Social Distancing on Public Transport

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought new challenges for public transport, with the almost immediate and complete shutdown of the international public transport systems as the most striking short-term effect.

As countries are gradually seeing the effects of their various measures in an attempt to ‘flatten the curve’, governments and public transport authorities and operators are starting to consider the post-Covid-19 society and the effects that will carry on in the long term.

Social distancing is a critical element of our lives, at least until a vaccine against Covid-19 is widely available and people feel safe using public transport. This poses tremendous challenges to those public transport operators that follow a so-called ‘open access’ model. Without upfront knowledge of the capacity and occupancy of train or bus services, ensuring a safe distance between passengers is an almost impossible task. While airlines and high-speed rail operators may see ways to adjust their seating and reservations to ensure more distance, the challenge to achieve the same effect is a multitude larger for operators that do not know in advance who will be on board.

Switching to some form of a reserved seating model seems unavoidable to prevent the public transport system from being overrun during rush hour while safety regulations only allow usage of a portion of the physical seat capacity. But how to approach this as an operator that has limited or no experience with seat reservation on board their services?

Seat reservation models

From an inventory management point of view, seat reservation as a concept does not necessarily imply that every individual passenger is assigned to a specific seat and is informed of the seat they can occupy. Advanced inventory management systems approach this in several ways;

  • Reserved seating model
  • No seat assigned reservation model
  • Contingent based reservation model

In the traditional ‘reserved seating model’, an individual passenger is assigned to a specific seat and is informed in their ticket or boarding pass about the seat they have been assigned to.

In the ‘no seat assigned reservation model’, the physical train or bus floor plan drives the calculation of seat availability dynamically (and this availability is decremented automatically for every new booking), but the customer is never actively informed about which precise carriage and seat they should use during their journey. For efficiency reasons, the allocations in the background target individual seats and carriages, but they are not communicated to the passenger for efficiency. With a service serving multiple stops, this model can capture and optimise seat-reusage, sometimes referred to as cabotage, as much as possible. The fact that the seat number is not exposed to the customer often reflects the operational challenges in actually directing passengers to the right seat during their trip.

In the ‘contingent based reservation model’, the capacity reserved for booking is detached from the actual rolling stock used and is configured entirely manually per departure, date, and physical inventory class. The simplicity of the configuration of this model is the obvious benefit, while it is at the same time also its primary drawback. When the rolling stock planning changes and a train is cut in half for operational reasons, the operator must consider the new reservable capacity. In the previous models, the fact that this recalculation is triggered automatically can be considered a significant benefit.

Operators typically also mix these models; for some business-oriented products, a specific guaranteed seat is assigned on intercity trains. For other more affordable leisure products, no specific place is communicated to the passenger (even if it may be assigned in the background). Some commuter services only manage reservable capacity by number, using the contingent approach, without dealing with the individual seats at all.

Whatever the model, each requires a sophisticated inventory management system that is capable of dealing with the challenges of:

  • Calculating availability in real-time on Origin-Destination basis, as train routes and long-distance bus lines have the additional complexity (compared to airlines) of stopping at several locations during their service
  • Being able to provisionally lock capacity and release it again should the customer abandon the booking process prematurely before finalising the transaction
  • Serving accurate information at scale while still ensuring the central source of information is up to date (in an inventory management system, at any given point in time there is only one version of the truth in terms of current status of capacity and occupancy)

Operators that already have access to a modern inventory management system can consider themselves lucky in the current circumstances, as they can meet the social distancing challenges with updated configuration in their seating algorithm, blocked seats on their services, or reduced contingent sizes.

But for open access operators not in possession of such a system, achieving the same effects threatens to be an operational nightmare involving large numbers of staff on board and on platforms, and, even worse: a great number of disappointed passengers that are not allowed to board their originally planned departure due to occupancy reasons.

Introducing social distancing seat reservation

The need for inventory management due to Covid-19 does not necessarily introduce a 180° change of course for open-access operators. A seat reservation system can also be introduced in addition to existing ticket sales, payment, and distribution systems.

Under more fortunate circumstances, an integrated ticket and seat reservation strategy simplifies the procedures, enhances customer experience, and leads to the highest gains at the lowest cost. But if time is not on our side, and acting fast is required, solutions can still be achieved.

Even with a less integrated reservation system, operators could make use of the solidarity of their passengers and the overall willingness to contribute to the health and safety of all, by registering the intention to travel on a specific service departure. Even if that means the seat reservation is not directly related to the transportation ticket as ‘right to travel’: many operators in Europe traditionally come from the situation in which the ticket and the seat reservation were entirely separate entities. Some of the larger operators in Europe still work like this. In that approach, the information needed to configure a state-of-the-art reservation system is limited to:

  • Timetable information for the future departures
  • Rolling stock information on the train and bus types delivering the service
  • Business rules around seat allocation, in order to respect social distancing

In that perspective, integration of ticket validity rules, payment collection for transactions, or fulfilment of secure digital barcode tickets, suddenly become less relevant than they would otherwise be in a more integrated approach.

Relevant considerations and questions

Operators facing these challenging times should ask themselves several strategic questions going forward. For example, when the Covid-19 pandemic passes, would a reservation system still provide further added value in our business process? Yes, it does, in many ways.

In the short term, in order to be able to at least use seat reservation as the solution to comply with social distancing, the questions are more pragmatic and help to easily identify a potential system introduction:

  • Is integration with the existing sales system and journey planner actually required at all?
  • Is the raw data from the operational planning department regarding rolling stock readily available to assign passengers to specific seats?
  • Is a ‘labelling’ solution in place to ensure passengers can easily identify carriages and seats during their journey? Are the seats physically and visually numbered on board?
  • Is it safe (from the perspective of potential abuse of the system) to allow placing seat reservations free of charge, as the existing ticketing system is initially not integrated?
  • Are passengers allowed to place seat reservations anonymously? If not, what characteristics are best captured on each transaction to strike the right balance between a smooth operational process and safeguarding customer privacy?

The outcome to these questions may well vary over time. What is acceptable as a short term ’emergency’ solution in these times may be less accepted in the mid-term. For that reason, choosing a solution that provides maximum flexibility moving forward is recommended.

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