Ordering a train ticket is a nightmare

I’ve just fought with www.thetrainline.com again. I hate that site. It makes it SO difficult to buy a ticket, but unfortunately it seems that all the websites selling UK train tickets are run using the same underlying, flawed, system. As an example, I can’t search for train times without logging in. Why? What’s the point of that barrier? And then I get a list of train times to my chosen destination and the prices for the return journey, and it says I might be able to get the tickets cheaper if I combine single tickets. Why can’t it work that out for me? In what universe would I think, “oh, I must buy this more expensive return ticket”? It’s like the government’s farcical idea of choice in public services: “I choose the crappy hospital”. And then, when I go to look at the single fares, it won’t let me go back to the return fares without starting my search all over again.

My favourite bit of bad design, though, is with the credit card check out. Most, if not all, credit cards put the expiry date as a month / year combination, in digits. For example: 07 / 04. TheTrainLine doesn’t want you to enter that. No, in a rare moment of trying to be useful, they have spelt out the month in text. So I have to think about which month is the 7th month and choose July. Not a big deal, but where’s the usability? Honestly, it drives me nuts.

Happily, just as I was getting really wound up, I was asked to fill in a (badly designed) user survey. I let rip. Ahhhhhhh.

3 Replies to “Ordering a train ticket is a nightmare”

  1. I worked on some software to be used on a rival system to TheTrainLine for RailTrack which was sadly pulled when it turned out that RailTrack weren’t actually allowed to sell tickets…

    Most online booking systems (for trains, planes, hotels, etc) have to interface with a multitude of ancient barely compatible legacy systems making the ‘simple’ task of pricing and then booking a ticket much more complicated than it could/should be. Sometimes the only way of searching for the cheapest ticket or best route on one of these legacy systems is for the front end to request each possible combination then sort out the best for the user, this would produce too much load on the back end system and so is often not allowed. It is also often the case that the back end systems are operated by different companies or departments of companies from the front end systems and so charge is made for each transaction. This may well be the reason for requiring a user to register as only allowing registered users cuts down the number hits by people with no intention of booking which improves the ‘look to book’ rate meaning less transaction costs per actual booking made.

    Saying all that it may just be a bad site.

  2. Hi Phil,

    As I remember, the railtrack version of train timetables was vastly superior to what we’ve got now. While it didn’t do much that was tricky and, as you say, you couldn’t buy your ticket, you could get decent train information without too much hassle. The replacement system is seriously clunky and I’m guessing it’s what leads to all the booking systems being clunky too.

    It’s interesting what you say about the transaction cost, and that makes sense. That also ties in with my experience of apparantly competing systems (Virgin and TheTrainLine for example) having the same booking system, with different graphics. It’s interesting to me that these companies don’t seem to understand that users can see past the colour scheme to the user interface, and will get frustrated when there’s no real choice.

    Interestingly, a report on the radio this morning said that 75% of telephone enquiries to National Rail Enquiries were answered incorrectly.

    Absolutely mind boggling.

  3. The old web timetable stuff wasn’t actually part of the system that I worked towards but I agree that it was vastly superior to todays offering, I’ve been trying to use it today and its horrible.

    I’ve had some bad experiences with the National Rail Enquiries phone line too, particularly when trains have been cancelled and they keep telling me to catch the cancelled one I’m trying to find an alternative route for.

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