Virgin has called for a new airline-style system on its long-distance train journeys that would require all passengers to make a seat reservation in advance, or face not travelling on a specific train.
The move, which would allocate all passengers a seat number, aims to combat current problems of overcrowding and large numbers of people standing for extended periods of time – a familiar experience to many who have taken the first train out of any major city after peak time.
Although it sounds promising that everyone would get a seat and no longer have to stand by a festering toilet for five hours, never mind paying for that privilege – would the system actually work? And will it help customers?
Anthony Smith, chief exec of independent passenger watchdog Transport Focus, said: “Moving to seated-only trains is a huge cultural shift,” but added that “the choice to stand or wait should be the passenger’s, not the train company’s”. Transport Focus said passengers should retain the right to stand (given the demand on peak services) if they choose to do so.
The system could mean the end to spontaneous travel – whether by choice or necessity. If you turned up at the station and wanted a ticket for that day, or had an open ticket and hadn’t booked a seat, you may have to wait for the next train with available seats. If, for example, you had a family emergency that required you to travel on a specific train, would a train guard stop you from boarding to see a loved one?
Even in less serious circumstances, people’s plans change – passengers want flexibility, especially given the ever rising cost of rail fares. And what would happen to the last-minute weekend jaunt with a pal or romantic mini-break, if the train you want to get is fully booked?
If Virgin Trains wanted to align more closely with airline practice, would we all need to be booking our summer train journeys in the new year?
Equating planes with trains seems a little flawed – they serve different purposes. Although Virgin is talking about its long-distance services, there are of course passengers who use those lines for shorter journeys, commuting between towns or into cities. Not everyone is going the whole distance.
Trains have long been a service for everyone (who can afford it), not just those who are organised enough to book seats in advance. Not to mention, some people might just like standing instead.
When HuffPost UK contacted Virgin Trains, a spokesperson said: “The ideas suggested in the report include spreading demand more effectively with airline-style pricing. That would mean more trains had seats available, even at the last minute. A reservation-only system for long-distance services would mean a much better customer experience for everyone.”