July 08, 2004

Connecting on the move

Brian Micklethwait | Transport General

I find people talking in a noisily moving train that I'm also in to be intensely annoying, and I know I'm not the only one. The regular din of the train I can take. I can screen that out. But the talking, perhaps because it has to be done in a way that registers above the din of the train, is excruciating. You find yourself unable not to listen to it.

I think this is part of why there is such intense hatred of people who use portable phones indiscriminately on trains. If a train is delayed, and a fellow passenger makes that minimum length phone call he has to make to say that he'll be late, that's okay. A man's gotta say what a man's gotta say. But casual chit-chat into a portable, shouted. Fetch me a gun.

It will be interesting to see how we all feel about the next big thing that people are going to do on trains and planes and buses and boats, which is play with their portable computers. That's a link to a New York Times piece about how internet connection on the move is coming along. So, how is it coming along? Answer: it's coming along:

Providing Internet access on vessels and vehicles is not as simple as adding it to a fixed venue, like a restaurant or even a convention center. Boats, buses and trains have metal skins or hulls that block wireless signals. They move, often at average speeds of 20 to 100 miles per hour, requiring a system that can rapidly and seamlessly hand off a signal. And they could have large numbers of simultaneous users, many of whom are already working on laptops during the voyage.

Jim Long, director of information technology for the Washington State ferry system, said that boats on the Bainbridge Island-to-Seattle run carry 2,600 passengers during each rush-hour trip. Based on his observation of commuter work habits, he said, "you could have upwards of 300 to 400 at any one time trying to access the Internet - those are concurrent users."

Airlines, too, are looking at making Wi-Fi connections available to passengers, and face some of the same challenges. Two competing services, Connexion by Boeing and Tenzing, provide Internet access (at $10 to $30 per flight) by connecting to satellites relaying service from the ground. But the commuter projects offer the potential to become part of a daily routine, and perhaps an incentive for some people to abandon commuting by car.

That last point, that computer access could be the difference between driving yourself and having someone else carry you while you sort through your emails, is a particularly interesting one.

My guess is that this will be rather like the habit people now have of listening to music through headphones. Being an oldy fogey now, I am irritated by that relentless clickety-click-clickety-click noise that radiates from the ears of those indulging in this. But dirty looks aren't going to be enough to stop this practice, the way that they at least shortened portable phone calls down to the utilitarian minimum. Clickety-click music machines are here to stay on trains. Next will be clickety-click laptopping.

It's interesting to note that laptopping on trains while all you can do is process stuff already on your machine has never really caught on. Most people use these things to process and communicate, rather than only to process, and if they can't do both they won't bother with either. But when they can do both …

More about Boeing Connexion here. Patrick also noted here a BBC report about that, way back in 2002.

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Comments

I did try using a lap-top once on the train (it was sort of expected of me by my employer to make use of the time). However, the ergonomics - seating and movement of the train made it impossible. Never again.

Posted by Mark Ellott on July 8, 2004

As of a few days ago, GNER have been offering Wi-Fi on some of its trains. Click here and here.

I got myself a handheld PC with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth a couple of weeks ago. It's a truly miraculous little gadget. I can now surf the web in my car. God knows how I survived without it.

Posted by Andy Wood on July 8, 2004

Two things: firstly, the current generation of earphones are much better at not spilling the sound than were those of a few years back. People listening to music on trains are not nearely as big a nuisance as they used to be, even though there are more of us them.

Secondly, working on a train with a laptop computer might be hard, but laptop computers with DVD drives are great for using to watch DVDs on the train on the way home. I will confess to doing this from time to time.

Posted by Michael Jennings on July 8, 2004

I don't like using my laptop on the train, because I don't want anyone peering at what I'm doing. Obviously I'm not surfing porn sites on the train, but still. I don't even want them to watch me playing pinball on my laptop, let alone doing actual work.

BA First Class now has internet access, and it's great. So great that, when you really want to sleep, you still don't want to stop using the net access just because of the novelty of having it in that venue. (Similarly, I can never have cable TV in my bedroom, because I'd stay up till 4 AM switching between the 30 music video channels and 30 news channels every night. Just because I can.)

As for people talking on their mobiles on trains...Eh. Not nearly as bothered by that as I am by loud tourists having conversations face-to-face, in my face. Die, bitches.

Posted by Jackie D on July 9, 2004

It is funny what bothers people. I have never been bothered by other people's phone conversations but if anything is ever likely to lead to my appearance in court on a GBH charge it will be the tish-tish noise emanating from someone else's personal stereo.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on July 11, 2004

I regularly use my laptop for writing weblog entries on the train en route to & from work, but to a first approxiamtion I'm the only person I've ever seen using a laptop on the Munich U-Bahn.

Not being able to check links & references is a minor inconvenience, but more than offset by actually having half an hour of focused thinking time.

Posted by Alan Little on July 11, 2004

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