I had a meeting yesterday, outside London. Getting to this meeting required me to make a long train journey from a particular rail terminus, which in turn involved yomping across town in the middle of a tube strike. And then doing the entire journey in reverse again. Not fun.
Thankfully work paid for my rail ticket, because peak-time rail fares are scary. Normally they insist on booking me onto a specific train, because that's cheaper. This is an evil tactic by rail companies, allowing them to claim that some fares are low when the walk-up fare is extortionate. When you have a timed ticket you absolutely have to be there on time, which in effect means aiming to turn up half an hour early just in case something unexpected delays you. You'll more than likely waste that half an hour waiting around doing bugger all, but that's better than being held up somewhere and having to pay a small fortune for a seat on the next train. Evil, evil tactic. But yesterday I insisted that work buy me an open ticket. With a rail strike in full effect I couldn't guarantee getting across London in a particular time, and there was no way I was leaving home an hour early just in case. And, somehow, work agreed. A full price Anytime ticket duly arrived, ordered via one of those companies who outsource corporate travel, usable on any train. Thank you, excellent, great.
And then I looked at my open ticket more carefully. It came with a seat reservation. And I thought, wtf?
They'd booked me into coach B, seat 22, on a train leaving London before dawn. I wasn't even planning to have left the house at that point. These idiots had allocated me a seat on a train I had no intention of catching. I sent them an email.
A reply came back. Oh don't worry, they said, we've not made a mistake. You don't have to catch that particular train. It's just that whenever we book an open ticket, we also have to book a seat reservation. And again I thought, wtf?
Sprint forward to yesterday morning, with the tube strike in full effect. I managed to cross town eventually and arrived at the relevant rail terminus just in time to catch the train I hoped I'd catch. I got there with a few minutes to spare, and headed up to coach B where I hoped there might still be some seats left. Reserved Reserved Reserved Reserved Reserved Reserved Reserved, every single bloody seat reserved.
And yet several of the supposedly reserved seats were empty. One aisle seat here, one window seat there, and a complete pair of seats dotted all over. Somebody had booked them all, but for some reason they were all empty. The train was about to leave, so it was unlikely anyone else would come along and claim them. So I picked one of the "reserved" seats, a nice one by a window, and sat in it unchallenged all the way to my destination. Brilliant, and far better than being automatically dumped in some windowless aisle seat next to a loud businessman, as usually happens to me when a computer picks my seat for me.
Our inter-city rail system is plagued by pointless and unnecessary reservation procedures. The ticket-ordering system churns out spurious seat reservations that will never get used. Peak time trains then look like they're really busy or even full when they're patently not. And members of the public end up walking up and down carriages looking for somewhere legal to sit when in fact there are lots of vacant seats they could use. At the prices charged for a walk-on ticket, long distance rail travellers deserve better.