Whether you have or haven’t booked a seat reservation on a train, finding a seat is a frustration for many passengers. As a daily train commuter to and from work, this is something I, and many others around me, struggle with every day.
There are broadly two types of train passengers; one who has bought their train ticket in advance, along with a seat reservation on a specific train and one who has not got a reserved seat, or has been automatically given one in the booking process, but isn’t bothered about finding that specific seat.
Finding a seat should be a straight forward process for both types of passengers, either finding their reserved seat or finding an unreserved seat on the train, but it is not. And one of the key problems is the way reservations are displayed on trains. It may seem a small problem but with millions of passengers travelling by train every day the impact is huge, so how could current display methods be developed to improve the user experience?
In the article below we review the two main current display methods, electronic and paper, and consider ways to improve them.
With electronic displays, the users’ seat reservation along with their seat number is shown above the seat, for example, Fig. 1, displaying ‘Reserved from Sheffield- Newcastle’.
One problem with electronic displays such as Fig. 1, is that the display shows reservations for the pair of seats, one under the other, which makes it difficult for both types of users to understand which seat reservation relates to which seat number. Users are focused on looking at the reservation within the display, so they may not see the seat number labels next to it and even if they do, they then have to work out which seat relates to each number.
A potential solution is to make it clearer to users which seat number relates to either the aisle or window seat, the use of icons could help. This is seen on the Eurostar (Fig. 2), to try and clearly indicate which seat number corresponds to which seat.
However, these icons alone may not be enough to help users understand which seat is the window or the aisle. Another potential solution is to show the seat reservation next to the icons as well, as seen on a German train (Fig. 3), to highlight the window seat. This way, users would not have to go looking for this information after finding the reservation.
Finally, another potential solution could be to avoid the use of icons and users having to work out what these mean, the seat number, reservation and the seat type could be shown within the electronic display, for example ’12. Sheffield – Leeds. Aisle’.
Another issue with electronic displays is that it has a scrolling display, so both types of users have to wait while the display scrolls to read it all. For users without a reservation, they may have to stop and wait for several displays until they find a free seat, a process that can block the aisle and slow other passengers getting onto the train, particularly at peak times.
A potential solution is coming from the new Virgin Azuma trains in 2018 are introducing a traffic light system next to the electronic display, as mentioned in Design Week. This would work by a red light indicating that a seat is reserved all journey, an orange light would indicate it is reserved part journey whereas a green light would show the seat is available. This traffic light system should make it easier for users to immediately scan for availability of seats, as these are visible from a distance, like paper tickets. Fig. 4 shows an early design concept, from Rail.co.uk for what the electronic displays should look like with a traffic light system on Virgin Azuma trains.
An advantage to electronic displays is that the train manager can automatically set all reservations at the start of each journey, meaning there is no need to physically distribute the reservations onto each seat. However, this could be problem to users looking for any available seat, due to electronic displays still showing ‘unclaimed’ reserved seats. This is when users have a seat reservation but do not catch that specific train or sit somewhere else, leaving the seat unclaimed but marked as ‘reserved’.
A potential solution could be that electronic reservations could be wiped after a certain amount of time after the train has left the station, to reduce users having to guess whether the seat is likely to be claimed or not. The Intercity-Express in Germany implements this, where seat reservations are cleared after 15 minutes if the seat hasn’t been claimed by then. As a result, seats that were initially reserved would be displayed as available, instead of informing users that the seat reservation is still active.
The other commonly used display method for seat reservations is a paper ticket that ‘sits’ on the top of each seat. These have to be manually put out at the start of each train journey by train staff. However, an advantage of this is that these can be easily removed once the seat reservations expire, or are not claimed by the seat reservation holder, unlike electronic displays. Another advantage is the physical natural of paper tickets makes it is easy to see unreserved seats from a distance, as these seats would not have a ticket on top of the seat.
Paper tickets also allow multiple journeys to be printed on them, to show multiple reservations (Fig. 5). This allows users to work out whether that seat is free for their journey. However, as more reservations are included, the card becomes cluttered and will take longer to read. Users without reservations may choose to ignore and look for a simpler option, rather than hold up other passengers looking for a seat.
One problem with paper tickets is that the writing on a paper ticket is small and users may struggle to read the journey information, as well as the seat reservation number, especially when the ticket is placed on a window seat. Both users with or without reservations may spend time trying to read each paper ticket.
A potential solution to allow users to quickly scan the paper ticket, their name could also be printed on it, for example, ‘R Edmands’ as well as the seat number, as this information may be spotted more quickly than a number that has no meaning to users (Fig. 6). Virgin East coast trains include surnames on paper seat reservations. However, some users may not be comfortable with personal information being on public train tickets.
Another issue, particularly on busy trains or ones with long journeys, is that paper tickets may fall off or get knocked off the seat in which they are placed on, confusing users who are looking for their seat when this is no longer visible. This also impact users who are looking for available seats, as it would appear like the seat does not have a reservation.
A potential solution for this is instead of placing tickets on each seat, these could be placed at the top of a pair of seats, similar positioning to where electronic displays are shown. This is seen on a German Intercity-Express (Fig. 7), where paper reservations are shown at the top of the seat, reducing the risk of these falling out of place.
Making changes to the design of seat reservations is not straightforward. The designs and systems are often ‘built in’ to the carriage so changes are time consuming and costly. This appears the antithesis of most UX work, embedded as it is in Agile projects which are ‘never finished’. But the techniques can be adapted and iterative cycles of design and research can help train companies develop better design to put on their trains. With new rolling stock coming to our railway lines in the next few years and new focus on customer service from train companies, we look forward to finding our seat reservations with more ease in the future.