Is there a clear way to tell on British trains (generally) which seats/tables are reserved seats? In Germany we definitely made some mistakes accidentally taking seats that were eventually reserved, in part because they weren't clearly indicated in some cases (and some because we didn't know what to look for).

In this question I'm referring to National Rail trains, not London Underground or similar which would not have reservations (I assume). Medium to longer distance trains, such as London-Manchester or London-Sussex.

  • As a season-ticket holder on London-Sussex trains, I'd like to point out that Southern, Gatwick Express and Thameslink south of London do not offer seat reservations. Not sure about Thameslink north of London (but I suspect the policy applies to the whole route). Sep 19 '15 at 15:11
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    This is not an answer, but a potentially-helpful FYI on the topic of reserved seating: On some services you can reserve a seat before you've bought a ticket, using the website or an SMS message. An example is CrossCountry's ten minute reservation service
    – Tom W
    Sep 19 '15 at 20:22

There are three broad classes of trains, when it comes to seat reservations. Electronic Displays, Card notices, and None!

Looking at Electronic Reservations, these are generally seen on Cross Country + Virgin West Coast Voyager trains, and Virgin West Coast Pendilino trains. With these, you'll see a seat somewhat like this:

cross country

Up above the seat, built into the luggage rack, you'll see a scrolling display which tells you about the seat reservation. If the seat is reserved, it'll say when, which could be multiple times on a long journey (eg Southampton to Reading + Oxford to Birmingham New Street). Some seats might be reserved en-route, it'll say so if that's the case. Others are unreserved. Displays look like this:

cross country reservations

On most other long distance trains, such as First Great Western, Virgin East Coast, Cross Country HSTs and the like, card tickets are put into a special holder just above the seat. On that will be printed when the seat is reserved, such as this one:

fgw taken

If there's no ticket card thingy above the seat, then either it isn't reserved, or there has been a problem with the seat reservations printer... The latter is rare, but does happen, and is announced if so. If your seats look like this, they're free!

first great western free

Finally, there are commuter and outer-commuter services, which don't support reservations. First class seats on those typically look like these:

commuter none

If a seat is reserved, but not yet, you're welcome to sit in it until the station it's reserved from. If it is supposedly reserved now, but no-one is sat in it after departure, you can sit in it. However, be aware that the seat reservation holder might've got on in the wrong place, and may arrive a few minutes later to turf you out...

In standard class, 4 seats round a table are generally very rare on long distance services, so unreserved ones get sat in quickly. For standard class, reserve if you can!

In first class, they're more common, but still often the first ones taken. Outside of peak times you should normally be fine to find an unreserved one to sit in.

(These photos taken by me today. I got lots of very odd looks taking photos of empty first class seats over a few hour period on different trains, I hope they help!)

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    A variant of the paper slips which I came across this weekend - the reservation slips on the West Highland trains had the passenger name on them as well as ticket details. Hadn't seen this before; not sure if it's a general Scotrail practice or specific to that line
    – Andrew
    Sep 19 '15 at 9:09
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    Please note that on some services with electronic displays, the seat you are sitting in can be reserved while you are sitting in it and another customer can legitimately arrive expecting to sit in their reserved seat and turf you out. There is a slight design flaw here in that the electronic displays are not visible from a sitting position, so you wouldn't know until that person arrives.
    – Tom W
    Sep 19 '15 at 20:19
  • @TomW The reservations screen normally does warn that - it'll say something like "seat may be reserved en route" (as shown in one of the photos), or "seat available" if it'll be free the whole time for sure
    – Gagravarr
    Sep 20 '15 at 7:52
  • With the electronic displays, the reservation data takes a while to load onto the system, so if you're at the origin station where the data is loaded, it's sometimes possible to board before the data is loaded. If every seat says "available" then this has probably happened. Oct 1 '15 at 15:20
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    On Pendolinos, coaches "F" and "U" are all unreserved seats; they're around the middle of the train. If you don't have a reservation, you should try to head for those coaches. Oct 1 '15 at 15:20

Train seats have a slot on top of them. In this slot a paper card is placed on which is printed between which two stations the seat has been reserved. After some googling I found this image. In that image you can see those cards.

Train image with reserved seating cards

This makes obvious that the seat is reserved at some point of the journey. To find out if it is reserved on the part that you care about, you can start reading the card. Sometimes it takes a while to find one that is not reserved for the duration of your journey. I've also seen it happen that the someone accidentally pushes such a card, causing it to fall on the floor. The system is certainly not fool-proof, but in general works rather well. Advantage over the German system is that those cards are very hard to miss.

On some trains (put rather few in my experience) the system with a little electronic screen above the seats is used. I believe this is also used in Germany, so in that case you have a good idea what to look for, but it is much easier to miss than the paper cards.

When you board the train at its departure station it can happen that the personnel still needs to put the cards in place. Don't be surprised, just read what it says and eventually move to another seat if that happens.

When you occupy a seat reserved by someone else, the same thing as in Germany usually happens: the person claims his seat in a friendly way, you apologize and move to another seat.

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    The electronic screens are the norm on Cross Country and Virgin (west coast) trains. I'd also note that most of the trains I travel on, the reservations seem to be left empty more often than taken up (in standard class at least)
    – CMaster
    Sep 18 '15 at 16:56
  • Not all reservations are sure to be on the cards or the screens, so even when you look well you might find a seat that is reserved even when it does not show. On the other hand, if there are more seats than reservations people are free not to use the one they reserved and you might be able to sit in one that has a tag while you did not reserve it.
    – Willeke
    Sep 18 '15 at 17:58
  • @CMaster It's electronic displays on Cross Country voyagers, unless the screens are broken, when they put out the cards as best they can. On Cross Country HSTs, it's always the cards
    – Gagravarr
    Sep 18 '15 at 17:59
  • "Advantage over the German system is that those cards are very hard to miss." - actually, older German trains (often, anything below the ICE category) use the very same system. (Though, personally, I find the screens much more difficult to miss, so I suppose it is related to what one is used to). Sep 18 '15 at 21:38
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    It's worth emphasising @ptityeti's point that everybody in the UK takes these things in good spirits and people will not get angry if they find that you have sat in their (reserved) seat. They will just ask you politely to move.
    – Ubiquitous
    Sep 19 '15 at 16:23

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