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I have to book trains online quite often, and am constantly frustrated by the poor user experience offered by some rail operator's websites.

I've criticised National Express for usability problems before, but GrandCentral, which operates train services along the same East Coast mainline between London and the North East, takes the biscuit for poor customer experience. 

Grand Central homepage

I should give credit to National Express for the fact that it has improved its site since I wrote about it, and now provides the best user experience of the rail websites I have used. However, I noticed prices for one leg of my journey were £20 cheaper on Grand Central so decided I'd book on its website.

However, after a frustrating experience, I ended up using thetrainline.com to book the same ticket, and here are a few reasons why:

Black background

If the rest of the process had worked well enough, the black background alone would not have put me off, but  it is rarely a good idea from a user experience perspective. It makes it harder to read for customers, and can be a strain on the eyes. This colour scheme may work for some sites, but is inadvisable for  e-commerce websites with a lot of text content.

Slow loading

Loading results pages and different steps in the booking process can be a slow process at times, and this just adds to customer frustration, especially when this slow loading also affects the stages in the checkout process. This causes customers to worry whether or not payments have gone through, and whether they need to refresh the page.

Grand Central slow loading

This is not just a problem with Grand Central though; thetrainline uses a similar booking engine and can also be slow to use at times.

Cannot book single tickets

Try as I might, I could not book a single ticket on this site last week, which had me tearing my hair out in frustration and eventually caused me to book elsewhere.

After selecting my preferred journey time and pressing continue to complete the booking, I kept getting the same error message: 'you must select an outward journey for the ticket you have chosen'. This may have been a temporary glitch on the site, but this kind of error can be costly in terms of lost sales and poor customer experience.

No contact details

Grand Central compounded the problem of booking single tickets by providing totally inadequate contact options for customers. A company taking bookings for train journeys should have a contact number, but all I got was this form. It does promise an answer within 12 hours, but this is no good at all if I need to book a train quickly. 

Grand Central contact form

Contact details are essential on e-commerce sites; not only are they an indicator of trust, but providing assistance to customers by telephone can help increase conversions. Sometimes customers might have a question that they can't find the answer for on the site, or may just want some reassurance before making a purchase.

Having looked again today, I did find details via the contact us link on the homepage, with phone numbers for bookings and customer services. If Grand Central had put this on the rest of the site during the search / booking process, then I wouldn't have needed to book elsewhere.

Logo doesn't link back to homepage

Not the biggest problem ever, but as customers are used to the fact that on most websites, the logo is also a link back to the homepage, why depart from this convention? It means that users need to either use the back button or stumble across the 'home' link at the bottom of the screen, and provides another source of frustration.

Graham Charlton

Published 9 February, 2009 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (2)


Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum.co.uk

another problem on Grandcentral - if you fill in the form but forget to specify the minutes (after the hour) in either your Outward or Return journey - it throws up an ugly error red text:

  • "We have been unable to successfully validate your requirements"

That's a scary message - at first glance, you think it's some kind of a warning that their system is crashed or broken.

But when you check the form below, right next to the fields where you've correctly submitted the Hours and the Minutes, it says:

  • "An invalid time has been entered"


And instead of forcing you to fill in the minutes fields... easier surely if it pre-filled them with a default '00' or etc


over 7 years ago



The Grand Central booking engine AFAIK is just a re-skinned version of the Train Line - something that most train operators use apart from National Express.

I completely agree its awful and while I travel with them I don't use it. Mind they don’t penalise you for buying a ticket on the train (same prices) so I'd just stick with boarding, and paying :)

Recently I noticed they updated their main site (used to be all with the black background), so hopefully it is a working progress.

over 7 years ago

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