Karen Bennett is a ”super commuter” – one of those people the international group Sustainable Cities identifies as willing to travel up to four hours a day between work and home.Her daily trip between Wyong on the central coast and North Sydney takes an average of 105 minutes each way, and despite the long haul she faces the journey with good humour. ”I’ve got a lot of train buddies, people I only see on board,” she said. ”You know their families and their holidays. We are a community.”But she also calculates she spends more than 90 working days a year in transit. ”That’s a lot of time on a train. We choose to live here, we accept that, but in the 21st century it shouldn’t take this long.”Ms Bennett represents a growing class of commuters who for financial or lifestyle reasons are living in the regions on the metropolitan fringes.The NSW government’s Household Travel Survey, released in August, shows that in 2007 (the most recent available data) central coast commuters notched up 2.071 million kilometres in rail travel on an average weekday. In outer-western Sydney, including the Blue Mountains, the figure was 1.222 million kilometres, in the Illawarra it was 911,000, and in the south-west it was 1.150 million. Clearly, there is an appetite for train travel to the furthest reaches of Sydney.A recent online poll by the Herald found 59.6 per cent of people ”would … be prepared to live farther from Sydney’s CBD if access to public transport was better”.The Department of Transport and Infrastructure recently began its latest household travel survey, going door to door interviewing residents about their travel patterns and preferences.Experts say they expect the results of this round of surveying to confirm a trend.”Right around the country we saw [from 2004] a decline in per capita car use and an increase in demand for public transport,” said Dr Garry Glazebrook, an urban planner and academic at the University of Technology, Sydney. ”I think we could expect to see a further drop in car use as we get figures from 2008 and 2009.”Commuting to and from work is the fourth most common reason for travel, registering 16 per cent of trips, behind recreational travel on 22 per cent, driving other people on 18 per cent and equal to shopping, also 16 per cent. But commuting accounts for more than 27 per cent of all kilometres travelled in Sydney.A report released earlier this year, Moving People, compiled by the Australasian Railway Association, the Bus Industry Confederation and the International Association of Public Transport as part of a campaign to win more federal investment, confirmed that in every mainland capital, car use had climbed between 1999 and 2004 then, almost uniformly, fallen, although less so in Sydney.But trips for work and pleasure are also getting longer.”The average time a Sydney resident spends travelling per weekday has increased from 79 minutes in 1999 to 81 minutes in 2007,” the survey finds.”The work trip represents a large and growing component of this time, increasing from 31 to 34 minutes over the same period.”In spite of the additional time spent in transit, the survey confirms the plentiful anecdotal evidence about why people are moving to public transport. Almost half of commuters are overcoming parking problems; 28 per cent believe it is quicker; 27 per cent think it is cheaper; 17 per cent report it is ”less stressful”; and 14 per cent say it offers time to read and relax.For Karen Bennett, the journey up the North Shore line, then past the picturesque Hawkesbury River and Brisbane Waters, has its compensation.”It’s my time to wind down,” she said. ”I used to do the drive from Crows Nest to home and by the time I got in, I was so tense and cranky that I had no time to relax because I would have to start getting ready for bed.”Camaraderie the best part of riding the railsThe alarm clock in Karen Bennett’s house is set for 4.10am onweekdays ut, after 12 years of train commuting between Wyong and NorthSydney, she doesn’t really need it – her body clock is well and trulyset.Ms Bennett spends one hour and 45 minutes each morning and eveningriding the rails, one of the ”super commuters” who, for economicnecessity or lifestyle reasons, live far from work.In good weather, she will ride her motor scooter for 10 minutes toWyong station to make the 5.45am train, but she likes to arrive up to30 minutes early to nab a good seat. ”You’d be surprised how many ofus there are on the station at 5am,” she says.Ms Bennett is usually at her desk at an information technology firm by7.35am – serious commuting has taught her to be specific about times -and takes the 4.53pm home each night, arriving at 6.45 pm.She says she loves the camaraderie of the train trip, which for thefirst 30 to 45 minutes involves passengers napping, before people rouseto swap stories and, as they near work, make an early start on emailusing laptops. On the return trip, some work, others watch DVDs; shereads.But she resents the time it takes to cover the distance – pointing outthat early 20th-century steam trains from Newcastle travelled fasterthan today’s services – and the way she has had to ask her employer forflexible work hours to accommodate the train timetable.”The solution to every problem on the railways seems to be to slow thetrains down, either for safety or to fix a timetable problem,” shesays. ”They have built so much leeway into the timetable so they canalways say they’re on time.”’The T-Way gives me the chance to avoid CityRail’Loui Pham is one of those rare people in western Sydney who managesto get around contentedly without a car, despite a long journey eachmorning and evening.The outgoing secretary of The Hive, the student union at the Universityof Western Sydney, commutes daily between her home in Cabramatta andthe university’s campus near Rydalmere using her bicycle and two buses.Most mornings she cycles for 30 minutes to the Bonnyrigg stop on theT-Way, a mostly bus-only corridor between Liverpool and Campbelltown,leaving her bike in the care of a friend who lives near Bonnyrigg Plaza.In peak hour she might wait five to 10 minutes for a bus, and thenspends up to 30 minutes in transit to the Parramatta interchange, atthe rail station, before waiting another five to 10 minutes for a busto the Rydalmere campus.Ms Pham says driving in peak hour would take her more than an hour.The journey has made her a convert to T-Ways. Sydney has threetransitways – Liverpool-Parramatta, Parramatta-Rouse Hill andBlacktown-Parklea – but she would like to see more, right acrosswestern and south-western Sydney.”The T-Way also gives me the chance to avoid CityRail,” Ms Pham says.”Everyone I know has had a bad experience with CityRail. There has notbeen enough investment in the system and in the maintenance of ageing trains.”Cheap as chips and an easy trip – no sweatRALPH VAN DIJK became a scooter commuter three months ago when he lost his licence and needed another way to get from his home in Mosman to his job at a radio advertising company in Pyrmont.He spent $800 on an electric model and lowered the gearing, which cut the top speed but means it can carry his lofty frame up the hill when he gets off the ferry on his way home.His commuting takes about 40 minutes door to door, with only 12-14 minutes spent getting from Circular Quay to Pyrmont, including the run along the crowded footpath in George Street, which he said could ”be a bit sticky”.While he turned to the scooter from necessity, he likes it so much he plans to stick with it.”I am seeing bits of Sydney I have never explored before, riding along the little bays around Mosman, thinking this is what everyone should be on,” Mr van Dijk said.He did think about a bicycle but prefers the scooter because it’s easier to zip around, and he can get to work without needing a shower. ”I ride straight into the office … with this I can just step on and off.”He also likes the fact that he’s not obliged to wear a helmet although he concedes that one might have been handy whenhe came off one night after hitting a gutter.He usually sees about three other electric scooter riders each week and reckons there could soon be more because of the advantages that go beyond the purely practical .”I get envious looks from my kids’ friends.”Matthew Moore