Friday, 18 April 2008

Why UK trains will never work

Why is buying a cheap train ticket so difficult?

I've just been trying to book a ticket for a train journey from Norwich to London. Never mind that on Sunday half of the distance will be covered by a phenomenon well known to British rail travellers - 'a bus replacement service'. There's no mystery about this - it means you pay to go by train, but end up on the bus.

Anyway without access to the online booking facilities I resort to old technology. The Yellow pages and a phone. National Rail enquiries talk me through the timetable, but can't sell a ticket without transferring my call. Then they cut me off.

The Trainline puts me through to a voice recognition computer. After many attempts it manages to translate my journey into a language it can understand. This involves me barking at it. After pressing '1' I can now buy this ticket. Transferred to a real person at a call centre in India he asks me what train I want to travel on. So the voice recognition procedure was just designed to drive up premium rate call revenue...

After checking with my partner I call back to book the £12 ticket quoted. I manage to short-circuit part of the voice recognition trial, but not all of it. Finally I'm back in India (when did UK workers become so expensive that we had to outsource everything?). Yes the heavily discounted £12 ticket is still available. So we get onto the credit card details when he suddenly says - no that ticket's no longer available. What about the £16 first class advance I ask (train fares in the UK are sold like airline tickets, first come very cheap, come late - very dear. No it makes no sense) No the £16 is not available either. The next available fare is £40. I know that this is the maximum price. This makes me sceptical. I know there are lots of price points between the cheapest and the most expensive.

I ask to be transferred to the operators supervisor. He tries to dissuade me but I am persistent (really? no, you surprise me). The manager says that the system isn't responding. The ticket may be available if I call back in half an hour - or try and book online.

So The Trainline will happily sell me a full price ticket for £40 but if I want to buy a cheap ticket I must try again. I explain that this is fraudulent and the Trainline operators are misleading customers into believing that all the cheap tickets are sold - when they are not.

Exasperated with old technology I go to the library in the Norfolk village I'm staying to use the free Internet access (thank goodness for libraries - I love them). I try the Trainline website - loads of ticket options are on offer for much less than £40. None of them can be booked. I try via National Express East Anglia's website. It diverts me to The Trainline.

Finally telephoning National Express East Anglia yields a ticket at the mythical £12 (£28 cheaper than available from The Trainline fraudsters - this is the same train, same seat).

So the whole booking process has cost about £3 in phone calls and taken 2 hours. To drive their 5 hour 10 minute journey in my own car from A - B with no bus replacement and without the 2 extra changes of transport takes 3 hours. Which is why the UK trains will never work.

I should confess at this point that it's not me taking the journey, but my partner. She also made the final call I describe. The journey time had also extended 30 minutes from the one I was quoted. The helpful UK based National Express East Anglia operator explained the bus bit was 'chaos' and they had to revise the route. I wonder if this is why the Trainline Call centre in India was unable to make bookings?

UPDATE (24th April): 5 days after writing this post the train companies have announced that from next month they will be simplifying ticket types down to just 3; Advance (discounted), Anytime (flexible, peak travel) and Off-peak - purchased on the day of travel. Apparently research has shown travellers don't understand the current system, and less than half of customers believe they are being sold the cheaest ticket. Presumably the change means the train companies will be scrapping most of the cheaper advance tickets too? The train companies deny this. Only time will tell...

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