Everyone knows that the UK rail service - staffed by hardworking people with an occasional urge to strike - is a good one. But, thanks to successive butchering by Tory and Labour governments, and despite a heroic-but-failed effort to produce a web booking system that makes sense of it, it suffers the somewhat-critical problem.
It is, in a nutshell, Impossible To Use.
Everyone has an illustration of what this means is in practice. I don't think mine will add anything, but I'm just putting this down out of sheer disbelief.
I'm travelling to Canterbury with my three daughters one day this week. We're leaving from Herne Hill, and changing at Bromley South. So I decided to buy tickets.
1. I went to the National Rail site, looked up train times, and clicked for a price. £42.20 for the four of us.
2. When I clicked to buy the tickets, I was sent through to the booking pages at Sutheastern where my details were already in a "mixing deck", which offered ma a price of £84.40.
3. Trying to tweak the price by applying student cards and reminding the system that we had one child in the party, produced a welter of different prices, some as low as £66.70
4. Southeastern does not encourage phone calls, but there is a number for Web Support on the site, so I call this. I suspect there is a Web services problem in the communication betweeh the sites.
5. Southeastern's Web support tells me that National Rail does not have live information, so it may be selling me something which has sold out on Southeastern's site. This does not sound likely, as the price has remained on National Rail's site.
6. I decide to try buying by phone, but Southeastern does not advertise a phone number to buy on so I ring National Rail.
7. An Indian voice from National Rail's call centre tells me the trip will cost £42.85 (which turns out to be the price of three Student cards and one child).
8. National Rail's phone service can't sell tickets - same as the web site - so they transfer the call to the operator.
9. The operator tells me that I must click a different - and very mysterious - option on the mixing desk, which specifies travel by one specific operator, and the prices will be cheaper. Only when we find the option does not exist do we realise, I am talking to the wrong operator. National Rail has transfered me to Southern Rail , not Southeastern.
10. Happily, Southern Rail knows the customer service extension at Southeastern's Customer Service centre (you have to choose a customer services option to actually get customer services).
11. Someone at Southeastern's Customer Services has a mysterious knack for making me not want to murder people, and checks through a lot of options, eventually assuring me that the cheapest way to do this is to use two 16-25 Rail Cards, and the tickets will cost £49.10. This turns out to be wrong, but she's so helpful, I don't mind, even when I find out a bit later on.
12. Unhappily Sotheastern Customer Services can't sell tickets themselves. However, the do have the secret of buying Southeastern tickets on the phone. It is not, as National Rail thought, through Southern rail. Oh no, of course not. It's through Southwestern Rail. And she has the number - a closely guarded secret not revealed on Southeastern's phone lines, or (anywhere I could see) on the web site.
13. So I ring Southwestern, and yet again give all my details of travel (I have lost count of how many times I've given them so far) and yet again, a computer works out what I should pay, under the guidance of yet another different person.
14. This time round, it looks like we are going to pay something fairly close to the £49.10, when the Southwestern chap discovers a 2 for 1 offer on adult tickets, which means if Kitty travels as an adult, two of us can go free and the price is two adult returns.
15. To my utter astonishment, the price is the original £42.20. No rail cards required.
16. I pay online and can - I hope - collect the tickets from Herne Hill.
If anyone has read this far, I'm sorry to have put you through all that. I wound up wondering
- Why are there multiple prices from multiple sources?
- Why, despite automatic ticketing on the web, did I have to make five phone calls to four different companies, and give my travel details five times on the phone, as well as multiple times online, before I could actually buy tickets?
- Why does a Southeastern ticket cost less bought on the phone from Southwestern, than it odes bought online from Southeastern?
- Is Southwestern even selling the correct tickets?
- What is the point of having any sites or call centres that can quote a price, but can't sell a ticket?
- Why is anyone involved in setting up this nightmare still employed at all?