Ingenious Signs Ensure You Always Get A Seat On The Train

Never wonder which car has empty seats again.

Getting on a train always involves a certain amount of guesswork. You don’t know where the train will stop on the platform or where you should stand to get a seat. One car might be full, another nearly empty. Inevitably, you’re stuck boarding the former (or running madly for the latter).


In the Netherlands, a new system designed to reduce shuffling on the platform tells riders exactly where to stand to get an open seat. It’s a 590-foot-long LED screen that hangs above the train platform and uses intuitive color-coding and symbols to show exactly where to stand to make boarding easier once the train arrives.

“People have no idea they can walk farther to find free seats,” says Joost Holthuis, an Amsterdam-based creative director of the design agency Edenspiekermann (founded by German typographer Erik Spiekermann). “That was our main business case for our project.”

Long, illuminated blocks of blue span the length of each car, marking the space where the cars will pull in (and where the gaps between cars will be). Using information from infrared sensors in the train doors, the sign notes where seats are available–a block of green means that part of the train is empty, orange means semi-crowded, and red means that section is full. A white block with a perpendicular arrow indicates where the door will be once the train stops. Large numbers reveal whether each car is for first or second class, and symbols near the door signs–like a man with his finger to his lips–show where to stand for the quiet car, where you can board with a bike and which entrances are handicap-accessible.

ProRail, the organization that maintains platforms and stations on the national rail network, initially hired Edenspiekermann to come up with a way to speed up the transfer process at rush hour. That way, ProRail would be able to increase the capacity of trains the station could handle each hour. Holthuis* and his team spent three years researching the problem, working to get Dutch Railways (NS)–the state-owned rail service–involved, and coming up with concepts.

“A lot of passengers are quite confused on the platform,” explains Holthuis. “You can’t predict where the train will stop, where it’s busy. It’s very crowded on the platform.” Jostling crowds can be dangerous on a narrow platform, and the signage also reduces the amount of moving around people do, making it a little safer.

A four-month pilot test in 2013 using the system in the Den Bosch railway station in the southern Netherlands proved successful in improving customer satisfaction, according to Dutch Railways. “We saw the people behave just as we wish they do,” Holthuis says. “They waited in line at the place they could expect the doors. There was almost no movement on the platform.” The only complaint about the service was that it wasn’t implemented in more stations, he says.


Curiously, the designers found that an app, which conveyed the same information, was not received as well. Looking at your phone is not always the best way to navigate through physical space. (Who hasn’t managed to walk the wrong way even while staring intently at Google Maps?) Standing in front of a sign–something in the real world–feels more natural.

Now, NS and ProRail are working to implement the system in more stations, though it may take a few years. The first step will be installing the infrared counting system in all trains. Then, Holthuis estimates that LED screens–a total length of around 50 kilometers (about 30 miles)–will need to be installed in stations. In the meantime, other European countries have reached out about potentially implementing the system elsewhere. “I think it’s a universal problem,” Holthuis says.

*An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Joost Holthuis. We regret the error.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.