In a Facebook thread about Amtrak trains I saw a user comment complaining about Amtraks cattle call seating policy.
What is this?
This is a US term meaning that seats are not pre-booked but grabbed on a first-come first-served basis.
The term originated with Southwest Airlines, which was the first airline to eschew seat assignments at booking or confirmation time (or at least the first well-known airline in the US). Here's an early use of the term from 2001:
In other words, passengers choose their own seat, and they get to choose in a first-come, first-served basis.
After a few years, Southwest changed their policy to allow passengers to reserve a seat in advance, for a fee.
However the term “cattle-call seating policy” has remained in use even Southwest no longer practiced the “cattle call at the gate” approach where everyone in the terminal would scramble to be first in line. The cattle call changed to a scramble to be the first to check in online¹ to get a higher boarding priority.
Today the term is used to mean a first-come, first-served seat assignment policy, i.e. no booked seats. It is occasionally used outside air travel, e.g. about cinemas:
¹ Which is the case on most airlines anyway.
The "cattle call" means that boarding is done en masse, rather than by cabin or seating zone.
In other words, there is a single boarding announcement, at which all passengers on the train will attempt to board. This contrasts with a boarding process which might board business class first, then frequent travelers, then people seated in certain cars.