diamond geezer

 Monday, April 21, 2014

I've been suffering from reservations recently. That's because I've been travelling on a lot of trains outside London, and you only get reservations on trains outside London. They started out as means to ration seats on busy services, but have metamorphosed into apparatus to allow people to book early and pay less for their tickets. I'm not a big fan of reservations, and here are a dozen reasons why.

1) Reservations take forever to come out of the ticket machine. Remember when tickets were single small pieces of card? Now they're issued as multiple coupons, sometimes 5 or 6 at a time, so there's a real risk that you accidentally leave one in the machine and then your ticket is useless. Also I always end up wasting time at the barrier trying to work out which of the identical orange rectangles is the one I currently need.

2) It's not always obvious where your lettered coach is going to stop before the train comes in. Some train companies make this obvious and stick letters on the platform. Others not so, and you can end up having to walk the length of the train very quickly ("Where's coach C? Where's coach C?) if you guess incorrectly.

3) Sometimes staff don't manage to put the paper reservations in the backs of the seat in time. If the train's delayed at its start point and there's no time for the guard to nip through with the cards, suddenly the entire reservation system collapses and the train degenerates into chaos.

4) Those electronic reservation indicators aren't especially helpful. They're hard to read, and unlike old fashioned paper reservations they never say which stations the seat is reserved between, just "Reserved". The more information the better, but these give far less.

5) You don't always get you what you asked for. On one journey last week I specifically ordered a window seat, but Virgin trains gave me one of their special glassless window seats with no view whatsoever, the bastards. There's no way I'd have chosen to sit there given free choice, but the reservation selection software dumped me in the dark seat anyway.

6) You don't always get the chance to ask for what you do want. I usually prefer a double seat, not a table seat, because that way I can avoid being suddenly surrounded by three loud people I didn't ask to endure a journey beside. But train companies don't offer the option of "not a table seat", they only offer "table seat?".

7) Reservations are inconsistently policed. You go to all that effort to sit in precisely the right seat, and then the ticket inspector doesn't even bother looking at your reservation. Or he gets all heavy-handed ("Can I see your railcard and reservation please?") and makes you feel like a guilty cheapskate.

8) Reservations are rarely policed. Even when someone official actually looks at a reservation, they're usually only interested whether you're on the right train and very rarely check to see if you're in the right seat. Which is annoying if somebody else isn't sitting in their proper seat.

9) Reservations generally have to be policed by passengers, not staff. It's always embarrassing to have to say "Excuse me, I think you're sitting in my seat." I walked onto one long distance train recently to my find my reserved seat occupied by one of a group of foreign students, and decided against saying anything because I didn't want to end up surrounded by the other seven.

10) It's not always obvious which seat number is by the window and which is by the aisle. These people who design graphics think they've made it oh so obvious which is which, but they're wrong. So if you turn up and one of the two seats is occupied, it's hard to argue that they're in the wrong one.

11) A heck of a lot of reserved seats never seem to get used. A byproduct of the insistence on printing a reservation with your ticket is that a lot of people never turn up, or sit somewhere else, or take another train. And that can leave a forest of seats annoyingly unavailable, when really nobody ever had any intention of sitting in them.

12) You end up crammed in the cheap carriage. The most crowded carriage on a long-distance train is usually the one full of people with reservations. The booking software tends to dump everyone together, creating a mostly-reservations carriage, and leaving the rest of the train (where I'd much prefer to sit) rather emptier. Would it really hurt to space us out a bit more? Or indeed simply to reserve us onto the train, not into a specific seat?

There's nothing worse than an automated inconsistent bureaucratic suboptimal incompetent nannying system, and that's what rail ticket reservations appear to have evolved into.

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