You-must-be-joking fee

Thursday 8th August 2013

FARE from Swindon to Beckenham and back, booking in advance, travelling off-peak, with senior railcard: £20.10. No point in going from Kemble as there’s a replacement bus service until the end of August.

Same destination, by National Express coach (Funfare ticket) from Cirencester, then by train from Victoria, but going earlier and returning later than desired: £16.30, plus – and here’s the rub – a £1 booking fee.

No contest.

I like First Great Western. Travelling about once a fortnight to various destinations between London Paddington and Swansea, I find the services generally reliable, pretty comfortable, and – more often than not – punctual, notwithstanding the occasional ‘signalling problems in the Chippenham area’.

(But I do wish there were more standard class carriages on services likely to be overcrowded: passengers buy tickets for seats, not with standing in mind.)

On-board and station staff are friendly and helpful, with one young woman at Bath Spa deserving an award for her forbearance and demeanour. And although I’d never be seen in an anorak on the end of a platform writing down numbers, I do think the trains look nice, both inside and out.

Often, I book online. You still have the option to have the tickets sent to you, free, by first-class post.

Meanwhile, over on the National Express website, you wait and wait as, in the middle of the screen, that wheel of the bus goes round and round, some software somewhere apparently struggling to find the right timetable or convinced that you want to travel from Ciampino Airport in Rome to Victoria Bridge in County Tyrone.

Several clicks (and several minutes) later, you’re invited to fill in the usual details about who you are, how you’re paying, card numbers, expiry dates and so on… before choosing whether you want an m-ticket (sent to your mobile phone, for an extra 50p) or an e-ticket, the latter requiring you – not they – to use your printer and your paper in order to produce a copy of the damn thing.

And for the privilege of doing all their work for them, they charge you a booking fee of £1. It’s preposterous.

‘Passengers make more than 800 million journeys on our services every year,’ National Express proudly proclaims, to potential investors.

Even if only one in eight of those journeys are booked online, it can’t possibly cost £100,000,000 a year to keep an indifferent website running badly. Can it?






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