This evening Polly and I were trying to book some tickets for a trip she’s making to see an old friend in Manchester. First stop was the National Rail Enquiries Site, which offers a gateway service to book tickets. You fill in your preferred date and time of travel, and it lists the tickets that are available. It then redirects you to a choice of rail operator or third party sites where you can actually make a purchase, passing through the details of the journeys you have selected.
In theory, this sounds great – a really good use of the web. One place to go and identify what tickets and trains are available leading to a choice of commercial sites where you can make a purchase. In practice, it turns out to be frustrating and dysfunctional.
We selected the cheapest available tickets and were duly packed off to a train operator’s site to make the purchase. There were a few more hoops to jump through at the new site, about five screens to page through to confirm the selection, seating preferences, etc. One of the screens facilitated selecting the train and ticket type, with unavailable tickets displayed but inaccessible.
So far so good, but having reached the end of the process the final click redirected back to the front page of the operator’s site with the message that the site was unable to complete the reservation and that we should choose again. That was it. There was no guidance as to which part of the process failed. Was the whole purchasing system down? Had the tickets we’d selected sold out while we were working our way through the site, and if so which journey was the problem (we were buying two tickets on different trains on different days)? Something else?
Going back through the process still showed the options we’d selected as available and we were allowed to select them. Going to another operator’s site and trying to purchase the same tickets also showed them as available, but it also failed with a similar message (it looks like all these sites operate from the same back end, which renders the choice of retailer somewhat moot).
Why advertise the tickets as available and then not allow the transaction? Maybe the whole system was struggling, so to test we selected the most expensive tickets available (over £100 each way) and lo and behold, the site allowed the reservation!
By now we’d spent a good twenty minutes mucking around trying to place an order. We were left with trial and error to determine which tickets the system would allow us to buy, and which it would not. We tried numerous combinations and permutations before reaching the conclusion that the cheapest tickets we’d be allowed to purchase came in at just under double the price quoted when we’d performed the initial availability check.
Of course by now we’d invested a fair amount of time on this, plus it’s known that the numbers of cheap tickets are limited so the closer you get to the travel date the more you are likely to have to pay. Even though we’d allowed a few weeks, this is the kind of task you just want settled and out of the way, plus having to go through the process a second time… eugh. So we purchased the tickets.
Now I’m quite sure that the small print on the sites states that it’s not always accurate, and perhaps a more generous soul would be prepared to grant the UK rail industry the benefit of the doubt that they can’t be expected to provide accurate real-time data as to the availability of tickets. But if the purchasing system has the intelligence to know that the reservations aren’t available, could this not be leveraged by the availability search? It felt like we were lured in with a cheap quote, only to find the salesman up the price at the last minute when our investment of time and energy predisposed us to just accept it. That may not be the reality, but that’s what it felt like.