Andrew Vine: Ticket to chaos as rail rules baffle the paying public

A RAILWAY carriage full of puzzled people with furrowed brows, examining their tickets because of a gnomic announcement isn't the picture train operators would like to present.

Booking train tickets has never been more confusing, writes Andrew Vine.
Booking train tickets has never been more confusing, writes Andrew Vine.

They’d much rather paint a scene of happy, contented passengers sitting back and relaxing as they speed towards their destination. But that’s not likely to happen unless the strange and confusing business of buying tickets in advance is sorted out.

My brow was as furrowed as those of the rest of the passengers as we waited for a Middlesbrough to Leeds service to set off at the end of last week.

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We’d all found seats and settled down. And then the announcement. Advance tickets were only valid if booked for this specific service, and if they related to any other service a supplement would be payable.

But this was conditional on passengers having walked past an open booking office without checking if their tickets were valid. If not, they should return to the booking office.

Except the train doors had been locked ready for departure, and even if they were unlocked again, there was simply no time to get off and check before the train was due out. Sure enough, moments later we set off.

In common with everybody else, I rummaged for my ticket. Having finished what I’d been doing sooner than expected, I was travelling an hour earlier than the service booked in advance. Oh well, I’ll just have to pay a supplement.

Enter the guard – or “train manager” as we now have to call them. “I expect I’ll have to pay extra,” I said as I handed my ticket over. “No mate, you’re fine,” came the reply.

A couple of people further along weren’t fine, and coughed up supplements.

Stuff like this makes for a great bonding exercise between strangers. After the guard had gone, half a dozen of us compared tickets. As far I could tell, mine was identical to the people who’d had to pay extra. We all happened to be travelling on an earlier service than we’d booked.

The discussion lasted as far as Thirsk, when we all shrugged our shoulders in bewilderment and the people who’d paid extra resolved to follow the matter up by email when they got home.

Nobody argued with the guard, who was a pleasant chap just following the rules. The problem is that the rules may have been clear to him, but they were completely opaque to the rest of us.

Now I travel a lot by train. I’m a fan of the railways, despite the overcrowding on commuter routes, and the excruciating slowness of some services across the Pennines.

Given the choice between hammering along a motorway or sitting down to read, do some work, or just watch the countryside whizzing by, it’s the train every time.

But the more I take the train, the more confused I am by the whole process of booking in advance. In a world of user-friendly websites that lead consumers smoothly through a vast variety of transactions, buying a rail ticket is needlessly complicated and confusing.

The whole business needs streamlining and simplifying. Passengers want two things – the cheapest possible fare and the greatest flexibility over when they travel.

Instead of which, there are hoops to jump through about off-peak returns, whether it works out cheaper to buy two singles, and selecting a service.

I still don’t know why my ticket was valid on a service I hadn’t booked, and my fellow passengers’ were not. Going back through the email I received when booking, I can’t immediately find any clue.

The booking system I accessed via the National Rail Enquiries website must be used by millions of passengers every year. But the ethos behind it is completely topsy-turvy because it puts the convenience of the rail companies before that of customers.

For those travelling because of work, which on weekdays probably means a majority of passengers, this is all wrong.

If they finish work late – or early – and have to get a different train from the one they intended, they understandably feel aggrieved at having to pay more. And telling them that they should have called at the booking office when they are already locked aboard a service is absurd.

How far out of kilter the booking system is with the needs of passengers was illustrated by an email that arrived after I got home, helpfully pointing out that the next time I booked a ticket, I could save 50 per cent by doing so up to 24 weeks ahead.

I haven’t a clue where work will take me in about six months’ time, and I don’t know anybody else who does either. So rethink the system, and offer the discount 24 hours ahead, with the flexibility to get on a different train without paying more.

The passengers will be a whole lot happier, and that’s what counts. Isn’t it?