France's SNCF network
France's SNCF network

How does reserved seating work on European trains?

'Human beings need to make short journeys far more frequently, at shorter notice and with greater flexibility, than they make long journeys'

Mark Smith
Thursday 25 April 2019 12:53

Virgin Trains has called for an end to standing passengers on long-distance rail services, with compulsory reservations for all. The rail guru Mark Smith, known as the Man in Seat Sixty-One, explains how it works abroad.

Long-distance trains in France, Italy and Spain already operate on an “all-reserved” basis, where every ticket comes with a reserved seat on a specific train.

Whereas those in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and so on work the same way ours do with seat reservations optional. Flexible tickets are always available – they can never sell out.

Both approaches work, and both have their pros and cons.

It’s important to realise that with a “reservation compulsory” system, standing passengers don’t magically disappear, or get given seats.

Instead of being able to travel standing and get home (though no doubt complaining about having to stand) they are left behind, and have to find another train perhaps an hour or more later, or potentially find a hotel and see if seats are available next morning.

The crux of this issue is mobility. If it were just filling a metal tube full of seats in the most efficient way, Virgin’s proposal would win hands down. Indeed I seem to remember SNCF of France achieves 80 per cent occupancy on compulsory-reservation TGVs, while Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) only 65 per cent on its reservation-optional ICEs.

However, it’s not about efficiently moving people but about providing a service that meets people’s needs.

Human beings need to make short journeys far more frequently, at shorter notice and with greater flexibility, than they make long journeys.

At one extreme, the London Underground could never be run as an airline, with compulsory reservation on specific trains – and no-one would suggest such a thing.

At the other extreme, a long-haul flight is typically booked well in advance. It could well be a once-a-year event, and people may well fit their holiday around those flights.

The problem for intercity domestic rail is that it straddles the dividing line between those extremes.

To make long-distance trains all reservation-compulsory would involve potentially significant financial barriers to changing your reservation: typically a fee plus a potentially large difference in fare between what you paid four weeks ago for your train and the much higher on-the-day fare for a preceding or following train.

In effect it removes flexibility from the typical traveller and therefore strips “mobility” from all but the most wealthy customers.

When the competitor is not a flight but the car, is this a step too far for intercity rail? I think it may be. For the passenger, it can be much more of a strait jacket than we’re used to.

I certainly find travelling in Germany, Austria, Switzerland easier and freer for this reason, compared with the countries with compulsory reservation such as France, Italy and Spain.

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