Unusable Train Reservations

2009-07-08

Returning from EuroPython I got the 1730 from Birmingham New Street to Sheffield. The seat reservations in this class of train appear above each pair of seats on a little illuminated dot matrix display that shows 2 rows of text. Each row displays 16 characters (it was quite tricky to count, but it was close enough to 16 that surely, if there is any god, it must be 16).

Each row displays the seat reservation information for one seat. As a little message that scrolls along. Most of these messages were of the form: “20 This seat is not reserved”. This message is 28 characters long. Which means it needs to scroll to fit on the display. Some genius decided to pad the scrolling message with 16 blanks, so that the end of the message scrolls off completely before the message begins again. So, for the display of this message, there are 44 states that a row can be in. Each state corresponds to a position in the 44 character string (each position in the string can be identified with the display state that has that position at the extreme left-hand end of the display).

The seat number is 2 digits long. It is only displayed for 15 of the 44 states. Meaning it is only visible for 34% of the time. It’s actually kind of important to display the seat number. Especially as they made the mistake of putting the larger of the two seat numbers on the top row. The two rows display the reservations for a pair of seats: N (bottom row), and N+1 (top row). Nuts. In fact it’s not necessary to display the seat number on the display itself. Adjacent to the display (on either side) are stickers showing the numbers for the two seats and whether they are window or aisle. It would be a trivial design change for these stickers to point to the appropriate row of the display.

Some of the time the display will show t reserved or eserved or something else that could reasonably be mistaken for reserved. So if you just glance at the display then you have about a 7% of interpreting it as “reserved” (when in fact it’s not reserved).

The shorter the message is, the more likely we are too be able to comprehend it instantaneously without having to wait for it to scroll. So it would be good to get rid of unnecessary text. “This seat is” is totally unnecessary. We’re on a train, we can tell that the little display refers to a seat reservation. So all it needs to say is “20 not reserved”. And that’s only 15 characters long, so it can be displayed permanently, without needing any anti-assistive scrolling.

The case where the seat is not reserved is a bit special, but it’s worth concentrating on, because those are the seats that people will want to find when they are boarding the train. At least, people without reservations. People with reservations don’t need the overhead displays at all because they can just look at their ticket to find the seat number. To recap: The reservation displays are only useful for people without reservations, so they should be organised around making it clear which seats are free.

The remaining cases, where the seat is reserved for some of the remaining journey, should probably be handled with text that is something like “free until chesterfield” or “reserved until york”. Possibly the “free” and “reserved” can be “stuck” at the left-hand side of the display while the remainder of the display scrolls to show the whole message. Dunno. But I bet a day of trying out a dozen ideas would be a vast usability improvement on how it works now.

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5 Responses to “Unusable Train Reservations”


  1. I completely agree. I think usability experts are rare on the railways. The feature that bugs me is that lots of train time displays are co-opted as general information displays.

    Sometimes the information displays for quite long periods, during which time you can’t see the train, platform or other times. Often the information is something that is not at all time critical (it might mention engineering work but more likely its telling you to watch out for terrorists or some other noise). The result is that the information you *need* as a customer is nowhere to be seen.

    Cambridge railway station has a particularly annoying set of such things, but its by no means unique.

  2. Nick Barnes Says:

    If designing a refit, have the bezel printed or engraved to show which seat each display refers to, thus saving space on the display for the dynamic reservation information.

    If simply recoding the display software, consider: there are 4 states of interest:

    “20 free”
    “37 reserved”
    “16 free to Egham”
    “18 free from Preston”

    The first two are trivial to fit statically. The latter two should hold the first 3 characters fixed and scroll the rest if necessary.

    When the Windows box driving it all crashes, does the BSOD text scroll across all the displays?


  3. What is it about those stupid dot-matrix displays that makes people completely lose their mental bearings? You may have noticed its baneful influence on the front of buses. In the old days there was a rotary sign the driver could turn to display the destination, such as OXFORD STREET or SIX MILE BOTTOM or NOT IN SERVICE. When the illuminated dot-matrix displays came along, some genius must have decided that it was frightfully rude to tell people a bus was NOT IN SERVICE. You should soften the blow with a little apology first. SORRY NOT IN, is what the buses now say half the time. The other half they say SERVICE.

  4. Clive Says:

    Actually, if it’s not necessary for the variable display to show the seat numbers, it’s also not necessary for it to show the word “Reserved”.

    If there were a banner saying “SEAT” above the fixed seat numbers and “RESERVATION” above the variable display, the display could then give nice terse, clear messages like “after York”, or a simple “Not reserved”.

  5. Adam Says:

    You think you’ve got it bad, usability-wise? I live in Los Angeles. Metro replaced all of the route maps (The ones attached to the bus walls, so you can see where you want to get off) with Bus TV, some subsidised advertainment channel piped in.


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