attention of the transport police' - it seems to us that 'train rage' is on the increase.

Despite this large numbers of people are still travelling (by train) long distances between places of work and leisure and home; also, within employment, workers travel longer distances for a particular task. Many of the routes used by workers on trains are now outside the traditional commuter zones of the South East. But similar problems emerge, such as overcrowding and stretched facilities. These impinge on tasks that have been planned, but then cannot be achieved. Indeed, this seems to be recognised and exploited by the train companies. For example:
In First Class there's plenty of space on the fixed table in front of each seat to catch up with work. (Virgin Trains 2003)

Future Work and Further Concerns

It has been pointed out to us that our data are at one level unremarkable. Wanting more space when one has work to do and looking out at the scenery when passing through a particularly beautiful part of the countryside seem obvious aspects of a train user's experience. We also accept that the empirical findings that we report here rely on a small number of accounts. However, our central aim, which we think we have achieved, is to highlight the fact that trains, train travel and the train journey itself is of sociological interest. When we first became (academically) interested in this issue we thought that our work was about the changing nature of train travel. Thinking historically from the early days of the railroad it probably is. But we now realise that the things that people do on trains are also related to the changing nature of work (here in academia, but we think more generally) and developments in technology which allow more varied work and leisure activities to take place (both on and off the train). For us the ideas and data presented here are the beginning of our own longer academic journey.

Having started with this small study we are already engaged in further research. As well as space and place and time we are also paying more attention than previously to issues of power. Our own experience is still a source of data for us as is the observational work we engage in whilst on the train. Also, we are currently conducting email interviews with rail enthusiasts, rail travellers (including hoboes) and rail workers in various parts of the world. We are further encouraged by the fact that almost everyone we mention our work to has a story to tell. Our initial questions are:

If you would like to be involved as a respondent please email your responses to the above questions to:

We appreciate that this form of respondent recruitment is somewhat unconventional and look forward to reflecting on it in a future methodological paper. To end on a further note of unconventionality, we would like to suggest that those of you who are interested in trains and train travel, as we are, may like to access websites listed below in the appendix which provide links to train websites all over the world:

'There's something romantic about travel by train, and there are some great railway adventures to be had throughout the world.

Commuters reading this might disagree, as they sleep walk to work every morning on overcrowded trains and return in the evening to find their favourite window seat taken by a grubby traveller who hasn't showered for a week.

I've been the suit-and-tied, nine-to-five commuter and I've been the curious traveller. And I prefer being the traveller in need of shampoo and hot water; sorry if I was in your seat.'





Australia, Europe and USA

New Zealand





Specialising in steam


1 Witz (1993) argues that homeworkers are one of the most vulnerable and lowest-paid groups in the workforce.

2 The fact that some of those interviewed in relation to leisure were children may also have some methodological bearing on our interpretation of the data.

3 There are of course exceptions to this and some people work together on the train. As an example of this we cite ourselves as some of the work for this article was undertaken on the train as we travelled to and from work together.


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