Although I'm worried that the roll-out of electronic reservations on Virgin Trains East Coast may not go according to plan if they do roll it out successfully it will offer many benefits for passengers, but to realise the full potential it requires the DICE team (who are responsible for the app, the website and the ticket machines) to develop an app that can really exploit the benefits of this system.
Back when GNER refurbished their trains the decided to remain with the paper based reservation coupons, while Virgin Trains were going with electronic reservations on their Pendolino and Voyager trains. At the time I believe GNER made the right decision based on technology available at the time. The electronic reservations didn't add any benefit to the passenger, in fact it made it more difficult to see if the seat was reserved as you had to read each display rather than just head towards the seats without the paper slips. A major issue is due to the slow GPRS mobile network used by the older systems sometimes the reservations had not downloaded before boarding commenced meaning you take a seat where it says available and then find out that a few moments later the seat changes to reserved, the rightful occupant turns up, you then need to find another vacant seat.
Technology has improved somewhat, the system CrossCountry uses allows reservations to be made en-route so even those travelling at short notice have the chance of getting a seat the drawback of the CrossCountry system is that those who board without reservations can find out that the seat they're sitting in gets reserved by someone else.
When I noticed some car parks had sensors above each parking bay to indicate which ones were occupied I thought it would be possible in the future to use similar technology in order to see which seats are currently occupied. This could be used for two purposes, on busy trains it could be used to detect which seats were reserved but the passengers were no-shows which could then be unreserved for other passengers to use and it also can be used to block off unreserved seats when someone sits in them to stop the short notice reservations booting people out of their seats.
This seems to be what Virgin Trains East Coast are planning with their new 'Sensa' seat reservation system. Initially the system will apply reservations like currently but will use the sensors to detect if the seat is occupied. It will be able to get an overall representation of how busy each carriage is. This will mean the displays on the station that show the carriage loadings can use actual occupancy data rather than reservation data meaning the information will be more useful. This information will be made to be available online as well at some point in future.
So what would I like to see? The next step will be offering reservations at short notice like CrossCountry do but only offering the reservations in the seats that are actually free. One scenario that needs to be taken into consideration is that if someone else without a reservation occupies a seat that was reserved for someone else but they were a no-show might be on the train longer than the person who reserved the seat (e.g. the person who was a no-show booked London - Newcastle but the person who's occupied the seat is going to Edinburgh) the system may think the occupant of the seat is the person who reserved the seat and therefore allocates the seat to someone else later in the journey.
For detecting people occupying the seats it makes sense to be over cautious, it's better that the occasional false positive occurs such as a bag being mistaken for a passenger rather than the system thinking an occupied seat is actually empty. It needs to be tested with people of various shapes and sizes, it also needs to be possible for guards to be able to block out seats for whatever reason using their mobile devices.
What seemed like an odd decision to me is that the devices are glued in place and they communicate wirelessly to the systems on board. I'd have thought wires would have helped improve reliability as the system could still work if there was an issue with the wireless routers (assuming the server has multiple ways to communicate with the reservations system). The reason I think they've taken this approach is they don't want to take any carriages out of service to fit the system and so this approach means it can be deployed quickly.
Once the basics are in place and they have feature parity with CrossCountry it would be good to see the app allowing passengers with flexible tickets the ability to check the load on other trains and be able to reserve a seat on a different train. Ideal if you arrive at the station early and there's another train due in. For those without flexible tickets the app should allow changes within the app using Apple or Android Pay to pay the fare difference and change fee. The app could also push upgrade offers and allow the passenger to select their seat after upgrading (much better than Seatfrog) and even offer cheap changes on non-flexible tickets if it's in the operators interest too. For example if the app shows you're already at the station and there's a train due soon that's not very busy, the later train you're booked on happens to be very busy, the passenger could be offered a much cheaper then usual incentive to change to the earlier train. They're happy as there's less waiting about and the operator then has another space available on the busier train.
When there's a set swap those who booked direct should be notified. Their new allocation will be sent by email and those with the app can view their new seat and are able to change it. For those who didn't book direct they can be directed to a page where they input the seat number and it will then display the new seat allocation. This information would also be available on the devices of the guards and platform staff. In the event of a short form or other reason for a carriage to be taken out of service the same could be done.
In the event of a cancellation passengers who booked direct could be automatically allocated a seat on the next available service if there is space, if there's no space then it should automatically offer a seat on the service closest to the cancalled one that has seating available. They would then have the option of either accepting this allocation or choosing the train closest to the original departure on the understanding that they might not get a seat.
The ability to give passengers more control of their booking could provide more people with a genuine reason to book direct and would also give them more control (and chance of getting a seat) during disruption.
Hopefully the ultimate vision of VTEC is something like mine and they also manage to get things working.
We do poke fun when things don't go well but ultimately it's better for all of us, staff and passengers, when things work out for the best and ultimately a successful East Coast is good for all of us. After a dreadful 2017 I have my doubts on VTEC being able to deliver significant improvements, but I really want them to prove me wrong and I'd even help them prove me wrong if they asked me to! I've thought about such a system long before I heard that VTEC were implementing it, I wouldn't mind talking with the team to see if I've thought of any use cases that they haven't or and potential pitfalls they've not thought about.
^DH - views in the blog section are my own and don't represent those of other contributors