Online train pains

Buying a train ticket in the UK is fraught with difficulty. There are loads of different ticket types, depending on whether you want to travel at peak time or off-peak, first or standard class, and whether you’d rather buy in advance or at the last minute.

Just in case you weren’t confused enough already, sometimes it’s cheaper to buy a return fare as two separate singles. And it can be even cheaper if you split one single into two separate legs, even if both are on the same train. In short, it’s really difficult to be sure you’re getting the best deal.

This over-complex ticketing system is crying out for a website to make it easier.

Right now, each train company has its own website selling tickets. But most of them are based on the same underlying system – the one that powers TheTrainLine.

Typical Trainline ticket choice screenIt’s really not that intuitive. When I tried to buy a ticket from Reading to Edinburgh earlier today, it gave me a choice of 19 different ticket types, ranging in price from £21 to £184.50. And it presented them in one huge table, with no advice about which would be the best for my circumstances.

Virgin Trains do it a bit better. They have a new website which seems to be bespoke. It claims to show the cheapest prices for your particular circumstances.

Virgin Trains ticket choice screenIt certainly cuts down the number of options, but it’s still far from easy-to-use. You always seem to be several clicks away from actually making a purchase. And changing your journey details is difficult because the site’s not been designed with the ‘back’ button in mind.

Add in a random error or two (“Due to inactivity, this site has timed out. This is for your security.”) and it’s enough to make you queue up at the local ticket office instead.

Truth is, the Virgin site is the best of a bad bunch at the moment. The ticket model is screaming out for a decent online booking service to let you:

  • Search just for the cheapest fares, or for flexible tickets
  • View fares over different time periods, so you can see when it’s cheapest to travel
  • Alert you (via RSS or an email) when the cheap tickets for the dates you want go on sale
  • Enter a starting point and see the cheapest places to go to for a weekend away

The first train company to sort this one out properly will clean up. They’ve been doing it with plane tickets for yonks – why don’t they just get the people from Skyscanner or Expedia on the case?

Making the trains run on time is another matter altogether, of course…

4 responses to “Online train pains”

  1. Joff says:

    I think GNER email you when tickets are released for a date you specify… I’ve been trying to bag cheap London-Glasgow tickets, y’see.

    National Rail have just altered their online journey planner, and you can now search by ticket – but it’s so confusing, even me with my huge brain couldn’t fathom it out.

    A missed opportunity!

  2. Martin says:

    Yes, GNER will let you request notification when specific advance dates go on sale. They also give you a 10% discount off their advance fares if you buy through their own website. Sounds great at face value, but if every train company took this approach (maybe they do – I don’t know) then buying the cheapest ticket for any given journey could end up requiring a marathon Web-trawling session.

    I have long been in favour of a search option which would allow the user to say, “I don’t care when I travel, so long as it is cheap.” The best answer, however, would be a massive simplification of the overall ticket structure.

  3. Hedley says:

    …don’t get me started!!

    oh, alright then…

    I’m under the impression that both sites are powered by the same base code but with different skins. If it’s TheTrainline using Virgins code or the other way round (more likely) they share quite a few of the same components (train station finder for example).

    Not only are both of their sites crap for the intended purpose but neither of their reservation systems for the trains once your tickets are bought are in sync. Double (nay triple) booked seats, reservations that don’t exist, reservations for carriages that have been subsequently removed (no really) or my own personal favourite, no reservation available but once aboard you find nearly half the seats were never reserved (whatever happened to the principal of ‘first up best dressed?).

    As you can see, this is a bone of contention for me having had to endure both Virgins and TheTrainlines booking systems and couldn’t possibly recommend either one over the other (however I do use TheTrainline as at least their site is usually working when Virgins site yet again falls over).

    In short, they’re both unbelievably crap both with regards functionality and usability. I agree entirely that somebody could step in and clear up, and to be honest I’ve been considering for some months rounding up a bunch of merry men (or women) to tackle this issue. Anyone up for the task?

  4. […] current train ticketing websites are pretty much universally awful. For the full story, check out my previous post on the subject. Virgin’s site was the best of a bad bunch, but now GNER’s new […]

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