Rail Europe, a subsidiary of French rail operator SNCF, officially relaunched its website this week, though it soft launched a few weeks ago, just in time for the volcanic ash crisis.
The website aggregates tickets from rail operators across Europe, and aims to make it easy for UK customers to book rail journeys across the continent.
I found plenty of usability issues with the Eurostar website recently, so perhaps Rail Europe offers a better alternative...
Here's the new homepage:
And the previous version:
Rail Europe has opted for four main tabs for navigation, which stands out more clearly. Large drop down menus also allow users to access sub-categories.
Also, the search box has been shrunk and moved to the right of the page, though a darker background makes it more clearly defined. This smaller search box means that there is now more room on the page to provide suggested destinations and latest offers, providing ideas for visitors who may arrive without a specific journey in mind.
Selecting outbound and inbound journeys is easy enough, with an auto-complete function to help. The calendar pops up easily and quickly enough, and it avoids basic errors like allowing users to select return journeys that are earlier than outward ones.
Since the site is dealing with multiple rail operators across the continent there are some differences in areas such as age requirements, but links to this information, as well as on dietary issues, cycles, and wheelchair access are provided on the booking form.
The results page provides a decent summary of journey times and prices, and can be sorted by departure time or price, and viewed via Google maps.
When you select a journey more detail on ticket options and prices is provided, as well as useful information on what comforts and faciiities you can expect for different classes of ticket; on board meals, power points, wi-fi, etc.
Some searches did fail to find any matching results, but, unlike Eurostar, this site either offers some alternatives:
Content / journey ideas
A big part of the site, and one which Rail Europe plans to develop further is the content available for different journeys and destinations. This content is designed to appeal to those visitors that are looking for destination ideas, or inspiration on what to do when they get somewhere.
So, as well as the promoted destinations on the homepage, the European routes and trains section provides a useful overview of the journeys and types of service on offer via the site.
For example, I can select a destination, and the site will give me an overview of the typical route taken, as well as how much it is likely to cost, and how long it will take:
Using maps, the site will also give you five suggested attractions / things to do in that area:
The site generally follows checkout best practice, including a guest registration option for those that prefer not to register:
The number of steps in the process, and the progress made so far is made clear, while a summary of the journey you are about to book is provided:
The calls to action throughout the checkout process could be made clearer. They are mainly in blue, and don't stand out quite as much as they could. For example, in the screenshot above, the email sign up stands out more than the next step link.
The payment screen has been fully enclosed, the only links out are forward via payment, or back to the basket via the link on the progress bar. This does remove distractions for customers, though for those that do need to get back to the basket to make a last minute change, the link back to the basket needs to be clearer.
Pressing the back button twice leads you to a blank page and the prospect of starting all over again, something which should be avoided at all costs.
UK rail websites have been criticised in the past for making it too hard to book journeys to European destinations, but the Rail Europe site makes this booking process relatively easy for customers.
There are a few issues here and there which could be improved, but this new site, which was developed by Design UK, is a big improvement on the previous version, and also on the Eurostar website.