Railfuture has discovered that LNER is planning to impose compulsory seat reservations on their trains, saying that the Covid pandemic had given them the opportunity to introduce these sooner than intended.
“Compulsory reservations will seriously disadvantage passengers making short journeys” said Railfuture director Allison Cosgrove “The journey from Durham to Newcastle is only 12 minutes for example – and other connections are also quite short between Alnmouth, Newcastle, Durham and Darlington, or between Grantham, Newark and Retford. Passengers making unexpected or unplanned journeys could be forced onto other slower services if they have neglected to reserve a seat, and this could result in them abandoning the idea of travelling by rail.”
“They claim that passengers are more likely to make a long distance journey if they are guaranteed a seat, but this ignores the fact that seat reservations are already available to those who want them.”
LNER is the only company currently to insist on seat reservations when travelling: other train companies strongly advise reservation, but it is not compulsory. “We fear that this will be the thin end of the wedge, and that other train companies will follow suit if this goes ahead”
“Although LNER has introduced a smartphone app that allows seats to be booked up to 5 minutes before departure, not everyone has a smartphone and may not have the physical ability to use all its functions if they do possess one. The ability to have a turn up and go railway will be lost.”
“ What are the railways for? Public transport is meant to be a public service that is accessible to all who need to use it. The convenience of the travelling public should come first, ahead of the wishes of the rail companies. This idea is misguided and will serve to drive people away from the railway if they cannot use it on a turn up and go basis; particularly on the many short journeys between stations on the ECML.”
On the 6th March 2021 Railfuture Lincolnshire branch held a webinar with a speaker from LNER: Matthew Trigg (MT), Public Relations/Stakeholder Liaison. There were 49 participants, mostly Railfuture members from the Lincolnshire, East Midlands, Yorkshire and North East branches. By far the most contentious part of the LNER presentation concerned its plans to introduce compulsory seat reservations, with MT stating that LNER had intended to introduce compulsory seat reservations before the covid pandemic, but that covid had given them the opportunity to introduce them soon. Even more alarmingly, MT stated that other long distance TOCs were planning to follow LNER’s lead. Every questioner at the webinar stated their opposition to this move, and many who did not have the opportunity to speak subsequently emailed Railfuture Lincolnshire stating their opposition. LNER have attempted to justify compulsory seat reservations by citing a You Gov poll showing that people were more likely to make a long distance train journey if they were guaranteed a seat: this ignores the fact that it is already possible to make seat reservations, and indeed these are required for passengers booking advance purchase tickets. Has their survey asked how many people would not travel if they did not have the freedom to choose their travel time at the last minute, particularly for the return? If not, LNER don’t know how much revenue they will lose as a result.
Whilst in the past some long distance trains have been subject to compulsory reservations, this did not apply to every long distance train on the route. Indeed, even with the current covid travel restrictions and social distancing measures, LNER is the only long distance TOC to require compulsory reservations on its services. According to their websites Cross Country, Avanti West Coast and GWR strongly advise passengers to reserve a seat in order to ensure that social distancing is maintained, and warn that if passengers do not have a reservation for their preferred train there is no guarantee that they will be able to board. It should also be noted that LNER has one coach on its trains where seats cannot be reserved, this is to ensure that seats are available for their own staff travelling for work.
Railfuture’s view on compulsory seat reservations.
The railway, and this includes long distance rail services, should remain predominantly turn up and go, with passengers having the option of reserving seats on their chosen train if they want to.
Accordingly, train operators should advertise the fact that it is already possible to reserve seats on long distance trains and make it easier for passengers to be able to do so; and even offer inducements for passengers to reserve seats for their journey. For passengers making long distance journeys, particularly those travelling in a group, or with children; having reserved seats provides peace of mind and makes the journey less stressful by removing the uncertainty about whether they will be able to find a seat or be able to sit together.
However we strongly oppose the introduction of blanket, compulsory seat reservations on all long distance trains; particularly where long distance train operators provide the only service on a given route or section of route.
In our view making all long distance trains subject to compulsory seat reservations would have the following disadvantages:
1) There are stations where high speed, long distance operators provide the only service for passengers making short journeys: for instance on the ECML between Grantham, Newark and Retford; and also on the ECML between Alnmouth, Newcastle, Durham and Darlington. It is in our view ridiculous to require passengers to make seat reservations for a journey that only takes 12 minutes: as in the case of Durham to Newcastle.
2) Compulsory seat reservations could force passengers making short journeys onto other services on the same route that are slower or have fewer seats. The former making the journey less convenient and the latter leading to overcrowding; and in both cases making rail a less attractive travel option. There is already evidence of this happening in Yorkshire where compulsory seat reservations on LNER services have resulted in passengers being lost to Northern services between Doncaster, Wakefield and Leeds with the result that the Northern trains get heavily loaded.
3) If passengers currently making short journeys on long distance trains (and where these trains provide the only service available for that journey) are no longer able to turn up and go they may decide to drive or travel by bus in future, leading to those journeys being lost to rail.
4) Compulsory seat reservations could also lead to confrontations between passengers and staff if passengers without seat reservations are prevented from boarding trains or are turned off trains; or if other trains on the same route are too crowded to board.
5) Enforcement of compulsory seat reservations would be extremely difficult where passengers making short journeys board at open stations without ticket barriers and where there are few if any platform staff.
6) Whilst LNER has introduced a smartphone app that enables passengers to book seats up to 5 minutes before departure, not everyone has a smartphone or is able to use all its functions: smartphones can for instance be difficult for disabled passengers to use.
7) Whilst seat reservations can also be made at ticket offices or by LNER staff on the platform, not all ticket offices at stations managed by LNER are staffed throughout operating hours and not all stations served by LNER have platform staff.
8) Compulsory seat reservations would also cause problems for passengers using rover tickets who will typically make several journeys on the same day. If the flexibility to board any train is lost then this would deter this type of traveller. There could also be problems where a passenger is travelling with a friend who is joining the same train at another station: what happens if that friend is unable to get a seat on the same train?
9) Compulsory seat reservations also raises the issue of what happens when services are disrupted. For instance if services on one route are disrupted will passengers still be able to complete their journey using services on another route: in these circumstances most passengers would rather risk standing than being left behind.
10) Compulsory seat reservations also raise the issue of what happens when services are fully booked. For instance, if a passenger arrives at a station to find there are no seats available on the next train then they could face a long wait for the next train, and on days when there are major events taking place passengers may find that they are unable to travel at all if the only trains with unreserved seats run at a times that make the journey impractical. In these circumstances many passengers would rather risk having to stand than face either a longer than expected journey or not being able to travel at all.
__Public passenger train services are an essential public service.
Finally and most importantly the issue of compulsory seat reservations raises the fundamental question of what the railways are for, and it seems that both government and the rail industry are losing sight of the fact that public transport is meant to be a public service that is accessible to all those who need to use it. These proposals smack of an exclusionary policy that treats long distance trains as if they are planes where if services are fully booked then passengers are turned away even if they are making essential journeys, and there is no obligation placed on operators to make all reasonable endeavours to accommodate extra demand at busy times: for instance by lengthening trains or running extra trains. This is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the government and rail industry to ensure that public transport is easily accessible to those who need to use it: or for that matter want to use it.
This is not to suggest that train operators should be expected to accommodate unlimited numbers of passengers on trains as severe overcrowding is obviously undesirable for reasons of both safety and passenger comfort. This may mean that at times of exceptionally high demand specific trains on a given route are subject to compulsory seat reservations in order to spread demand more evenly across other services on that route. But we strongly object blanket, compulsory seat reservations being introduced on all long distance services, particularly for short journeys from stations where long distance operators provide the only services or the majority of services.
In conclusion, we want to retain a turn up and go railway, where passengers are able to make seat reservations on long distance services if they choose to and where it is easy for them to do so, and where train operators advertise the fact that seats can be reserved on long distance trains; but where passengers also have the freedom and flexibility to be able to travel on long distance trains without making seat reservations.
Public passenger train services are an essential public service and as such should be open and accessible to those who need or want to use them, and where passengers are able to travel when they need to, or when they choose to travel. This means that the convenience of the travelling public comes first, and accordingly train operators should make all reasonable endeavours to ensure that people are able to travel when they need or choose, including providing extra capacity at times of high demand (for instance by lengthening trains or running extra trains) and only turn passengers away as a last resort. The government should also ensure that not only do train operators fulfil this public service obligation, but that they also have the resources to do so.
Notes to editors:
Railfuture is the UK's leading independent organisation campaigning for better rail services for both passengers and freight.
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Bruce Williamson, media spokesman
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media at railfuture.org.uk