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What Exactly Does it Mean to Book a Train Ticket, Anyway?

I had a slightly weird experience with train bookings a while back. Twice I’ve booked tickets via The Trainline between London and Glasgow (once on my own, once for the whole family). On both cases the tickets arrived with the legend “No Seat” printed in the spaces for the seat details. In both cases I phoned the company and was able to arrange seats (with greater or lesser difficulty and need to switch services)

But the weirdness to my mind is that on The Trainline’s website, you have to select specific trains when you’re booking (even if the ticket you are buying is flexible enough that you can travel on a different service in the end). So you’re always “booking” a particular train; but not, automatically, booking a seat. What, exactly, does it mean to do that?

I mean, let’s assume that all seats on the train are full when you get on, as they usually are on routes like London to Glasgow; is there a particular circle of floor space that is yours? You have a booking on that service, after all: it must mean something.

I recall, years ago, when I used to travel up and down these lines a lot, that there were a lot of services, especially at weekend peak times, on which seat bookings were “mandatory”. There were still people without bookings who got on and crammed in between the carriages, so I’m not entirely sure what that meant, either. But at least it meant that when you booked a ticket (at a station or a travel agent: no web in those days), you also booked a seat.

And having booked it, you nearly always got it; British Rail had its problems, but incompatible systems between the booking agents and the different train operating companies wasn’t one of them, as it seems to be now. The Trainline’s other strangeness was that, after phoning to add the seat bookings, I was sent the details for the outgoing service (on Virgin Trains), but not those for the return (on GNER). When that happened on the first of those trips, I assumed it was a mistake, so I mentioned it when I phoned for the second one. I was told that it was unavoidable because GNER use a different system, and they (The Trainline) were only able to book on paper (and then, what, post the details to GNER?)

I blame the Tories, of course: privatisation was always an appalling idea.

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