Rail 567: The woes of railway websites

Breaking his usual ‘norants’ rule, a frustrated CHRISTIAN WOLMAR pleads for a singleon line ticket-booking agency for the whole network.

Railways used to be at the forefront of exploiting and, indeed, developing new technologies, ranging from developing steam engines to exploiting the advantages of the telegraph. Now, it seems, the industry lags behind just about every other in its efforts to make use of the new technologies offered by the internet and mobile telecommunications.

Take the simple task of buying a ticket online. I needed to go from London to Birmingham for a conference I was chairing and even though my ticket was paid for, I decided to make the effort to save money for the organisers. Naively, I went to National Rail Enquiries first to check on the various trains and, having selected them, then clicked on the buy ticket option. It took several goes as I thought I might as well buy a first class ticket out in order to enjoy the breakfast, and return steerage. The site was rather averse to this but I eventually managed to find two singles for £95, a process that took about a quarter of an hour.

Then the fun started. I pressed the button to purchase the tickets only to be given a choice of several different potential sellers such as Virgin or Trainline. I chose Virgin since I was travelling on its trains, only to find that all my details of timings, destination and fares had to be re-entered. Again, it was a bit fiddly and the computer kept on knocking me back. I thought I had never bought tickets through the website, but apparently I had some five years ago and of course I did not have my password. Why railway companies insist on compulsory registration before selling tickets is beyond me but if they do, why are they so fiddly? Can’t they guess that if I put Mr, I am probably a bloke rather than asking for my sex.

Then after about 15 minutes, just as I pushed the button to buy the tickets at the slightly cheaper rate of £87 85 (thanks to a bizarre ticket called the ‘half saver return single’ which I was rather worried might only get me to Milton Keynes!), the Virgin site said I was ‘timed out’. Sighing, and swearing, I tried again, going through the whole procedure, though I did have my password by then, and the same thing happened, even though I had taken less time. Mystified, I gave up, and after nearly 45 minutes online, I decided to ring the call centre where after about 10 minutes talking to the idiotic voice activated machine – ‘you have given the same destination as departure’, ‘no I haven’t’, I screamed at the inhuman voice since, I confess, I was losing it by then – and a pleasant lady in India, I was sold the tickets for £95 since the ‘half saver return’ is only available on the internet. (The ticket was, in fact a half saver return single from London terminals to Birmingham New Street with a reservation from Birmingham New Street to London on the 17 30 – except, of course, no one ever bothered to check the ticket and so I need not have bothered taking the right train, or indeed paying at all.)

Success? Well, yes, but rather too much. Next day I received three sets of tickets in the post. My two efforts on the internet had clearly gone through even though I had not been notified to that effect. I then rang the 0870 number and spent 17 minutes with another pleasant lady in India to ensure that the two extra tickets would be refunded. ‘It is a website mistake’ she said. In fact, two sets of tickets had been issued on the same reference number and she could only find one, and eventually decided to reimburse the tickets obtained by phone and one of the internet ones. Ten days after sending back the tickets, I am still awaiting the refund or any hint of apology.

I try to avoid rants like this, dear reader, because I am not sure that they are very interesting to other rail users and I do not want to exploit my privileged position as a columnist. However, on this occasion, there are some interesting points to make. First, the fact that National Rail Enquires cannot simply sell tickets is because of the ridiculous need to introduce competition into the activity. Clearly, the National Rail website run by the Association of Train Operating Companies would be the principal seller of tickets if it were allowed to be, but that, according to the rules of privatisation and competition would not be acceptable, even though the 9 per cent commission ATOC would pocket could go towards the cost of providing the website and the call centres, thereby benefiting the railway and helping to keep fares down.

That, though, would be too simple and instead purchasers have to be inconvenienced by having choice foisted on them, so emblematic of the prevailing political ethos with its emphasis on competition rather than co-operation. An obvious analogy is with 192, which offered a perfectly good directory service, but was broken up so that various more expensive and confusing 118 services were introduced along with their ridiculous ads which, of course, we are paying for. Or remember the ridiculous attempt to introduce rival telephone kiosks –just as everyone was getting a mobile and therefore their carcasses still litter the north London streets where I live.

We only need one central – and regulated, if you insist – ticket agency that would offer all fares on all lines across the network. Since that is probably impossible now, at least National Rail should be able to pass on the information to the next website or warn purchasers so that most would simply go onto the second website straight away. Or does ATOC simply not care that thousands of people are wasting their time?

Secondly, it is amazing that a company like Virgin, with its reputation for customer service across so many industries, can have such a deficient website. To process two transactions without notifying the customer actually breaches banking codes and should not be allowed to happen. Moreover, to offer fares that are only available online and then fail to offer them when there are problems connecting with the web shows a contempt for customers.

These are not the only difficulties with the web. First Great Western has the most complicated website imaginable because there are a ridiculous number of different ticket types and it is very difficult to wade through. It says things like – two singles may be cheaper – instead of simply offering the cheapest option available. As a friend of mine put it, ‘offering the choice between a £50 ticket and a £15 one is a bit of a no-brainer. I’m hardly going to say, go on then, give me the one for fifty nicker’. Moreover, for some reason, First do not sell tickets for their sleeper train online. The Scottish sleepers, too, are difficult to obtain online as the cheapest fares are only available direct from Scotrail, something which casual users of the railways may not grasp.

The reason for this lack of attention to detail is all too obvious. The railways are booming and overcrowded and the train operators need to make little effort to attract passengers. However, with the economy threatening to go pear shaped now that Gordon Brown is jumping ship, that complacency may well prove to be an expensive mistake.

A bouquet to end with

Among all these complaints, let me just shower praise on Midland Main Line. Why is it that every time I travel on its trains, the staff are particularly helpful and solicitous. On a recent journey to Loughborough, I took my bike even though I had not booked and the woman conductor could not have been more helpful, warning me to move it along the train at Leicester because of the short platform at my destination. Chatting to her, she said she likes to treat passengers like she would want to be treated, a message that all staff trainers should pin on their whiteboards.

This service culture seems to be consistent on MML which also has the pleasant tradition of providing free tea and coffee to all passengers (although the buffet stewards do not always announce this!!!!!) but noticeably absent on other lines, notably First Great Western where service has always been poor. It would be nice to think that MML is reflecting the glory days of the Midland Railway, which was the first railway to realise that treating passengers well boosted profitability, but I suspect that few of its staff or managers know that. It is, of course, ironic that GNER and Midland Main Line, two of the operators which are best at customer service, are both about to disappear…