Over the years, many people have told me that they should get a refund if no train seat is available. I try to explain that a train ticket is for a journey and not a seat. I usually get a tirade back along the lines of ‘this is outrageous!’ and ‘why can’t the railways provide more seats‘. They would not have bought a ticket if they knew they would not get a train seat. They want to know how to get a seat on the train.
What’s the problem?
The fact is that train travel, like the buses, is a ‘walk up and go’ anytime form of travel. This is unlike both the airlines and coach travel where it is compulsory to book a seat. You can’t stand up in a plane. The railway has to try to predict the passenger loadings and provide a train with sufficient seats to meet that demand. People would complain if they couldn’t get on the train because all the seats were booked and thus there will always be a ‘walk up’ culture on the railways.
What are the train operators doing about this?
Train operators try to plan the length of trains within fixed formation limitations eg a high-speed train usually has eight coaches. They have to also take into account the frequency of services to meet passenger demands. Demand is hard to predict as tickets can be purchased right up until almost the moment the train leaves the station. Train operators take counts on board of the number of passengers using their trains. Technology on modern trains automatically counts the number of passengers. This data helps with planning to minimise overloading.
As part of train planning, companies try ensure no-one is standing for more than 20 minutes on each service. This is known as the ’20 minute standing rule’ by train planners. If there is extra demand due to a special event eg Glastonbury Festival, train companies will move rolling stock from other parts of the network with less demand. If these predictions are wrong then this can cause overcrowding in other areas. Train companies really want to meet passenger expectations and provide enough train seats. However train operators do not have spare rolling stock just waiting to be used in the same way people do not keep a spare car at home ‘just in case’. In my experience, people who have chosen a railway career are passionate about making the railway succeed. Since privatisation 20 years ago, more people are travelling by rail than ever. The number of trains provided now is far greater than that offered at the time of British Rail on almost the same network.
My tips on how to get a train seat
Your ticket entitles you to a journey and not a seat. If you want a seat, you can check to see if you can reserve one at the time you buy your ticket. This is free of charge. On long distance trains, most of the seats can be reserved. Buying tickets online through TrainGenius customers can save up to 80% on the price of their ticket, compared with buying at the station on the day of travel and they offer free seat reservations at the time that you purchase your ticket.
‘Walk up and go’ passengers should find one carriage which is not reserved. Another tip is to check the reservation tickets on unoccupied seats. Sometimes that portion of the journey has passed or the passenger has not turned up for the reservation and the seat can be used. You can always check this with the on board staff. Don’t be afraid to politely ask other passengers to move luggage off seats. You can even ask train staff to make an announcement to this effect.