Paul Makepeace ;-)

How to (not) buy a train ticket

First off I'd like to preface this by saying I'm a huge fan of the rail network, both specifically the British one and conceptually as a global transport idea. I don't own a car in the UK from practical, political and philosophical standpoints, so make heavy use of the rail network. I've even collaborated on a site celebrating trains. I'm convinced we as a society are doomed to a slow smelly death if we don't figure out a way of reducing car usage, and developing fast, cheap, stress-free national travel. And that means trains. Unfortunately it seems we have a long way to go.

The following is an account of my attempts to purchase a return ticket from Bristol to Manchester.

British Rail

Well, the first thing to realize is that it's not British Rail anymore. It's not even National Rail. Or Railtrack. Why? Because it changed. Again. Ever since good ol' Maggie Thatcher privatized the rail service it has become a sprawling, confusing, ever-shifting collection of disparate entities (Branding? Wassat?) about which a consumer typically neither knows, nor ever wants to know. The problem of course is we're forced to know, becoming intimately familiar with knowing, just to buy that ticket. That's right, to actually go on a train.

Clue to Train People: we just want to buy tickets and travel to and from places.

Bristol to Manchester

This simple return journey took me over thirty minutes to research, as opposed to simply "look up" or even "buy", with a similar feeling of helplessness as one might have trekking to the depths on the Amazon forest armed with only a dessert spoon and a stale cheese sandwich. During my brave endeavor I was bounced around three different people, three phone numbers, four websites and eighteen different but equally palpable flavors of purple annoyance. The overall result for all this toil was me not being able to purchase a ticket. Here's what happened.

First stop: Railtrack, National Rail, er...

The well-known number to call to check train times is Railtrack's (sorry, Network Rail's) 08457 484950. I was duly informed that I could get the 11:09 from Bristol Temple Meads to Manchester Piccadilly without any changes. If I buy it by 6pm (18:00) the day before I travel it'll be 35pounds, rather than 50. Great, I thought, I'll take one. It's still four-something p.m.

"I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to call Virgin Trains to book the ticket, we only provide information."

Sigh. The number is Virgin Trains, 08457 222333.

Second stop: Virgin Trains

Ah, joy. A voice recognition system. I don't know if it's because I'm getting old and luddite-ish or perhaps it's just that I feel like a complete pillock saying "yes... Manchester... 11:09... the morning...".

I immediately hang up and try the website which they at least helpfully suggest on the phone. That was my next mistake. A small, entertaining and highly educational pamphlet could be written on all the UI errors made in this site alone. Suffice to say after five clicks, two pop-ups, four Flash animations, and one "low-grade encryption warning" not to mention a flinch-reflex-inducing "have you registered yet?" I get to the point I think where I can search on train times/buy a ticket. Except I can't. Because it doesn't work. It alternates between hanging and reporting a cryptic out-of-service type server error.

I go back to the voice recognition system.

One automated humiliation and fifteen to twenty minutes on hold I get through to one of their reps. The VRS to its credit has picked up most of my request, the remainder confirmed by the Real Live HumanTM. Is it just me, or is it increasingly a privilege to be offered the opportunity to talk to an actual person?

But apparently I need to get the 11:08 from Bristol Parkway. Wait, I say, I was told the 11:09 from Bristol Temple Meads. I don't really mind, it's no substantial distance from where I live but it's a bit confusing and there's an addition interconnection on this route.

"I'm sorry, sir, that route isn't possible because Bristol Temple Meads won't accept fax orders.".

Wait, I don't give the remotest damn about the subtleties of train ticket supply chain management and order fulfillment, but I have to because it prevents me from getting a ticket on the journey I had wanted.

OK, I'm flexible, I can deal with a minute's difference in train journeys and heck even an extra change, so plastic in hand I try to buy that ticket.

"I'm sorry, sir, the quota's been exceeded on that route; I can only sell you a ticket for 50pounds."

Sensing that I'm about to lose it the rep pre-emptively starts railing, ha ha, against National Rail or whatever they're called now for providing me with bad information. That's all very cathartic but I don't have a ticket yet. So in my most composed manner request the phone number of which other far-flung body I must now call. Wales and Borders apparently, on 0870 9000773.

Third stop: Wales and Borders, er, Chester-le-Track (huh?)

Being somewhat more web-inclined than phone, I try their site first. Despite the frenetic Flash banner animation, blinking images and bizarre 1997-esque statusbar effect Wales and Borders (or whatever they bill themselves as) does at least provide a search facility on the front page. Great. I fill in my details and am mercifully presented with options that jibe with what I'd heard on the phone, now seemingly hours before. I more or less grok the moderately confusing form below the results, ignore it, and click "check availability" at the bottom.

An error occured while loading

Could not connect to host

I try it again repeatedly with gentle pauses and sympathetic rests for the server to get its breath back (it is a Sunday afternoon after all) but all to no avail. A dozen clicks or so later, and one email to webmaster@ I'm forced to use the phone for the second time.

It's now past five p.m. (17:00) and the six pm deadline for an advance ticket is ever closer. However, I'm reassured by my previous conversation with National Whoever it's still a little way's off. So I call and .... they're closed. Since 16:45.

So I can't buy a ticket.


Because I'm unable to buy online or over the phone the ticket price is over 40% more expensive and given the amount of time between now and the departure, I'll have to buy it at the station with all the attendant hassle and risk of the train being full. My culpability in this is perhaps not buying further in advance but regardless, I'm playing by what appears to be the rules and yet this isn't working and my time and money are being wasted.

The low level of integration and plain factually correct information sharing amongst these bodies is worrying, the state of UI design appalling (especially given myriad tried & tested prior art like Expedia, Orbitz, etc), and that not one but two webservers are down horrifying. Folks, this is 2002. There is simply no excuse.

Maybe there were leaves on the fibers?

Some telesales phone numbers of rail operators

Call National Rail on 08457 484950 (or visit their quite decent National Rail: Planning Your Journey site) for times then one of the telesales. Or just call the telesales if you know the region.