Well I’m not moving – the problems caused by ignoring train seat reservations

Published on 28 December 2007 in , , ,

I’m sure everyone reading this has had one of those nights where you just can’t get to sleep because something is constantly buzzing around their brain. I would therefore like to dedicate this post to certain passengers of the 1327 East Midlands Trains service from Sheffield to London St. Pancras on Thursday 27 December, for their “contribution” to the fact that I’m awake at quarter past midnight, writing this.

Travelling by train around Christmas time is never particularly fun. Suitcases are often on the large side, and daytime trains are the domain of people dashing off across the country on mammoth treks. And importantly, trains are often full, with people standing left right and centre.

It’s one reason why I’m always extremely keen to make sure I book my tickets early, and get a seat reservation. No one wants to be standing for several hours on a busy Intercity train after all, so if I can avoid it through forward planning, I will.

This year in particular, was one I was very keen to ensure I got reservations for. The West Coast Mainline is shut between Birmingham and London, and no Virgin services are running between Manchester and the capital. We, and many others, headed off to join the London trains from Sheffield – armed with our reservations.

The problems started there where – for reasons known only to the train staff (thanks to the delights of a dubious intercom system, the explanation was garbled and incoherent) – the reservation slips hadn’t been put out. (The one coherent bit of the intercom stated that passengers with reservations had priority.)

Naturally we found some people in our seats. (Actually one of our seats, but there were two of them – one in an opposite seat.)

In such situations a certain etiquette is called for. Those with a reservation should always politely say something along the lines of “I think we’ve got these seats reserved”, at which point the person in the offending seat (hereby known as “the squatter”) should go, “Oh, have you. Sorry. I’ll get up”. At which point you get your seat and all ends well. Someone had said exactly the same to us on our trip to Sheffield (where Transpennine had also not bothered to put the reservation slips out), and we moved off the offending seats.

Of course the whole thing falls to pot when the “squatter” loudly and indignantly proclaims “well I’m not moving!”

This then of course leads to a tussle, where you (as in me) tries to point out the fact that the point of a reserved seat, is that you get to sit in it. This then gives me the “Well the person sitting in my seat on the last train wouldn’t move”. My (verging on angry, and definitely on the fuming) response was, that if there’s someone in your seat who won’t move, then you speak to the train manager who will sort it out. At which point I was told by loud, annoying woman (approx 50) to shut up.

In the end, I took the seat next to her, fuming, and knowing that this would be a mistake.

(Actually slightly more of a mistake as I soon found out that the annoying squatter next to me wasn’t in my seat at all – it was her travelling partner opposite that was. I’d forgotten that on some trains with table seats you get two seats with the same number – one with a B and one with an F. One facing back, one facing forward. However they’re never labelled as such on the train – you just get two seats with the same number. I’d spotted seat 48 (F) and assumed it was one of ours, when actually we were on B.)

I knew that not resolving this straight away was storing up trouble. Someone was bound to want the seat I was in. This happened shortly after, at Chesterfield which was unfortunate because I was still fuming inside. The result was a polite young man hand me barking at him that I couldn’t sit in my seat because the woman next to me had proclaimed she wasn’t moving. Of course what I really wanted was him to make a stand and help be oust one of the squatters so that I could have my proper, assigned seat, but instead he found an empty seat behind us and sat there instead. (My fumed bark was of course aimed at the loud woman, not the polite young man – although I suspect that didn’t come across very well)

So what happens a few stops down the line? Yes, someone has reserved the seat that the polite young man was in. And this new bloke wasn’t so polite. And not surprising – it’s standing room only by this point.

Obviously I had to move. I was in polite bloke’s seat and he was an innocent bystander in the whole shebang. He was getting an earful, and it wasn’t his fault. The ruckus had alerted the loud, annoying woman’s travelling companions opposite (who were also squatting) and finally after some shuffling, I got my seat and loud, annoying woman was shamed into moving, and her partner went with her.

Now I should say that loud, annoying woman was with a woman of more advanced years (say about 75) and whom no one would want to stand all the way to London. Which is why if they’d just spoken to the train manager in the first place, all this hassle wouldn’t have happened. No train manager is going to let an elderly woman stand on a train – it just won’t be done. One simple “Look, we’ve no reservations but she’s 75, can you sort something out?”, would have probably got them a free upgrade into first class if needs be. I would have happily gone down to speak to the train staff myself if it had been presented to me as an issue (actually the age issue wasn’t even mentioned to me, and I was too busy battling that I hadn’t notice it)

Part of the problem came in that the seat reservation slips hadn’t been put out, but discussing it later, we decided it wouldn’t have made any difference. The woman wouldn’t have budged anyway – her “tale of woe” from a previous trip made that clear. But not sorting it out initially ended up causing far too many problems. Seat reservations are like a house of cards. Put one foot wrong, and the whole thing comes tumbling down. On an overcrowded train with scores of people standing anyway, it was a recipe for disaster.

We weren’t the only ones to have hassles – although ours was more extreme. I glumly watched from my forced-squat a family approach some seats reserved. The woman told the people on their three seats that they were reserved. Their indignant retort was “Well, where are we supposed to go?” The woman was pregnant; her partner carrying a small child. They moved. But only after getting a good earful – and rightly so. The fact that they had to get that earful is rather a sad reflection on their attitudes in itself.

But I’ll tell you what really annoys me about this whole saga. It’s that thanks to one annoying woman who wouldn’t move out of her seat, I ended up lying in bed for an hour with an embryonic ranty blog post on the subject buzzing through my mind. No doubt loud, annoying woman’s final revenge.

It’s now half one – the post is now written. Maybe finally having said all this, I might get some sleep before I have to go to work tomorrow…


  • Kirk says:

    I’m travelling on New Years Eve. And having to go the non-WCML route. Wish me luck with my NXEC seat reservations… (I’m going via Doncaster)

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Good luck! You might need it – I suspect it will be a bit tetchy out there 🙁

  • steveboswell says:

    I travelled the very same route in the week before Christmas – the 21st, to be precise – and there were no reservation slips out then, either. Surprisingly, the train wasn’t fully booked, so we escaped any ugly “seat rage” incidents.
    Incidentally, the explanation given for the absence of reservations was that there had been “a computer problem… in London“: an announcement which actually seemed to make everyone in the carriage suddenly very sympathetic to the poor train staff. It must have tapped-in to the Northerners’ collective wariness of a) London and b) computers!

  • Damien Bovalino says:

    Hilarious blog found it when searching for cheese charts, and where was the Christmas spirit throughout all of this? One of my joys is to watch the conductor “throw out” those people completely un-aware they are sitting in first class reserved seats. Ha, great sport!

  • John Cowan says:

    What exactly is the legal position in occupying a seat which bears no indication that it is reserved and is subsequently claimed by a passenger who has in fact reserved it but no labels have been put on the seat to indicate this.
    If you are sitting in it are you required to move?
    Please help and advise

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Good question. I doubt there’s any specific laws on the issue and there’s nothing at all about reserved seat occupation in the National Rail Conditions of Carriage. But unless seat reservations have been specifically cancelled on a train, whether there’s labels there or not, I suspect the train staff would come down on the side of the person with the reservation. If they didn’t, the whole system could fall apart!

  • Graham says:

    On a slightly different tack, I daily use Virgin west coast from North Wales to Crewe and the number of reserved seats I see not claimed from Chester makes a mockery of the reservation system. Here’s a tip if the seat just says ‘this seat is reserved’ and no-one is occupying it then feel free to use it. The display changes from ‘this seat is reserved from …..’ to ‘this seat is reserved’ once the station the reservation is from has been passed. On other Train Companies without digital reservations the ticket inspector usually removes the paper tabs if the reservation isn’t taken up.

  • Malcolm says:

    If there is no notice of reservation on the seat, then the seat is not reserved, quoth the Railway Byelaws.

  • Andrew Bowden says:

    Ah, to quote:
    “Except with permission from an authorised person, no person shall remain in any seat, berth or any part of a train where a notice indicates that it is reserved for a specified ticket holder or holders of tickets of a specific class, except the holder of a valid ticket entitling him to be in that particular place.”
    The law and morals are, of course, different. Unless of course train staff have decreed all reservations void. (This used to happen a lot to me on Virgin Trains before the Pendelinos were introduced and cancellations were more common.)

  • Malcolm says:

    Perhaps we have different morals or different understanding of the Law. For me the Law and the morals are identical and complimentary — I would never demand someone leave their seat if there was no notice that the seat had been reserved.
    On a great deal of Cross Country trains, since Arriva has began running the service at least, I’ve found reservations are rarely honoured, and last Sunday was on the other side of your predicament — having an open return from Edinburgh to Cambridge, sitting at an unreserved table with 2 others and 3 gruff Aberdonians boarding at Newcastle demanding we relinquish our seats on an already over-crowded train. Train guards are inconsistent in their enforcement. Some have asked me to move (I refuse, naturally), some have reseated either of us or refunded my or my fellow travellers’ reservations.

  • Sally says:

    I’m actually sat on a virgin train now, having been quite rudely ousted from my seat! There were no electonic reservations lit and the train, I knew would become declassified as virgin like to put it. So I think it’s safe to presume that this means that seat reservations are void. So I sit in a vacant seat until I get told that I have to move in no uncertain terms! I’m now left fuming and have just managed to Fight my way through stranded people in the isles and found a vacant seat by the skin of my teeth!

  • Wren says:

    Worst is those operators like Virgin and Southern who have been known to change display to reserved during journey. So, when you had the opportunity to select a vacant seat at start of journey, there would be some surprise to find at some later station the person claiming your seat pointing to a display stating reserved. To have a manageable system, train operators should use a competent display software to scroll all reservations during journey.