Why the UK’s National Rail website is an IT disaster

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In a few weeks’ time, my wife is taking the kids to her parents’ house by the seaside for a week. I’ve got the week off work too but I’ve got a huge list of outstanding jobs to do at home, so I’m only spending part of the week with them. It’s daft to take two cars (especially as we will be travelling together in one direction), so I thought I’d try public transport…

Problem number one is that I live in a rural area so public transport is not exactly plentiful – even though I’m just 12 miles from the thriving new “city” of Milton Keynes we have just one or two buses an hour, which run infrequently (and unreliably) and take at least 40 minutes for an indirect route to a location that is still just over a mile from the station. Not exactly convenient – and, at £3 (single fare), not exactly inexpensive either!

Then, after a brisk mile-long walk from the shopping centre to the railway station, I’ll be catching a train to London, tube across London, and then another train to sunny Dorset. The rail journey will take just over 3 and a half hours – which is not bad really (it would take me about 2 and a half to drive using a much more direct route – or around 5 hours by National Express coach) but Cheapest available fare - £56.60 (or is it?)the National Rail Journey Planner tells me that the cheapest available fare is £56.60 with no advance fares available (at which price taking the car is suddenly sounding more economical). (RailEasy and The Trainline also reckon that the lowest cost single fare is £56.50, despite the latter site The Trainline claims to save travellers 39% on average compared with buying a ticket at the station on the dayclaiming to save travellers 39% on average compared with buying a ticket at the station on the day!

Luckily, I spoke to my father, who knows far more about UK railways than would generally be considered healthy – and his advice came up trumps – instead of buying a single ticket for the entire journey, it seems the thing to do is to use the journey planner to work out which trains to catch, and then try again for each leg of the journey.

Using this method, I found I can get the Milton Keynes-London leg for £14.50 (off peak return… not using the return portion), then cross London on the tube for £4 cash or £1.50 with an Oyster card and I can currently buy an advance single from London to my eventual destination in Dorset for £9 or £17 (depending on the time of day I travel). Using this method, £56.60 becomes £25 – and that is not really bad value at all (especially when compared with £41.50 for the significantly slower coach journey).

Why is this relevant on a technology weblog? Well, if a travel website that is incapable of accurately calculating the lowest available fare is not bad enough, the next stage of the process is an IT disaster – the sticking plaster that bonds together the various websites used to provide this “service”. The National Rail website has the ability to hand off to third parties for ticket purchase, which sounds great – web services in action – except that I got more than my fair share of failed fare lookups (retrying seemed to result in success) and when I was passed across to the two train operating companies that I used (London Midland and South West Trains), I had to register with each website individually – despite the underlying infrastructure being hosted under the oddly-named trainsfares.co.uk domain by The Trainline (where I also have an account) and an error page after my session timed out referring to yet another train operating company (with which I do not)! I could almost excuse the National Rail website for being aesthetically dull (I find its basic colour scheme and busy layout presents a navigational nightmare – in web terms rather than its intended purpose as a travel aid!) but the results it produces are not even consistent – the train that I’ll be using for the Milton Keynes to London leg of the journey disappears from the list if I use the earlier and later links to navigate back and forth through the available journey options!

Is it too much to ask that, now that train fares in the UK have (finally) been simplified, the systems should be able: to calculate the the various legs of the journey and find me the absolute lowest fare; reliably integrate to provide consistent results; and, where several train operating companies use the same service provider, for a single online account to be able to buy tickets for the entire rail network?

Maybe I just want too much…

5 thoughts on “Why the UK’s National Rail website is an IT disaster

  1. Thanks for that advice Tim… I chose the £17 option for my advance fare from London to Dorset and it would have been £12 using Megatrain (on the same service)! Oh, well… maybe next time…

  2. Hi just writing to agree with the leading article. I’m an advocate of using the coach myself. Purely and simply because the information/fare costs are so irratic and confused.

    It’s my solution to dealing with the chaous!

  3. Right… so the fact that your link is to a coach travel company is just pure co-incidence is it Catherine ;-)

    At least by train I got there by mid-afternoon. If I’d travelled by coach it was going to be closer to teatime… 5 hours to travel 150 miles by coach (and not much less expensive than the train either)… no thanks!

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