Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Off The Rails

I don’t agree with Top Gear about many things but I’m veering towards their point of view on public transport. Especially when it comes to UK train services.

It is less stressful, more relaxing and infinitely more satisfying to drive the length of England than it is to try and book a train ticket. It also takes fewer hours. Carlisle to London by car? About five hours. Booking the ticket online - about four days.

First you have to decide when you’re going. Roughly. With enough flexibility to be able to take advantage of cheaper fares if there is a full moon on the day of travel (outbound journey only).

Then you have to thread your way through a bewildering variety of available rail tickets: Advanced, first class, standard, super-saver, off-peak, first advanced, anytime day single, super-advanced off-peak return, advanced off-saver super-peak, advanced-saver-first-class-upgrade-single, standard-advanced-turn-up-and-grab-the-ticket-salesman-by-the-throat-and-shout-“For-god’s-sake-just-a-give-me-*****ing-ticket!”

Then there are the discounts. Did you know you can get cheaper tickets if you have the ticket sent to your mobile phone? You need a wap-enabled mobile for this. This recently led to the ludicrous situation where it was cheaper for me to buy a new phone, than it was for me to pay for a normal ticket poked over the counter.

The ticket is emailed to the screen of your mobile, arriving in a state that is virtually unreadable. On my last trip the conductor asked for our tickets and said: “Oh god, you’ve all got them on your mobiles. I’ve got a splitting headache so I’m not even going to look.”

The image quality is so bad you could probably counterfeit it in Photoshop. Not that I would ever condone such vile behaviour as it would cheat the scumbag rail companies of much deserved income.

To make things even more deliberately annoying, you have to be careful which online booking service you use. I’ve just been caught out by this (hence the need to rant blog about it).

I’m a public-spirited kind of guy, so for the benefit of fellow travellers in the north west of England, let me state this very clearly:

NEVER EVER EVER book via without checking the Virgin Trains site first.

Even if you’ve already checked Virgin, do it again. In the 30 seconds since you last looked, Earth may have aligned with Jupiter thereby releasing new offers. (I can see no logic to their availability so the causal link may well be astrological in origin.)

Unfortunately, this time I decided I had a life so forgot to double-check and paid £30 more than I needed. Of course, refunds are available on some tickets but - ha ha - not all and anyway there’s a £10 admin fee per ticket. Outbound and return are two tickets, even if you book as one return journey. Presumably this is because has television advertising to pay for.

And speaking of fees, when you buy a ticket from Trainline there is a booking fee (£1) and a credit card fee (£3.50) so, on balance, I think my earlier public-spirited statement can be amended to:

NEVER EVER book a train via Not ever.

Should you want to give me your comments on this issue, you’ll find me on the next train to London. I’ll be the one trying to steal £30 worth of sugar sachets from the buffet carriage.

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