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.

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

Transport against london

I take a couple of weeks off (a week at home with the kids, a week in Dorset: very nice, thanks, since you ask) and when I first get back to posting, I find I’m channelling the excellent Disgruntled Commuter. This morning’s journey into work was a vision of madness and chaos straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

I exaggerate, of course. The Waterloo and City Line is a key link in my standard route to work, when I go purely by public transport. Hackney to Wimbledon is not the simplest route between two parts of London, but it doesn’t have to be insane. That line, though, is currently closed. Until September. If we assume it won’t reopen until the end of that month at the earliest, that means it will be closed for half the year. I understand that things wear out and break down and have to be maintained: but it only goes between two stations. There’s not that much to it. How long can things take?

So for two days this week I cycled to Waterloo (I work at home on Wednesdays) which is the best way to get in anyway, for all the usual reasons why cycling is best1. But lately I’ve fallen out of the habit. To break myself back in gently (in other words, to give myself a rest from it today, or out of sheer laziness), I decided to chance public transport today.

I’m a great fan of public transport generally, of course: but there are times and services that… don’t show it in its best light, let’s say. The North London Line is one that has a bad reputation at best: indeed, the aforementioned Disgruntled one has written about it in the past. Yet gettting that line to Highbury and Islington and then the Victoria Line to Vauxhall for the last leg to Wimbledon seemed the best alternative route for me.

You’ll have guessed, since I’m writing this, that it was not.

The North London Line is characterised by infrequent, jam-packed services, and it deserves the characterisation. Don’t get the idea that this was a surprise to me: I knew perfectly well what it would be like. What do you think was the biggest prod to get me back onto my bike?

So that wasn’t really the problem (though the difficulty of seeing the station name signs when you’re jammed in standing up makes it extra hard for the infrequent user to be sure they are at the correct station). No, the problem was my old friend2 the Victoria Line.

It was, in short, fucked.

So I got on that curious bit of non-Underground underground line that also runs out of Highbury and Islington (and that I can’t remember the name of), and got a train to Moorgate. Thence by Northern Line to London Bridge and Jubilee to Waterloo. I left home at about 8:15 (significantly later than I originally intended to, admittedly) and the train from Waterloo pullled into Wimbledon at 9:35. Bah!


1. Exercise, knowing fairly exactly when you’re going to get there, and not being at the mercy of the transport network chief among them.

2. Before I lived in Hackney I lived in Walthamstow. You get on at the start of the line (and thus are almost guaranteed a seat) plonk yourself down, open your book, and don’t look up until Vauxhall.

Transport against london