Booking Train Tickets Online

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.

Worm related spamming

I got an email this morning from “Daphne Jacobsen”, a marketroid at a CD/DVD company that shall not be getting any plugs here. She claimed that someone from my company had mailed them requesting prices last week but that their servers had become infected with one of the many worms on the lose recently and that the message had been lost (but obviously not completely lost, otherwise where did she get the email address?) Her message ended:

In case you need more information, our company web site is [DELETED] where you can see we are a complete “one stop shop” for DVD, CDROM, printing, packaging, and fulfillment services.

If you need, please call me TOLL FREE at [DELETED].

Obviously spam. The mail was sent to an email address that I’ve never used at a domain I’ve only ever used for personal purposes. Interesting, though. The mail was obviously carefully written to sound genuine and unique. Hand-wringing over the problems caused by the “worm” ties it in nicely with current events on the internet and might make a receipient feel sympathetic to the sender. At first glance, not your usual spam – possibly different enough to not only escape spamtraps (it slipped past two to get to me) but to snare a few more unwary punters than usual. I’ve never received anything quite so carefully crafted before (if you exclude some of the better phishing emails).

Violent censorship: a successful strategy

BBC: Theatre ends play in Sikh protest. So, should you want to deny someone their freedom of speech and expression, you merely need stage a violent protest and you’ll get your own way. What’s the fuck’s going on here? I’m not necessarily a fan of insulting people’s religion, but if you don’t approve of a play, here’s a clue: don’t go to see it. Are the police afraid of being accused of cultural insensitivity or something? If there’s a danger of more violence, it is their duty to protect the theatre, not the responsibility of the theatre to cancel a play out of fear. I’m really beginning to despair of this country. I really am.

Blunkett’s gone

I’ll drink to that, although I don’t really think the recent fuss in itself warrented a resignation – his disregard for our civil liberties is another matter, however. Let’s hope his ill-conceived ID card scheme follows him out of the door. Unfortunately, I don’t hold out too much hope of that, but you never know. (BBC)

Website access frustration

I’ve just spent an intensely annoying half hour or so trying to get car insurance quotes online. I finally managed to coax a quote out of one of the four sites I tried. What follows is a boring rant on the subject.

The problems mainly stemmed from poor site design and rather badly implemented user-agent sniffing. (This is when a website tries to assess what browser you are using and tailors content based on their guess.) Something in the javascript on the Direct Line site breaks when entering additional driver details, and it becomes impossible to get any further. Both and Tesco (the car insurance bit of the site, anyway) refuse to let me in based on my user-agent, helpfully suggesting that I “update” by browser to version 4 or above of either Internet Explorer or Netscape(!). When I’m using the brand-spanking-new Mozilla Firefox released in the last week and, it’s probably fair to say, at the cutting edge of browser development, this is rather idiotic. I did manage to get a quote from Churchill, so well done them. Funnily enough, they seemed to use an almost identical system to Direct Line, so I’m not sure where the difference was that broke one site but not the other.

Still, I suppose that Firefox has only just come out of beta testing, so perhaps it’s a bit premature to expect across the board support just yet. I decided to send off a quick note to the offending sites pointing out their lack of support for Firefox, just to let them know potential customers do use browsers other than IE. At the end of the day, they’ll want to know this if they care about their customers. Or at least you’d think so, wouldn’t you?

Attempting to do this results in yet more hurdles. Tesco seem quite reluctant to give out email contact details, but they do provide a form you can fill in to request technical support. Although aimed primarily at their online banking customers, I thought that I’d give this a try. No luck – you have to specify your browser and operating system from a menu with very limited choice and no “other” category. Pretty much all Windows versions and the last three Mac OS releases were your OS choices. The browser list was longer, but only contained versions of three different products – Netscape, IE and AOL. So, no Tesco customers use Linux, Opera or Mozilla, then. Or maybe they just don’t give a shit.

This indicates to me more than just a delay in catering for a comparatively new product – more of a complete mindset. The designers of the Tesco website must have been aware of the existence of other tools and platforms, but have chosen not to cater for them to the extent of not even providing an “other” category on their technical support form. Is this the sort of company you want to use for important financial matters? I think not. The details matter, and Tesco has skipped on those in my view.

Keeping out the idiots

Still got the comments disabled at the mo. I haven’t had the time to make the necessary changes to the code, but it’s pretty high on my list.

Grepping through the referrer logs shows that there’re still a lot of unwelcome visitors. I suppose that we should take some slight satisfaction in noting that the spambots aren’t at Turing level just yet, and have to reply on brute force. Wankers.

I have made a bit of a start by introducing some filters into my .htaccess file. I’ll post these in due course if they seem to do any good, but when both the IPs the spammers use and the site addresses they promote change so fast it’s a bit of a losing battle. Still, there are definite patterns to the domains so that gives us somewhere to start.

Anyone surfing past this post with any helpful suggestions or comments is especially encouraged to mail me. Cheers.

Preparing for Emergencies

For those of you in hiding (or from overseas), this is the title of a UK Government leaflet on, well, preparing for emergencies. I know this ain’t exactly fresh news, but since this received such a derisive response initially I mostly ignored it. Today a hardcopy was waiting on the doormat when I got in from work, so I felt duty-bound as a responsible citizen to give it a read. (Not to mention being slightly concerned as a tax-payer over what my hard-earned cash is spent on.)

Well, those who responded with incredulous howls of derision were for the most part right. It’s a load of patronising toss and an utter waste of time and money. Seeing as so many others have expertly deconstructed and ridiculed it already, I won’t go on at length but will point at a couple of the better online commentaries – Chris Lightfoot’s comments and, of course, the excellent parody website over at the Department of Vague Paranoia. Oh, and of course the official site, too.

Reaction to Robbie

Rights and wrongs of music piracy aside, am I the only one who finds this a slight exaggeration?

In a reaction to Robbie Williams’ recent remarks on music piracy, The BBC reported some comments from Culture minister Kim Howells:

Mr Howells added that Williams’ comments were helping “do the work for international gangs involved in drugs and prostitution who find music piracy an excellent way of laundering profits”.

This seems a bit much to me really, especially when juxtaposed against the next paragraph in the report:

A prolonged slump in CD sales has been blamed on fans downloading songs from royalty-free websites and an increase in the ease of copying, or “burning”, CDs on home computers.

From what I understand, most of the fuss has been over this last issue, and most of the “solutions” put forward by the Music Industry have been aimed at making life more difficult for the end user – the determined organised criminal won’t be quite so easily put off.

Perhaps what we have here is the start of a new strategy, since the assault on consumers hasn’t met with the most favourable of reactions.  What next… Music Piracy – the Terrorist’s friend?

David Blunkett loves hip hop…

I heard our lovely Home Secretary on the radio today discussing the recent murders in Birmingham. He had a few things to say about rap
music, too

I am not going to get into the issue of censoring.

But I am concerned that we need to talk to the record producers, to the distributors, to those who are actually engaged in the music business about what is and isn’t acceptable.

Now one the one hand he says he’s not going to talk about censorship, then he goes on to say that he sees a need to discuss what’s “acceptable”. Now I know that this isn’t the same as banning a track for containing lyrics about guns, but it’s still taking a step down that road. I don’t think that it’s up to the government to so much as suggest what “is and isn’t acceptable” in art, whether it be music, literature, painting , whatever.

Thankfully, judging from the BBC report cited above, at least some of Mr. Blunkett’s colleagues may have a clue – both John Denham and Dianne Abbott came out with statements tempering Blunkett’s (I might be a cynic, but this does smell a bit of spin control…), and to be fair to him, he had just been played a track by someone hoping to get remarks like this out of him.

I don’t really think that the pols are about to turn around and ban hip hop, but it’s worth watching. Plus, I’m getting a sense of deja vu from somewhere, too… isn’t Metal supposed to turn kids into satanists? And didn’t Elvis encourage promiscuity with his shockingly gauche hip movements? And… yeah, you get the point.