How does SNCF allocate seats on its trains?

Siège dans un train SNCF

The daily newspaper 20 Minutes sought to understand how SNCF allocates its passengers to the different seats available at the time of booking.

Car 6, seat 45, window side. Have you ever wondered why you sometimes land in car 6, sometimes in car 16? Why do you get a square or an isolated seat? That’s what the newspaper 20 Minutes investigated in a report on passenger distribution techniques on trains.

Focus on customer selection criteria

Jérôme Barbeau, head of the SNCF’s central reservation system, explains that the company has a placement algorithm that allocates the best possible seat to each passenger according to their selection criteria.

When booking tickets, you can choose to travel window-side or aisle-side, in the direction of travel, or in first or second class. However, the algorithm does not take all criteria into account in the same way. Some are given priority, such as class or the placement of people with reduced mobility. Others will be respected as far as possible, depending on the number of places available.

The algorithm also gives preference to isolated spaces for people traveling alone, and tries to group groups into squares.

Bringing travelling families together

The SNCF also seeks to gather the same type of passengers in the same carriage, the aim being to promote comfort for all, as Jérôme Barbeau affirms. To avoid congestion when getting off the train, the algorithm also « sprinkles » passengers at the time of booking, to avoid overcrowded or completely empty carriages.

An algorithm that sometimes misses the mark

Despite the rational calculations of the SNCF algorithm, many passengers complain that their essential criteria are not respected. This is the case, for example, for tall people who find themselves stuck in a square or facing seat with insufficient legroom. Should SNCF add preferential options to its booking space? It would seem so.