Virgin Trains and seat reservations

For an example of non human centric automation, tere’s an example from my experience coming from York with 3 young children, with Virgin Trains last Sunday. We had reserved seats – but were told when we got to York station that the train had “no seat reservations”.

There had been some computer failure at the station where the train started its journey, so the reservation cards which are put on the seat indicating that the seat is reserved were not there. But we still have a ticket which tells us which seats are reserved.

So we have an automated system – designed to do a task – which had failed. What happens next?

As a passenger I have a dilemma. With a young family we pretty much need seats together. Should we go to the seats which are reserved and demand that people sitting in them move, although there are ‘no seat reservations’? That doesn’t sound like a comfortable conversation. Should we take the first seats we find together? If someone else comes on saying that they have reserved our seats, would we then move, or say ‘there are no seat reservations’?

Since the majority of population, I hate conflict, and like to do the right thing, yet I have no pathway of avoiding conflict here.

This is, of course, the sort of situation where a sociopath would thrive – a person who would be happy demanding that other people move out of his family’s seats, or refusing to move from seats reserved by someone else, because there are ‘no seat reservations’. The sociopath would nearly surely win in both situations. Virgin Rail has engineered a situation where the sociopath wins. Well done.

Virgin Rail could have made the situation better by making it clear whether that ‘no seat reservations’ meant that the seat reservations did not apply. Or it could have clarified that despite no reservations cards being on the train, passengers should still try to sit in their reserved seats, if necessary asking people in the seats to move.

The train guard actually made it worse, by saying (once we were on the train and sat down) and people with seat reservations should try to use them. Although this was pretty vague. Does he mean demand that people move if they are in your reserved seat?

A human centric system could have done more – it could have made one carriage of the train available to people who need to have seat reservations – people travelling with vulnerable people who cannot sit by themselves – such as young families.

The point to this story is to show that we have an automation-driven system – but not a people-centric system – and improving it would not be too difficult.

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